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‘Helium’: Bringing 1984 to life through fiction

15 November , 2013

Jaspreet Singh’s Helium (published by Bloomsbury in November 2013) is a brave, literary account of the darker side of ‘India Shining’. Falling somewhere between fiction, documentary and travelogue, Helium is a courageous novel that seeks unflinchingly to tell the story of the pogroms in which thousands of Sikhs in North India were murdered in just four days following the assassination of India’s then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, by her Sikh bodyguards on October 31st 1984.

 The protagonist, Raj, was a nineteen year old student on his way back from a class trip with Professor Singh, his mentor, an expert on chemical elements and the man who introduced him to Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table. But the unfortunate timing of the group’s arrival back at New Delhi train station is the 1st November 1984 and mobs have descended across Delhi to seek vengeance for the Prime Minister’s assassination. The chilling shouts across national radio and in the streets are for blood revenge. Professor Singh, with his distinctive Sikh appearance, is targeted by the mob who surround him, throw a tyre over him, douse him in petrol and set him alight. And so the story starts in the shadow of the now notorious statement by the new Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, that “when a mighty tree falls, it is only natural that the earth around it does shake a little.’

 Forever scarred by his paralysis and what he later castigates as his own youthful cowardice in running away at the very moment that his mentor needed his help, the story takes place many years later when Raj, now an eminent rheologist at Cornell University, returns to India seeking answers to questions that have been brutally dismembered by an unspoken conspiracy of silence emanating not just from his parents, but from an entire nation.

 “The state has tried to wipe away this dark memory…” says one of the characters late in the novel. “…When the parliament reconvened, the government never once mentioned the horrific carnage directly. When schools and colleges reopened, the headmasters and principals completely forgot to mention those four days the city had just witnessed. The state, like a true criminal, took further advantage of the carnage. The astonishing Congress Party spent millions on an ad campaign, which vilified the minorities. The subliminal message of that PR campaign was that the pogroms were ‘natural’, spontaneous, ‘legitimate’, ‘outbursts of anger’, ‘inevitable’, ‘logical’. An entire community with a deep sense of belonging to India and Indianness was constructed by the state as the ‘other’.”

 Singh’s novel is angry, bruised with an unfurling sense of injustice brought about not only by the epic failures of the Indian justice system, through which not one member of the political, bureaucratic or judicial class has been convicted despite several judicial commissions and a plethora of evidence against key Cabinet Ministers who have retained power and status today, but also by the “ominous silences’ of “distinguished public intellectuals, liberal-secular writers and established academicians” as well as media complicity in the cover-up. “The National Archives in Delhi…and the Police archives had destroyed many files connected to the violence…The Doordarshan TV archives either destroyed the tapes connected to October/November ’84 or put them away in boxes that would do Stalin’s Russia proud.” Helium devastates any notion that the Congress Party were innocent bystanders in an unfortunate moment in Indian recent history. Make no mistake, this book represents a muscular challenge to the complacency of India’s ruling elite that continues to deny what took place in New Delhi in 1984 amounted to a state-sponsored genocide, or an attempted genocide of its minority Sikh population.

 Strongly littered with references to Primo Levi and his Periodic Table, Singh asks the reader:Why think of one genocide in terms of another? Why use a prism? It is impossible to compare and quantify suffering, I know. Why then? Because one story is better known and the other one completely unknown, completely distorted or filled with ominous silences”. The comparison with aspects of the Jewish Holocaust are sometimes laboured, occasionally clumsy, but the tone of the novel is set by Singh’s apparent conclusion that confrontation is now the only way to seek accountability.

