1984, Delhi: A Tale of Love, Loss and Lament
Updated: Dec 11, 2022
INDIRA GANDHI SHOT DEAD – the fall of India’s mighty leader on a red, red autumn. Widespread outcry and outrage ensue over the autocrat’s death, in whose time we saw the country on the verge of Orwellian dystopia. A million rush to catch a last glimpse of her bullet-ridden corpse; the nation mourns her demise. The body is still lying in the hospital, has your blood turned white? Finish them, kill them all. A thousand Sikh lives massacred. The stench of petrol and flesh overpowers the sound of ammunition. Everything burns.
Tej Aru Dhulire Dhushorito Prishtha or Pages Stained with Blood, written by celebrated Assamese author, Indira Goswami, (affectionately known as Mamoni) is a poignant account of the events that unfolded during the nationwide Anti-Sikh riots of 1984, post-Operation Blue Star and the assassination of Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi. This tale of violence is uniquely viewed through the perspective of a writer/academic who, in an unusual turn of events finds herself drawn to a Sikh rickshaw puller, who shares nothing in common with her, in culture, temperament, interests, or age. The novel possesses all the strengths of a formidable work of contemporary Indian literature in being thoroughly researched and politically charged. While the protagonist completes her Ph.D. thesis on the Ramayana, she firmly pursues her intention of writing a book on Delhi and it is this quest that exposes her to the city in its entirety – the good, the bad, the ugly (But when I walked past Roshanara Bagicha, there would be those sinister figures with long, flowing beards, shaggy hair and weird clothes, eyeing women hungrily, as if they wanted to dig into our flesh with a knife and see what each one of us was made of…). Despite living in a cramped apartment in a shady neighbourhood, miles away from her home in Guwahati, the narrator thrives in the bustling epicenter of the country. “Dilli Chalo” – these immortal words from the great Netaji still motivate masses who flock to the capital to protest, profess and propound. For the narrator too, Delhi symbolises an opportunity and inspiration to propel her literary pursuits.
“Khusro, Ghalib, Meer, Mirza Abdul Rahim Khankhana, Momin, all the great shaairs were fascinated by Delhi. Delhi beckoned them all and they were enticed by her as by a mysterious and alluring courtesan who eluded their grasp and was beyond their reach. I too wanted to see the Delhi of their dreams.”
Delhi remains restless with activity, ever relevant, yet seeped in rich history. This duality of the city is brought alive in Indira Goswami’s prose; the protagonist simultaneously resides in the Dehli of the Mughals and the Delhi of 1984. She meets people who are as alien to her as the city’s quiet, sinister nights or as blatant as the loud noise of Chandni Chowk crowds. Each character is well-etched out - the strikingly handsome, mysterious rickshaw puller Santokh Singh, Balbir the kabadiwali, the forlorn Sikh baba with his long, snowy beard, and the gallant Brigadier Mansingh with his intense, leopard-like eyes.
Chandni Chowk, a witness to many events. How many times had it played with blood and dust?
The author brings to notice the waned glory of the city. The dilapidated state of Ghalib’s house, a butcher shop near his tomb, Rahim’s resting place covered by pauper’s shacks, the impossibly overcrowded Chandni Chowk, and the dried-up Yamuna River – with these images, she laments our tendency to negligently forget our past, instead of revering it and reveling in it. We fail to realise how heavily the past weighs on us and how effectively it shapes the course of our future.
At most places, the mysterious Jamuna of Mir Ghalib and Khankhana looks like a dirty drain. Or like the skeleton of some strange prehistoric animal.
It was characteristic of Mamoni to completely immerse herself in the lives and circumstances of the characters she brought alive on paper – often, we see a very clear reflection of the author in the narrator, and she seems to feed the reader’s suspicion by imposing certain details of her life onto the narrator’s. Her deep investment in her craft has allowed her to possess a unique empathy and understanding of human sentiment. She explores the voids and chasms of longing and passion - There is not a hint of perversion in the narrator’s relationship and interactions with Santokh Singh, but Goswami manages to build tension based solely on aimless floating desires that simmer, then froth, only to be mutually hushed, at the slightest noise. Unprompted, the characters recount macabre tales from their experiences or hearsay, like that of an avid young reader who dies of a fungal infection he contracts from old books, a munshi committing suicide after losing a bargaining fight over some cucumbers, a rebel youth bayoneted like a chicken to be cooked during the Sepoy Mutiny. These stories appear throughout the narrative like odd, disturbing nightmares that disrupt restful sleep.
At times, I find myself suddenly shooting to my feet. I have heard about Raman Raghav the assassin who pierced sleeping people on the road with his trident, a long time ago, and now I feel Raman Raghav’s presence in my balcony, feel all alone as he roams around me.
We are all prisoners of memory, caged in reminiscences of the people we meet, the solace they provide, their love and acceptance, the pain they cause us deliberately or unwittingly, and the gory events that form our past. Perhaps our biggest inheritance, as the Southeast Asian diaspora is our shared blood-tainted history, which is replete with agony still felt as deeply, generations after. We have suffered for our diversity, which has caused many a rift and irreconcilable differences. History is not as dead, stale, and factual as it is made to appear in our textbooks, it is yet alive, steeped in blood and suffering, and there is only a certain percentage of it that we are cognizant of. It is impossible to comprehend our past in its entirety and so much of history still remains obscured. I remember visiting my grandparents’ house in Patna Sahib during summer vacations. Having lived in apartment flats all my life, one of my favourite things to do was spend time on the terrace. My grandmother would always point out the Takhat Shri Harmindar Sahab to me, the birthplace of the revered last Sikh guru, Guru Gobind Singh, and the one major attraction in the otherwise drab town. I liked pestering her with questions about who our neighbours were and I recall pointing out a house near the gurudwara and asking who lived there. “There was a nice Sikh family. They left during the Anti-Sikh riots.” How often do we talk about this facet of our past, how often do we have the courage to face the truth of the Sikh lives slaughtered?
The corpses of Sikhs fill the mortuary at Tees Hazari. Ultimately, they have had to be heaped on the road, blocking the footpaths.
Towards the end, in its uncensored descriptions of the riots, the book invites comparison with Taslima Nasrin’s “Lajja”, an account of the Hindu-Muslim riots in Bangladesh; another major instance of communal violence in post-Independence times. The author’s resentment against humanity and its ability to manifest in the most abhorrent forms, her deep sense of helplessness, regret, and remorse are in the same vein as Nasrin’s. With profound empathy, Mamoni provides the most vivid and heart-wrenching descriptions of violence that transcend fiction into a haunting realm of reality.