SET amidst the 1984 riots, Stillborn Season (Speaking Tiger Books) features fictional, interlinked short stories. It includes several voices from different stratas of society — from a vagabond who lives on the pavements of Delhi to a young assistant professor, the paranoid wife of an athlete, a foolhardy Sikh man and a prisoner. In the publication, debutant author Radhika Oberoi experiments with the form and structure of the narrative to share stories of loss.
How was Stillborn Season born?
In 2013, after several years of working in advertising, I attended the first UEA-India Creative Writing workshop in Kolkata, which was led by Amit Chaudhuri (author) and co-tutored by Romesh Gunesekera. Modelled on the University of East Anglia’s creative writing MA course, the workshop required attendees to submit writing samples. The idea for Stillborn Season came from a writing sample I submitted. A short story, Kali, (chapter two in the book) — which is a playful piece that involves two little girls and one temperamental Major in a cabbage patch — with the early rumblings of a riot in Delhi, became the starting point of this novel-told-in-short-stories.
Why did you choose to write on the subject that still has no closure.
While the first half of Stillborn Season is set amidst the riots of 1984, the book isn’t about the riots alone. It’s definitely not a journalistic exposition, nor is it a political stance. It deploys the Orwellian method of not directly referring to, but alluding to, the politics of the day. The book is, in many ways, an ode to the 1980s — Doordarshan’s grainy transmission, cavalcades of white Ambassadors, Premier Padminis, Binaca Geetmala on the radio. It is also my love letter to Delhi — its roads and footpaths that are home to many loveable vagabonds, its schools, neighbourhood parks, morning walkers, glittering homes, tiny barsatis and local minarets. There are men who intrude upon this quietude, with their lathis and slogans of hate — a pattern that repeats itself whenever a specific community is massacred. Hence, closure is impossible.
Were your characters and stories inspired by real people and incidents.
Several of the stories in the book have emerged from the conversations I had with the widows of Tilak Vihar (an area in Delhi affected by the riots). I also spent a lot of time wandering around Indira Gandhi’s former residence (in Delhi). The Epilogue: Q&A is a result of those wanderings; it humanises the assassinated Prime Minister in spite of her many political misadventures. I also turned to several books and articles for details about the riots in Delhi.
The format and style of the book is unique. What were the challenges?
Stillborn Season is a series of multiple and interlinked narratives. This structure allows for contradictory, unreliable perspectives and establishes a maniacal distortion of the ‘truth’. It also makes possible the inclusion of varied voices. It’s always challenging to turn reality into hyperbole, while remaining plausible. But for this reason, the book lends itself effortlessly to performance.
What did Stillborn Season give you in return? How important is it for us to tell the stories of our times?
My conversations, particularly with the widows of Tilak Vihar, revealed the astonishing resilience of the human spirit — its ability to recover from shock after shock and to rebuild from the rubble of grief. I also discovered that a shared tragedy can forge bonds of friendship and solidarity; it can (and has) turned into a movement that pushes apathetic governments into providing answers. We must tell the stories of our times in multiple tongues and varied techniques, so that the cacophony of the tales that we tell drowns the noise of those who destroy our peace.