Read an excerpt from Sarbpreet Singh's Night of the Restless Spirits, a searing narrative of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots
Eight stories chronicle the lives of different characters attesting to the loss, betrayals and rage wrought by the violence of 1984.
Author and columnist Sarbpreet Singh has been writing for years about the events of 1984 that shook the country and left behind a trail of violence, hatred and suspicion in their wake. Operation Blue Star followed by the assassination of India's then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards, and the subsequent anti-Sikh riots and killings, have been Singh's subjects of analysis from a contemporary standpoint. The author puts together a fictionalised interpretation of the effects these events had on thousands of innocent families across the country, Sikh or otherwise, in his latest work, Night of the Restless Spirits.
Eight stories chronicle the lives of different characters — from school students, military men, protestors and murderers — in narratives that speak of the loss, betrayals and rage wrought by the violence of 1984. His prose captures the trauma of childhood love, of the irony of the division between Sikhs and Hindus, the pain of being beaten up by an angry mob on a railway station or being chased by bloodthirsty drunken rioters. Just as his characters depict the sorrow of cities being torn apart so too, their stories become a cautionary tale against the politics of religion and the apathy of communal violence.
The excerpt that follows describes an eerie calm before the storm as narrated by Samsher Singh, the protagonist of the story The Survivor. He would bear witness to and become the victim of brutal violence as a passenger on the Tinsukhia Mail train travelling from Guwahati to Delhi during that fateful October.
My name is Samsher Singh. I am called Lali by my family and friends. Every year in October-November, our family visits Kot Issa Khan, a small village near Patiala, where Sant Fauja Singhji conducts a samagam.
This year too, on 30 October, we leave Guwahati for Delhi on the Tinsukhia Mail. Biji, my bhabhis, Babli and the children are all in the ladies’ compartment, which has a door that can be locked. The train is running very late and we reach Patna in the afternoon. There we hear that Indiraji has been hit by bullets. Guddi Bhabhi is glad, but Biji is very angry and rebukes her. Phapaji had been decorated in the Bangladesh war and had received his medal from the hands of Indiraji herself. Biji loves and admires her tremendously. Guddi Bhabhi is very angry due to Blue Star, but we don’t care much. Punjab is another country, we have never lived there, we are busy with our business.
The lala sitting in our compartment with his family tells Veerji, “Sardarji, I have heard that it was done by three Sardars. Everybody in our bogie is talking about the shooting.” As I get off to get some water, the Bengali family sitting near the door looks at me strangely. The babu says something to his wife in an undertone and she silently nods. I get a strange feeling as I stroll about on the platform; everybody seems to be staring at me. Having lived in Guwahati and Darjeeling, I am used to people staring at my pagri, but today the stares are different. It almost seems as if people are suddenly afraid of me.
Our train pulls into Danapur. The lala comes back with news that Indiraji is dead. The babu’s wife quietly weeps in the corner of her compartment. The lala solemnly says that this is a bad thing the Sikhs have done and Channi Veerji agrees. It’s almost as if we are in a passenger train instead of Tinsukhia Mail. We stop at almost every station and the train gets even more delayed. We reach Mughalsarai very late at night, where our diesel engine is switched to an electric engine. Everybody in the coach is awake, unsettled by the tumultuous news from Delhi. The night-time tea sellers on the Mughalsarai station do good business.
Jeeta Veerji and I get down to buy tea and puris. Perhaps it is my imagination, but I think that the stares are no longer fearful but hostile. We go into the ladies’ compartment and all of us eat puris and drink chai. There is another Sikh family of five in our coach. Harnam Singh and his wife, Bibi Bachhan Kaur, are travelling to Ludhiana with their three grandchildren. Harnam Singh comes to the compartment looking very worried; he has heard disturbing news from the guard. Since yesterday evening there has been rioting in Delhi. Several Sikhs have been killed in the dangas. There are rumours that mobs of armed men are roaming the streets of Delhi, pulling Sikhs out of their houses and killing them.
All hell has broken loose in Punjab too. The Howrah Mail has come back from Punjab laden with Hindu corpses and Sikhs have poisoned the drinking-water supply in Delhi. Channi Veerji tries to comfort the old man and tells him that in times such as these rumours are sure to fly. Nothing like this can ever happen in Delhi. At worst there must have been a few clashes, trains will be running late and we will probably be delayed a few hours in Delhi, but there is nothing to worry about. Harnam Singh goes back, not entirely convinced, and we see a frown of worry on Biji’s forehead.
We are awakened by a loud banging on the bogie door. I look out of the window. We are at some small station that is not even a junction. Nervously, the lala gets up to open the door. A uniformed havildar of the Railway Police climbs into our coach. “Are there any Sardars here?” he asks. He sees me and Jeeta Veerji and sits down on my berth. He has come to warn us. “The violence has spread to many cities in the north. There has been a terrible bloodbath in Delhi. In Bokaro, several Sikhs have been burnt alive. The news of the trainload of corpses from Punjab has spread everywhere. In every city, Sikhs are being pulled out of buses and trains. They are being beaten, even killed. The railway authorities have stopped the train outside Kanpur so that all the Sikhs inside can be warned to hide and not show their faces before the train reaches Delhi.”
Channi Veerji says, “Havildarji, why are you scaring people unnecessarily. Who has given you this news? Is it official or is it just a rumour?” The havildar says that he is warning us for our own good and it is up to us to believe him or not.
Also read: On Operation Blue Star's 35th anniversary, examining its historical precedents for Sikhs
Harnam Singh is terrified. He begs Biji to let his wife and grandchildren into the ladies’ compartment, because at least it has a door. Biji thinks that the old man is paranoid but takes pity on him and lets his family in. It’s already crowded inside with four adults and four children, and now it gets worse. Harnam Singh sits down on my berth, closes his eyes and begins to pray. Jeeta Veerji nudges Channi Veerji. We look at the frightened old man and all of us smile.
The lala looks worried too and rebukes us, saying, “Sardarji, this is not a joke. Anything can happen. There are ladies with you and small children, do not take this lightly.” Jeeta Veerji replies saying, “Lalaji, we have Hindu-Muslim riots, even Sikh-Muslim riots, but have you ever heard of Hindu-Sikh riots?”
The lala gets up and walks around the coach. Most of the steel shutters are already down and he shuts any windows that are not. He finds that only one family is getting down at Kanpur. He asks them to sit by the door and tells them that they must get off as soon as the train reaches Kanpur. He goes to each compartment and tells everyone what the havildar had said, and warns them not to get down at Kanpur. He adds that whatever happens, they should not open the door.
‘Channi and Jeeta Veerji are extremely amused at the lala’s warlike preparations. “Phapaji should have been here,” Jeeta Veerji says. “He and Lalaji could have planned the defence together.” I am a little afraid too, but I smile and laugh at their jokes. The entire coach is awake now and I can hear a buzz of conversation. Indiraji, katal, Sardar, dangey-phasad are the words I hear over and over again. I too feel that nothing will happen, but I have never been as brave as my brothers, I am afraid.
The above excerpt from Sarbpreet Singh’s Night of the Restless Spirits: Stories from 1984 has been reproduced here with permission from Penguin Random House.
Watch Sarbpreet Singh as he reads out an excerpt from Night of the Restless Spirits: Stories from 1984
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