Book Review | Helium

The author’s second novel is a masterful revisiting of the anti-Sikh riots of 1984 and the devastating trail they left behind


Helium: Bloomsbury India, 292 pages, Rs499
Helium: Bloomsbury India, 292 pages, Rs499

Diary of a bad year

Helium | Jaspreet Singh

Dystopia, says Raj, the narrator of Jaspreet Singh’s second novel, Helium, “is a word I learned in 1983 while preparing for my GRE exams.” He explains the etymology: “Dys = ill, bad, wretched. Topos = place, land. A government that harms its own citizens.” A year later, the full horror of the meaning dawned on him as he witnessed a mob set his mentor, Professor Singh, on fire during the anti-Sikh riots that followed the assassination of then prime minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards.

Presciently, 1984 was the title British writer George Orwell had chosen for his dystopian critique of police states, published in 1949. It also turned out to be the year when several radical writers, thinkers and artists perished: Julio Cortázar, Ansel Adams, Michel Foucault, Truman Capote, Faiz Ahmed Faiz—the list, which Raj compiles, runs on. Barely a month after the pogrom, one of the worst industrial disasters occurred at the Union Carbide factory in Bhopal. Three years after the riots, Italian Holocaust survivor Primo Levi, author of The Periodic Table (1975), which Professor Singh introduces to Raj, killed himself. And nearly a century earlier, British political reformer Allan Octavian Hume laid the foundations of the party that allegedly abetted the carnage in October-November 1984, leaving thousands of men, women and children dead, brutalized or displaced in Delhi.

Almost nothing is common to these historical accidents, but to Raj, visiting India in 2009, these events coalesce in the memory of his professor standing helplessly, with a rubber tyre around his neck, doused with gasoline, and burnt alive. A rheologist at Cornell University, US, Professor Singh’s alma mater, Raj is on a mission. He is gathering evidence, tracking down people he hadn’t seen for 25 years, recording testimonies, to atone for the shame of not being able to help his professor, a reputed scholar of helium, the element.

Raj draws from his scientific training—he studies “the flow of ‘complex materials’, the ones with ‘memory’”—to understand “how the past becomes the past”. But it is a debilitating quest, leaving him vulnerable to the treacheries of the human mind—“memory fails me here,” he confesses at one point—and the temptation to turn a gory reality into intellectual outrage: “...in my attempts to exhume and decipher the past, in my note-taking, I am not a coward,” he silently pledges to Professor Singh, “I am trying to achieve more and more clarity.”

Driven by a dark and self-consuming energy, Raj is reminiscent of the melancholic narrators of W.G. Sebald, whose influence on Helium is palpable from the piercing images—of people, places and particles—leaping out of the text. The juxtapositions bring out (to borrow a phrase from Raj’s description of Ismat Chughtai’s story The Quilt) “marvellous discontinuities”—not just of time and space but also of the characters’ past and present selves. In the interstices Singh weaves a story of love and betrayal, full of sinister twists and turns, which give Helium a compelling power.

Twenty-five years later as Raj confronts his father, a former IPS officer who “enabled” the killings of 1984, and Nelly, Professor Singh’s widow, who is now an archivist working in Shimla, he is faced with questions that put the modern liberal mind in a quandary: Does the passage of years dull the edge of historical wrongs? Do age and infirmity allow for clemency? What form should justice take for such barbaric acts as mass murder? Grappling with such dilemmas in an increasingly right-wing India becomes that much more of a challenge to Raj.

But the moral universe which Helium endorses is chillingly precise: There is no place for denial, evasion or equivocation, even with one’s kins. Raj deplores his estranged wife, Clara, for being the champion of the kind of mind he strictly abhors: “Clara—if she had been born in Nazi Germany, she would have told our children that the Jewish neighbours were really headed to some land of toys and candies.”

Raj suffers not of the pain and humiliation of the victim or the guilt and loss of the survivor. He endures the trauma of the truth-teller, who, driven by conscience, dares disturb the smug amnesia of the present, and ends up paying a deadly price.

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