Stillborn Season: An excerpt from Radhika Oberoi's book on the chaos, violence of 1984 anti-Sikh riots

Editor's note: Radhika Oberoi's Stillborn Season opens with the assassination of Indira Gandhi in October 1984. Evoking the homicidal madness of the days which followed, the novel traces the fates of individual and intermeshed lives as mobs spill out onto the streets of Delhi, hunting, maiming and killing Sikh men and women in revenge.

Oberoi, a graduate from the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom, has worked in the advertising industry for close to seventeen years, while also moonlighting as a journalist.

Stillborn Season is published in India by Speaking Tiger. The following is an excerpt from the prologue of the book.


Vampire roots swung from the branches of an ancient banyan, almost touching his face. He felt the morning sun trying to filter through the latticework of branch and leaf, but a fog had frozen its rays, and only the cold seeped in through the gaps. The Goodwill Ambassador wanted a cup of tea. The last day of October had sent shivers down the rows of gigantic dahlias that fringed the lawns of the Prime Minister’s official residence. And while his resilience to Delhi’s sudden but tenacious winter seemed far greater than that of the delicate patchwork of flora that surrounded him, a cup of tea — perhaps a dark Nilgiri — might spread its brisk flavour through his veins and prepare him for the impending interview.

He had researched quite thoroughly. In the months before arriving here, he had ruminated over correspondences between a young girl and her father, who was in prison. He had read her speeches. He had studied black-and-white photographs from her childhood — sitting on a rock under a tree and posing angrily with a doll in her hands, standing against a gauze curtain, her dark ringlets held together by a large bow on one side of her head — and all the other official paraphernalia released by the Indian Embassy. The documents gave him biographical details and a structured timeline of her achievements in office. But they omitted the tumult. They were silent about the unrest. They abbreviated accounts of those policies and measures that had raised the dust of menace at public gatherings. He had sensed it yesterday at the election rally; a fitful throng of vigilant eyes, knotted arms, and mouths contorted with something other than the sycophantic smiles they had flashed as they pelted her with marigold and rose.

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Stillborn Season, by Radhika Oberoi

The tea, if it arrived, would lend him the strength of a full-leaf brew to coax her into talking about a few impetuous decisions; about a willfulness that made her disregard public opinion. He had not intended to bring up politics during the conversation they were about to have under the banyan tree, in a few moments. He wanted the girl, who once attended St Mary’s Convent in a small town by the Ganges, to speak. He had hoped that the frail young woman who had read The French Revolution: a History. In Three Volumes and Joan of Arc: Stories — both titles had glimmered at him from a bookshelf in her study — would perhaps dwell on philology, and the annoyance wrought by missing eight-letter words in the morning crossword. But the woman who had stood on the rickety dais yesterday, waving to the people, her people, who adored and despised her in equal measure, would remain a mere apparition in the interview he was here to film, if he omitted to question her about her political ambitions.

The Goodwill Ambassador shifted in the wicker chair he was sitting on; a tea cosy had appeared in his line of vision. It sat squarely on a tray which was held aloft by a liveried bearer. The tea cosy made its way through a garden path with Ashoka trees on either side. He stopped himself from walking up to meet the bearer halfway; to do so would be to let slip his annoyance at this delayed gesture of hospitality.

But he was accustomed to delays by now. Even here, in the Prime Minister’s garden, the local camera crew dispatched by the country’s only news channel to film the interview was taking much too long to set up. A sound technician fiddled with the spools and knobs of a Nagra III tape recorder; the machine, wedged between the twigs of a golden duranta hedge, spat to confirm its electromagnetic preparedness for the interview. Two Arriflex cameras stood behind the two wicker chairs under the banyan tree—one on which he sat, and the other, cushioned but empty, lying in wait for the Prime Minister. Cables meandered through concentric formations of gerberas and pansies, strangulating them.

When the local crew had arrived half an hour late, he had instructed the technicians to set up the lights and cameras speedily, but with as much care and courtesy as they could extend to the staff, flora and other live creatures who had made the Prime Minister’s bungalow their own. He didn’t want to upset her, because a trolley had accidentally flattened a row of poppies.

But the Prime Minister, like the tea, seemed indefinitely delayed. The tea-cosy carrier, who, until a few moments ago, was making his way through the Ashoka-pillared garden path, had turned around, and was walking away from the banyan. The Goodwill Ambassador narrowed his eyes and leaned over the wicker chair for one last look at the bearer who was dwindling rapidly into a speck.

‘Maybe teapot is cracked, sahib?’ suggested the sound technician, standing beside the Nagra III.

Maybe. Maybe the teapot was empty. Maybe the cups and saucers didn’t match. Maybe the sound technician knew more about tea than he did about audio recorders: the circuit board of the Nagra III was like a miniature city, alive with lights. Maybe the Nagra III was recording his consternation, maybe he should instruct the crew to pack up…

There was a loud noise, flat, more like a crack than a boom, with a hint of metal.


The sound technician was all-knowing. ‘Don’t worry sahib, it is only children playing with firecrackers before Diwali.’

Another noise. Maybe a firecracker that burst into a conflagration, before it could cascade in twirls of light and colour. Another. A march-past of metal. A blazing standing salute. Then, silence.

‘The Prime Minister has been shot,’ said someone. Not the sound technician, who looked unsure for the first time since his arrival in the garden. Somebody else. Maybe, a crew member, maybe a bearer…

‘Don’t move!’ The command came swiftly from behind the golden duranta hedge, from the branches inhabited by the colony of bats, from the wicker chairs, the grass. It stilled the garden. The camera crew stood with its arms and legs frozen around tripods, boom poles and microphones. Rows of snapdragon stood vigilant to the movement of bees, grasshoppers and butterflies. The leaves of the banyan didn’t sway to a persistent wind causing jitters in an empty sky, although the Goodwill Ambassador thought he could sense their veins grow taut and distended.

The garden was surrounded by people in uniform. Men with rifles emerged from the foliage, taking aim at axils, stamens and internodes. Trees, shrubs, equipment, chairs and the lily pond were cordoned off.

The Goodwill Ambassador held his bundle of pages, wondering if he could still do his piece-to-camera. Nothing stirred, expect the spools of the Nagra III. The sound technician had forgotten to switch it off.

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Updated Date: Nov 14, 2018 15:56:51 IST

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