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Reprising pain of 1984, and scars that remain

Reprising pain of 1984, and scars that remain

Night of the Restless Spirits: Stories from 1984 by Sarbpreet Singh. Penguin Random House. Pages 217. Rs 499.

Book Title: Night of the Restless Spirits: Stories from 1984

Author: Sarbpreet Singh

Harvinder Khetal

‘It has been thirty-five years, but the sting of the slap is still fresh on my face.” These words of a young bureaucrat, who righteously tries to protect all the lives that he was responsible for in a curfew-bound and riot-riddled town of Madhya Pradesh caught in the bloodbath let loose against the Sikhs in the wake of Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984, comes across as the underlying theme of the six short stories spun by Sarbpreet Singh in the ‘Night of the Restless Spirits’.

Adapted from real-life horrifying inflammations that ordinary people found themselves engulfed in willy-nilly in the charged atmosphere of 1984, pivoted around Operation Bluestar and the PM’s assassination, the tales perceptively swathe a large and varied spectrum of those extenuating circumstances.

The fact that the sting of the incidents continues to haunt our socio-political set-up, with many a question still lying buried under, lends a bulwark against the fictional reprising of the pain and painful events of and around that fateful year. Of course, the US-based author has the advantage of hindsight afforded by the lapse of 36 years since that turmoil and tumultuous time. The sheer depth of emotions and experiences that the characters — Sikhs and others linked to them in varied fashions — undergo in realistic settings is sensitively portrayed and keeps the reader engrossed.

Giving a ringside view of the complex happenings of 1984 that acquired multidimensional ramifications, an insightful attempt is made to cover 360 degrees, with a rich sprinkling of Sikh culture and milieu. Visuals of those ghastly events appear in the reader’s mind as ordinary men and women, government officials, bravehearts, bigots, traitors and conspirators cross paths in the communal flare-ups and tragedy and misery is heaped on the Sikhs. Thousands of them lost their lives, limbs and livelihoods in those days of carnage fuelled by blinding rage and mob mentality. A few beautiful pen portraits of inter-personal relations and calls of conscience, blurring the lines of race or religion, serve to keep the faith in humanity alive.

Particularly touching is the story of the family of ‘Phaji’, a promising and well-read medical student driven to the precipice by the circumstances. ‘The General’ gives a detailed version of the induction of Sikhs in the US in the movement gaining ground back home, along with the government’s dirty tricks department at play. The shadow of being a terrorist sympathiser that trails every Sikh is brought to fore in ‘The Court Martial’. ‘The Survivor’ evokes the harrowing ordeal of Sikh passengers as their train coach is set ablaze, and ‘The Martyr’ is based on the mindless killings that marked the days of militancy.

Finally, who are the restless spirits? A symphony, over the centuries, of “tormented lost souls of Punjab, who are summoned back each time tyranny returns and innocents are butchered”.

Many in the community today would relate to some or the other aspect of the novel. The tales open doors for conversation for a closure that has been denied to the victims of that time for too long.