 When Raj returns to India, uncertain about his relationship with his father, he goes in search of Nelly, the beautiful wife of Professor Singh (and his one-time lover) whom he has not seen for 25 years. Much of the story is set in the swirling mists of the northern hill station of Shimla, to where had Nelly moved after the pogroms, as she tried to find a life that allowed her to reconcile her multiple losses. Here, in these pages, Singh’s lyrical sense of longing contrasts starkly with the bitter pill of memory that has annihilated the fondness which, one suspects, both he and his protagonist wants to feel towards their homeland. In Nelly’s Shimla, Singh describes the Chir pines, the “Himalayan oaks with serrated leaves and  portions of the ageing seven hills around Shimla still covered with trees”. A sense of travelogue unfolds more gently, giving space to the reader from what is, in places, the sheer fury of history.

In places, the book seems to be written expressly for the familiar reader, for the emigrant who pines for the idiosynchrosies of the Punjabi language rather than explicitly aimed at the foreigner who wants to ‘exoticise’ India. Helium is as far from the India of Exotic Marigold Hotels as can be. This narrative is most sharply seen in the exploration of Raj’s marital breakdown with his estranged wife Claire, who clings to a romantic vision of India that she personifies in her husband and seeks to present to their children. For all Claire’s colourful images of Diwali candles and happy Gods, Raj remains silently swamped by memories of burning fires across Delhi. “For many in ’84, death began with rubber tyres…Sikhs were mere objects (of hatred) bonded to rubber tyres, offered to the gods…Agni, the god of fire, has two heads, three legs and seven tongues…”. Clara, Raj tells the reader, is the sort of person who would have told their children (had she been born in Nazi Germany) that the Jewish neighbours were really headed to some land of toys and candles.

Taken from Primo Levi’s poem, Buna, the question ‘With what kind of face would we confront each other?’ becomes one of the most haunting themes of the novel. How would Nelly confront those men who devastated her family, and how would Raj cope when he knew who those men were?

“’A father and son walk on corpses, burning carcasses. Stumble upon piles of hair, burnt rubber tyres, amputated limbs and ash. The son asks his father about those men, who returned home after setting bodies on fire, men who returned after rape. What did they tell their children and wives? Did the wives go to bed with them that night?’”

The most intensely moving section of the novel is told through the device of an interview with Nelly, which takes on the tone of a documentary. The scenes Nelly recalls the day after Indira Gandhi’s assassination, are spent with her close friend, Maribel, the wife of the Mexican High Commissioner, and they unfold with a ghoulish horror. As the women prepare their children for a fancy-dress celebration of Mexican Day of the Dead, the senseless destruction and devastation of the mobs that strike at the core of Nelly’s existence are hard to digest and incomprehensible to any rational human being. Herein lies the absurdity of any attempt to wipe out an ethnicity or a religious group. Every notion of being human is shattered in the depravity. Singh explores this with a gripping emotional force that rips away any preconception that such violence could have been spontaneous.

At times, perhaps, the story collapses under the weight of the historical burden it bears. Singh is determined to ensure that an alternative history of India is presented, replete with references to Bhopal, the caste system and colonialism. Sometimes, this results in the reader being swamped by too much information and India’s narrative, likely autobiographical, might be almost too much for the reader to absorb.

Helium’s literary influences are diverse with strands of Primo Levi running through the prose, and of course W G Sebald’s Vertigo, which presents the epigraph and essential tenor of the novel: How I wished during those sleepless house that I belonged to a different nation, or, better still, to none at all.

A random character in the novel asks: “Why don’t you Sikhs forget what happened a long time ago?” The elderly man paused for a while and said: “For the same reason we Indians don’t forget British colonialism, the Amritsar massacre or Mahatma Gandhi’s Dandi, Diwali and Dussehra. And you want me to forget something that happened as recently as 1984?”

“As long as you are alive, your story is alive”, Nelly’s supervisor tells her shortly after she has escaped 1984 with her life. Jaspreet Singh’s Helium is a powerful, poignant attempt to bring that story to life, and perhaps, in some way, to right the wrongs of a shameful historical amnesia.

Published by Bloomsbury

Hardback, 7 November 2013, £16.99

eBook, 6 August 2013, £14.99

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