1984, In Memory and Imagination review: Fiction fails to evoke what non-fiction can

There is no dearth of writing on the incidents of 1984. Many a book has been spawned by the events of the year that has come to define our history. Of the events little remains that is not known — from Operation Blue Star to the assassination of then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards. What happened after that fateful day, however, still remains a bit hazy in terms of detail. It is that grey space that a new anthology of writings on the year titled, 1984: In Memory and Imagination, edited by Vikram Kapur and published by Amaryllis, attempts to populate.

The anthology is a collection of writings by people who were in one way or the other affected by the anti-Sikh riots that followed the assassination of the PM. The book puts together non-fiction personal accounts, and reportage into a whole section of fiction woven around the events.

Of all the reportage pieces that can be found on the events, the investigative reporting of Hartosh Singh Bal for The Caravan, is perhaps, at least in retrospect, the most direct, and vital. Other non-fiction pieces include a rousing personal account by writer Ajeet Cour that comprises of horrifying passages like:

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"There is one Kishenlalji. Morning and evening, he brings sacks full of daal and atta. All the shops are closed. But they say he begs or borrows, or just breaks open the locks of shops and brings the stuff. We have to survive somehow…and there must easily be ten or fifteen thousand people here!"

This extract is at once gravely petrifying and a direct reflection of the desperation people had been reduced to in the aftermath of the assassination. It not only paints a picture without having to aestheticise it, but also conveys a sense of occasion instead of just that particular moment.

Rizio Yohannan Raj’s Stone Games is another account of how the events of 1984 initiated the politics of even those who remained at a distance from the actual events. Kirpal Dhillon’s 1984:An Overview, the first essay in the book, is a calculated, yet touching account of how someone within the army faced up to the events of that time. Dhillon recalls the battle cries, the circumstances that were laid onto him and his own identity as a Sikh within the oppressors at the time.

But while the non-fiction is moving, curt, heartfelt and also objective in some way, the fiction is the exact opposite and on the contrary, a letdown. For starters, placing the fiction in the latter half weakens the hard-hitting, light-on-language narratives of the first section. Fiction should account for what non-fiction can't address because of the limitations of language and structure. Here it feels like an impersonation of the former, decorated to some extent by language and all else. The pieces read fine as standalone texts, but an encore of the force of the accounts in the non-fiction section simply doesn’t arrive.

It is worth pointing out that fiction, ideally, should open boundaries and open up a whole new space for imagination that this section is even referred to as in the book. But most fiction here treats its material with kindness, at times overdriven by it, that results in texts that are posing as victims themselves. One would have loved to read the story of the other side, a pang of guilt in those who executed, the unexpected turns of character or the extremes to which personal relations might have been pushed. The account of the oppressors here, and even in other attempts, has largely gone unwritten. There is a glaring black hole that perhaps was an opportunity to fill. This is not to say that the stories of those who were victims are any less important or shouldn’t be the overriding sentiment of such a collection. But what fiction allows one to do, is to pathologically enquire the side that is otherwise accountable, and considered only for being the aggressor.

The book puts together non-fiction personal accounts, and reportage into a whole section of fiction woven around the events.

Jaspreet Singh’s The Perished and the Saved is a valiant but failed attempt at exorcising the demons of the young. It attempts to unleash the savagery of the events on the mind of a youngster but fails to enter it on its own. Mridula Garg’s The Morning After, though brimming with some beautiful prose, ultimately entangles its own narrative between mortality and morality. The way it ends is perhaps an indication of a writer overawed by the matter at hand rather than her crucial role in spinning to something that is just not accessible otherwise. Almost all short stories written here are perhaps indicative of the limitations of imagination and how at times fails to reinvent reality or at least cast an eye on the reality that may not be as pleasant to read. The fiction section here, as a whole, says nothing new, and perhaps even lets down its predecessors.

On a whole 1984: In Memory and Imagination is an important book for the simple fact that a number of personal accounts and reportage can be read side by side, making for a unified text that regards and presents fact tempered with an emotional tenor. That said, the fiction, that would otherwise be expected to expand on the first section, falls flat. Regardless of this misfire, the book can definitely be read for its non-fiction alone as long as you do not consider it the sum of all its parts.

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Updated Date: Nov 19, 2016 10:23:32 IST

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