By Radhika Marwaha
Following an exploration of a displaced population of Sikh widows in Delhi’s Tilak Vihar, our writer, Radhika Marwaha, interviewed author and playwright, Sarbpreet Singh on “Kultar’s Mime”: his reflection on the 1984 Sikh carnage.
When I walk the streets of Delhi today
I still see blood mixed with the dust.
Each silent stone does seem to say
Scream out aloud you must you must.
- Kultar’s Mime (Sarbpreet Singh & J. Mehr Kaur, 2019)
I stopped thrice before I let the phone ring – I couldn’t believe I was going to be speaking with Sarbpreet Singh, the author, and social justice advocate, I had grown to admire deeply over the past few months. Would he answer my call? Would I be able to muster up the courage and tell him how much I loved his work or that I had never been more inspired by a piece of work than his piece of poetry and now, a play, Kultar’s Mime?
There was a sense of heaviness associated with the book that had very little to do with the fact that I was carrying it every day to school. Since I first received my copy of the book, not a day had passed when I had not spent hours reading and re-reading parts of the book to understand Singh’s abstraction of what he calls the “drama of death.”
Two minutes into introductions, I learned that I was talking to a man who was suddenly so much more than a powerful piece of poetry to me. His passion stood out prominently as he spoke of engaging the youth in advocacy, and spreading awareness to different audiences in a tailored fashion that suited them best. He talked about conserving Punjabi literature and Sufi music, in the same voice that I had formed in my head when I read Part three of the book – Telling the Tale 30 Years Later: The Extraordinary Journey of Kultar’s Mime.
As a poem, Kultar’s Mime narrates the stories of little Sikh children – Billoo, Angad, Kultar, and others who survived the 1984 genocide in Delhi and drew a parallel between the terror of this experience and the pogrom against Jews in 1903 in Kishinev, Russia. The work also drew inspiration from Yiddish poet Hayim Nahman Bialik’s “In the City of Slaughter,” and so I was curious as to why Singh wanted to create this parallel using social commentary.
“Both stories are startlingly similar, which is unsurprising as they address pogroms in which the innocent were attacked because of their identity,” he said.
As I began talking to him about the play, I could almost see the group of young Jewish artists/activists from The Applejus Collective, who were part of a concept developed by Singh’s daughter and creator of the play, J. Mehr Kaur. The actors open the first scene as if they appear from memory wherein they explore the destruction and loss of life at Kishinev and then chance upon a similar event of an attack on identity – the 1984 Sikh genocide. The scene ends as they decide to visit the children at the new Kishinev, i.e., Delhi, and tell the horrendous story of the carnage.
Q: In the book, you said that the seeds of this piece were sown when you found archived copies of US and European newspapers about 1984, during your graduate program. What was the narrative you had grown up around, and how difficult was it for you to break away from it?
“The narrative I grew up around had two main elements. What had happened was a spontaneous reaction to Mrs. Gandhi’s assassination, and while the violence was regrettable, in a certain sense, the Sikhs had ‘asked for it.’ It was challenging for me to break away from this narrative because it was so pervasive in Indian media and had been carefully crafted and disseminated to deflect attention from the terrible state-sanctioned crime that had been committed.
In my opinion, the Congress Party was primarily responsible for designing this “truth,” since as perpetrators of the violence, they had the most significant interest in hiding the truth. The media was very compliant as well, except a few brave journalists such as Madhu Kishwar. The ‘common man’ Sikh or non-Sikh was also very reluctant to challenge the official narrative and cannot be let off the hook entirely.
Q: As a reader, for me, it was comforting to see the support you received from the Sangat when the production was in its infancy. But can you tell me what you/the team were experiencing just before the debut performance?
“It was an important moment for the team; until the first performance, this was another ‘job’ or ‘project’ for the actors, none of whom had any personal connection with the events. Experiencing the powerful response of the audience, which right from the very first performance, including survivors, was transformative and imparted a sense of mission to the team.”
Q: What was the feeling when you found yourself standing at the same spot where army tankers would have been targeting the Akal Takht, alongside your Kultar’s Mime team?
“It was a very emotional moment for me; I remember feeling an intense sense of gratitude to these young white actors, who, for the most part, had not even met a Sikh before they engaged with Kultar’s Mime. They had made this story their own, and they had begun a journey that would bring some measure of healing to survivors all over the world.”
Q: Can you describe the response your project got from diverse audiences such as the village of Preet Nagar to Chennai, US, UK, and Canada?
“The response was startlingly uniform, all over the world: shock, outrage, and an outpouring of compassion. In particular, I was heartened by the reaction of non-Sikh audiences in India. It was not an iota different from that of overwhelmingly Sikh viewers. It told me that the humanity of the ‘common man’ in India is alive and well.”
Q: What do the people of Widow Colony want from the government and fellow Sikh and non-Sikh citizens?
“They desire acknowledgment and justice for the atrocities they faced. Characterizing the event as a ‘riot’ to this day is a slap on the face of every survivor. We have the responsibility to create awareness about the genocide by talking and writing about it. We must stand with the survivors and let them know that they are not alone.”
As a Delhite, I resonated with Singh’s journey in accepting the horrors of the Sikh carnage and challenging what I had known the “riots” to be. Learning about the genocide, and talking to people like Singh (and others, check Displacement, Winter 2020), taught me that although the politicians were responsible for the carnage, the survivors had to be the focus of the 1984 stories. The women and children who grew up in incomplete families must compel us to speak up against an event that is slowly falling out of the conversation. In itself, the book (found on Amazon) is an eye-opening read. On a more hopeful note about not letting discourse centered around survivors of the carnage die out, Singh mentioned that he would love to bring the play to UC Davis for the campus community to engage and learn.