A New Novel on The Great Betrayal: An Interview by SUKANT DEEPAK
Roopinder Singh’s Delhi ‘84
DELHI '84, by Roopinder Singh, 2014, Kindle Edition (491 KB). ASIN#: B00P1UPV62. $2.99
If there is something that Chandigarh-based writer and journalist Roopinder Singh always wanted to capture, it is the anti-Sikh pogrom of 1984. Known for his extensive work on Sikh history that includes “Sikh Heritage: Ethos and Relics,” and “Marshal of The Indian Air Force: Arjan Singh,” Roopinder has now released a novel, “Delhi ‘84”. It is a fictional account of five families during the days between the death of Indira Gandhi and her cremation.
The 54-year-old writer cautions that it’s important to remember history so that it does not repeat itself.
The book has been released in the e-book (Kindle) format prior to the print run as he wants to break geographical barriers and have it readily available around the world.
Q What made you write on the 1984 anti-Sikh genocide?
A I was in Delhi during that time and do not know anyone who does not have a 1984 story. The scale of the massacres was so monumental that you were bound to be touched by it, even if not directly involved.
I witnessed violence and saw a member of the Sikh community being murdered between the Lodhi Garden and AIIMS (hospital) area. The image has never left my mind, and it never will. Humanity became opaque in the smoke that engulfed Delhi during those days.
1984 was a turning point for Sikhs. It made the community fully realise the great betrayal of the Sikhs. And believe me, that can be a very uncomfortable feeling.
Q This is your first work of fiction. Why choose something that happened three decades ago?
A There has always been an over powering need to tell this story. I feel I had repressed it all this while. Maybe writing about it will lower the burden. In fact, I have wanted to write fiction for a long time now. I started a book several years ago but never completed it.
Writers carry in the corners of their souls thousands of words which are desperate to impregnate paper. It may take years for them to be born. They may not talk about it but in some quiet moments, those words whisper to them. Begging to be set free. These secret dialogues can be very haunting.
I chose fiction to allow myself a larger space to operate in.
I don’t claim that it has all first-person accounts, but whatever has been written is bound to metamorphose the reader to the time when the whole city became Kafka’s court for the Sikhs.
Q Do you think that 1984 is still fresh in the minds of the Sikh community?
A No, not for a large number of people born after 1984. However, it is shocking to still meet so many people who were affected by it in one way or the other. Nobody forgets easily. It is surprising that during any serious conversation with the Sikh community member in India or abroad, 1984 always seems to come up. This clearly shows that the wounds have not really healed in any sense of the word.
Q How important do you think it is to chronicle such tragedies?
A Very. It is paramount that we do not forget a ‘wrong’, so that it does not repeat itself. Let us remember that the issue is still unresolved. Look at the pathetically low number of convictions. Justice has not been delivered. We must learn lessons from our history. Chronicling tragedies gives us an insight into our inherent weaknesses. Our incapacity to stop injustice. There has to be special reason that the West never stops making films on what the Jews went through during World War II.
Q Tell us about the research involved in writing this book.
A I have been researching it for a long time though it took a year to write. The research part included amassing personal accounts and reading up on various reports and the large body of work that has been done on that period including the fantastic book “Helium” by Jaspreet Singh.
“Delhi ‘84” is a realistic and hard look at the abnormal times that witnessed people metamorphose into brutes.
Going back to newspapers and periodicals of that time has also been an integral part of the research process, not to mention interactions with even those who were indirectly effected by the mass-murders (migration, etc).
It also talks about those from all communities who rose up to the occasion and members of the Sikh community rebuilding their lives.
It’s a tale of tragedy, grief, trauma and also the human spirit that refuses to break.
Q We are seeing a lot of work being done on the 1984 Genocide. Even contemporary Punjabi cinema, generally associated with romantic-comedies, is making films on this saddest of chapters of Indian history.
A I think we have arrived at a point when we are mature enough to look at that period. For a very long time, the country and the Sikh community chose to repress it -- both for different and divergent reasons -- as if it had never happened.
Though much has been written about it, cinema has chosen to take up the tragedy of 1984 quite recently. I think it is a very positive development. Art cannot afford to alienate itself from what is the peoples’ grief. It is in art that they will find some solace, some moments to shed a tear and lighten their hearts.
Q How do you react to the ban on the Punjabi film ‘Kaum De Heere,’ based on the lives of Indira Gandhi’s executioners?
A I feel the Indian intelligence agencies and bureaucrats have a tendency to overstate potential damage.
Truth can never harm people. If there is something wrong with the film, people will reject it. Even I have not seen it. We really need to grow up and behave maturely. Look at the Europeans and Americans; don’t they make films on the Holocaust?
If America can look at the way it treated its slaves in the film ‘Django Unchained,’ why are we so touchy as a nation? We may have entered the 21 century but our leaders and administrators still think that we are a bunch of morons incapable of comprehending complex questions posed by literature and cinema. Art’s purpose is not to make you comfortable.
Just because you don’t agree with a filmmaker’s point of view, does that mean that you ban his work?
Are there not enough platforms to show your disagreement? Write a blog and say why you did not like a particular film or book. But yes, see it first. It is important to see the ‘other’ side. For your own sake.
Q You are releasing “Delhi ‘84” as an eBook first. Why is that?
