In the acknowledgments of her debut novel, Stillborn Season, Radhika Oberoi declares the book an “enthusiastic but amateurish production”: a fair assessment of her book.
Set around the 1984 anti-Sikh massacres, the novel is split into two. The first part starts bang in the middle of the action, while the second is set in what we can reasonably assume is the present. There is no clear plot line; rather, the book threads together the stories of an eclectic set of characters experiencing the effects of the violence: as victims, perpetrators and documenters.
Since there is no central protagonist, we jump from chapter to chapter, meeting a motley crew. Among them are Balbir Singh, owner of a women’s fabric store infelicitously titled “Balbir and Sons” (there are no sons); Bhola, a handicapped beggar who sees himself as a Bollywood hero; and Amrit, a fiery journalist intent on uncovering untold stories from 1984.
Oberoi’s character work is skilful. She traverses ambiguity, creating characters who can be simultaneously gruesome and pathetic. As a result, we feel the anxieties of Kiran, a young wife terrified by her husband’s insistence on jogging outside even as Sikhs are being lynched in the streets. We feel the rage of Jaspreet, an older Sikh man who cannot seem to let go of the trauma of his past. And we are poignantly aware of the lingering uncertainty that plagues Hari, a Hindu man who must kill Sikhs to make money. Often, Oberoi employs elements of free indirect discourse to round out these characters and enliven the narrative voice.
The only issue, even with the character work, is consistency. The novel seems, in some ways, like an experiment. Different chapters take different forms: a telegram interspersed with unspoken thoughts, a character’s stream of consciousness, an interview with a dead prime minister. Some of these attempts have a certain charm, others do not.
Oberoi’s attempts at Indianising descriptions can miss their mark. There are poetic moments, and references that invoke a palpable nostalgia for an earlier India. Others, particularly in voice and dialogue, strain to hit a note of authenticity and miss – as in the voice of this Sikh driver: “Meter is old, fuel too much costing. I poor man, I live on grace of Babaji. Pliz pay.”
Coupled with an incessant lingering over the female body (consider this description a school girl: “her flesh, with all its tender promise of plumpness here, firmness there, a sudden flare of collarbones and a surprising flash of veins as delicate and fissured as the coastline she belonged to…”), Oberoi’s descriptive work can get exhausting. There are only so many ways mithai can be used as an epithet for the parts of the body.
The novel is redeemed by the sense of community that Oberoi weaves into the narrative structure. Although the characters themselves are often unrelated by blood or neighbourhood, their stories are so intimately connected that there is never a sense of discontinuity, even through bold temporal and spatial jumps.
This redeems the book’s less successful contrivances, roping the reader into a world where compassion binds the seemingly disparate. Despite some shortcomings, its invocation of empathy in the face of tragedy upon tragedy is Stillborn Season’s triumph.
In arrangement with 'The Wire'