A I wanted to revolt against the limitations of words set by publishers.
They want the novels to be of a certain thickness so that the mechanics of printing and economy of scale works in their favour. My book is around 230 pages. However, I have made it clear that my latest work will be released as an eBook first because I want to liberate myself from geographical constraints and cater to a huge diaspora. I have a solid readership base abroad which has been constantly complaining about the availability of books printed in India in those countries. We just cannot refute the fact that the speed of dispensation of literature is unbelievably quick via the eBook technology.
Q So, you think that eBooks are the future?
A Definitely. The kind of comfort in reading and the easy access to millions of titles sitting at home surely makes gadgets like kindle a must have. Also, it is important that we stop hating technology. I fail to understand why we make such a big deal about holding a physical copy.
For God’s sake, the content remains the same whether you are reading a hard bond or an e-book.
Yes, eBooks will affect the sales of printed copies but eventually everyone will gain -- authors, publishers and readers. Let us not forget that reading habits are changing rapidly.
Different platforms will cater to kind of readers. In fact, all my works are available as eBooks and are enjoying a tremendous response. I was gifted a Kindle by my wife and son recently, and it has not taken me long to get totally addicted to it.
Q Let’s talk about your writing process.
A Well, there is no method to the madness. I am not a very organised writer who makes it a point to sit at his desk for a set number of hours.
I personally feel that each book writes itself in a different manner, it has its own destiny. It is never about the number of hours you put in.
Q What rules your bookshelf nowadays?
A Well, from Plato’s philosophies to spy thrillers which I finish in two days. And, there is so much new writing happening in India as well.
[Courtesy: India Today. Edited by sikhchic.com]
EXCERPTS FROM “DELHI ‘84” BY ROOPINDER SINGH
As Gita neared AIIMS, the traffic slowed down. She could see people, many of them patients. An unusually large number of them were, however, also holding their intravenous pouches high, as if they had to vacate the hospital in a hurry.
The atmosphere was a bit tense, and then she saw, a small group of people aggressively shouting slogans: “Indira Gandhi Zindabad,” or “Long Live Indira Gandhi.” She noticed that it comprised of a middle-aged person sporting a white kurta pajama, a typical politician’s dress, and others who looked like local ruffians with bright shirts, a few buttons open and gold chains hanging on their necks.
As she moved forward, she noticed that there were some stones on the road. Had they been pelting stones in the area, she wondered. That is when she saw her friend Sujata, looking helplessly at the traffic.
* * * * *
TK felt that he was in the middle of a storm. As a person who enjoyed the confidence of his boss, the Cabinet Secretary, he dealt with matters that were above his pay grade all too often.
Now Rajiv Gandhi had been sworn in as Prime Minster, albeit in circumstances he would have never envisaged even in his worst nightmare. The country had a new head of government.
However, it was not being governed and there was the danger of the vacuum being filled by the worst elements possible.
The law and order situation was becoming precarious.
What he could not understand was how the seven valuable hours, between the time of the assassination and the time of the news of the death was made public, were wasted and adequate security measures were not taken.
By now the entire country was aware that the persons who killed Mrs Gandhi were Sikhs, and members of the community were facing the brunt of attacks. There were some reports of the police not taking adequate action to prevent things from getting out of hand.
* * * * *
He remembered what the President’s Press Secretary told him. His car was badly damaged at AIIMS in the evening when President Zail Singh’s cavalcade was driving back to Rashtrapati Bhavan, after he had gone to see Mrs Gandhi.
“Our car was at the tail end of the convoy, and even the President’s car was hit by some bricks. Since it is an armoured Mercedes-Benz, nothing happened to it. The police were around, but they did not do anything,” said the man.
TK asked the Police Commissioner of Delhi about it. The officer admitted the incident, but said: “We could do nothing, because the mob was too big.”
This, however, contradicted the Press Secretary's account.
* * * * *
After Gurdeep Kaur heard of Mrs Gandhi’s death, she decided that no food would be cooked in the house, an old Indian tradition to mourn the dead. “We were settled here because of her, she was our mother too,” she said.
The image of Mrs Gandhi lying in state at the Teen Murti Bhawan, with people paying their respects to her has been on since 8 am when they put the television on and tuned into the Doordarshan broadcast. By the afternoon, even as her hungry sons complained, she did not cook.
“I will not light the fire today,” she said.
The attack started soon after that and the three men ran out of the house. They were caught by the mob, beaten up and set on fire. The youngest son stayed in the house. To avoid being identified, he shaved off his beard and cut his hair.
The mob, mainly teenagers, came into the house. They dragged him out, even though he was hiding behind his mother.
“They tore my clothes and stripped me naked in front of my son ...”
You can purchase the Kindle edition of the book, "Delhi '84" for $2.99 by CLICKING here.
November 4, 2014
Conversation about this article
1: Kaala Singh (Punjab), November 04, 2014, 9:40 AM.
Until now the world has only known what the Indian State wanted them to know about 1984. Even a majority of Indians are not aware about the facts of 1984. It is good to see movies, books and documentary films being made to tell our side of the story. Like the Jews never let the world forget about the Holocaust, we must not let the world forget about 1984. Let us take our side of the story to the whole world and I know for sure that the perpetrators are getting sleepless nights. If nothing else, let us expose them in front of the whole world and rob them of their peace of mind!