A courageous but flawed response to an outrage
Jaspreet Singh’s second novel focuses on the massacre of thousands of Sikhs after the assassination of Indira Gandhi, in 1984. But it is only a roughly fleshed out draft of what could have been a major work
Targeted: an anti-Sikh poster in 1985, in an area where Sikhs were killed after Indira Gandhi’s assassination. Photograph: Sandro Tucci/Time Life/Getty
There is nothing nostalgic about Raj’s return home to India after an entirely voluntary 25-year absence. He has become a professor at Cornell and has a US passport. He also has two daughters he rarely sees in the aftermath of a bitter divorce. Raj’s mother is dead, and all that remains of his previous life is an ailing, police-hero father he barely knows and a distressing tangle of memory and guilt.
The Canada-based writer Jaspreet Singh is a former research scientist, and this ambitious, intense second novel is a bold and courageous response to the appalling official reprisals against the Sikh community that took place in India in 1984 after the assassination of the country’s prime minister, Indira Gandhi, by her Sikh bodyguards.
Raj seems to be the ideal character to embark on a quest. He is in turmoil, his thoughts are racing and he is desperate for answers. Nor is he particularly sympathetic. Central to the dilemma that has taken over his life – an incapacitating rootlessness that leaves him feeling no longer quite Indian and certainly not American – is the ongoing horror of having watched as his mentor, a much-loved professor and a Sikh, was burned to death on a railway-station platform before his eyes. Raj did nothing to help; to his shame, another student, a far lesser academic talent than himself, did try to intervene.
Singh has most intelligently created a narrator who is no hero. Raj is self-absorbed; he had been a spoilt only child before becoming one of his doomed mentor’s favoured students. He had even lusted after the older man’s much younger wife.
That Raj is difficult to like only adds to his humanity, which Singh may have used more effectively. Raj knows that his now elderly father was as a senior policeman involved in the massacre. He just wants him to admit it.
During the four-day pogrom about 8,000 Sikh men and women were murdered, some 3,000 in Delhi alone. Singh bases his narrative on fact, yet it ebbs and flows with the wilfulness of memory. It has the weight of history yet also aspires to the refined chaos of a nightmare half-remembered if wholly suffered.
If not as artistically cohesive as Singh’s outstanding debut, Chef (2008), which is a superior, far better-written work, this is nevertheless an important, if wordy, book in which the urgent polemic at its heart never quite obscures the personal, such is Raj’s complex anxiety, which often leaves the reader wondering where exactly Raj ends and Singh takes over.
Singh looks to two major artists who were also great witnesses: Primo Levi and WG Sebald. As a scientist Raj is drawn to Levi’s profound memoir The Periodic Table (1975), itself shaped by the burden of guilt shared by many survivors. Singh attempts to replicate the unique narrative approach of Sebald, whose daring intellectual odysseys looked for answers in history and random experience; a life lived, a sorrow recorded.
Singh’s imagination does not soar with the mercurial abandon of Sebald’s, yet he is drawn to thought as a singular impressionistic collage racing through an individual imagination. Sebald, who consistently pushed all notions of fiction to their limits, maintained a discreet authorial distance; Singh does not, and he is frequently self-conscious is his use of material.
It is easy to see why. Raj is haunted by the horrors he witnessed and the smells of burning flesh. Dominating his failures is his passivity. Sebald looks to the destruction of Dresden as a historical reality lost in ambivalence; Singh is caught between experience and analysis. Raj is not quite reliable because of his own demons and the many years that pass before he decides to take action.
The old father has cleverly withdrawn into his illness and prefers to pretend he has no memory of the past. There is one person who can help Raj arrive at some sense of truth, and she is Nelly, his teacher’s widow and Raj’s one-time love.
In a novel in which so much is burned and destroyed, Singh makes symbolic use of helium, one gas that does not burn. It is as if helium stands for truth. The India that emerges from the random musings is a vicious society, divided by tribal loyalties: “My absence, now that I think about it,” decides Raj, “has been an immense loss; my long voluntary absence kept me from participating in the colossal transformation my country has gone through, making me a stranger to the city where I grew up.” He refers to gathering evidence and considers it the way in which he can best “figure out the mechanism of my own grand failure”.
Late in the narrative, Raj’s father makes the most shocking speech in a book of bleak facts. It is not particularly good dialogue, and reads as more of a press release than a convincing exchange, but it is worth quoting, as it illustrates both the strengths and weaknesses of Helium.
“Remember ’84? In the month of December, gas leaked in Bhopal. The Union Carbide, it turns out, got the licence to set up a pesticide plant with flawed and obsolete design, unfit for Virginia, during Indira Gandhi’s Emergency years.
“A few journalists are tracking everyone down who played any role, any small role, in facilitating the release of the chief executive of Union Carbide, Warren Anderson. That man has blood on his hands. Bhopal was our country’s tragedy, bigger than 9/11, and we allowed Warren Anderson to flee. He lives in a big mansion on Long Island somewhere. All I did was follow the PM’s and the CM’s orders.”
When Raj responds to this statement with an announcement of his own – “And there are reports, father, about your involvement in the anti-Sikh massacres?” – the old man brushes the allegations away: “Oh, the Sikhs we can handle, but the carbide case is bigger . . . Last time you asked me if I wanted to emigrate to the US, I declined . . . But I have changed my mind. When are you headed back?”
Pompous, stilted, grasping and lost, Raj is far more at ease with observations, chance fact and scientific cross-reference. His interactions with other people are often awkward, while, in Nelly, Singh has a potentially interesting character who is never quite fully developed.
Heartfelt but laboured
There is no disputing that Chef, in which an unforgettable central character, Kirpal, grapples with his impending death and a vivid awareness of the past, is an extraordinary novel, while this disturbing, heartfelt work is merely the roughly fleshed out draft of what could have been a major work.
It is a shame considering that almost 30 years have passed since Bhopal. This book is not a hasty response, although it reads as such and the literary allusions, if interesting, often feel stylistically laboured.
Even so, Helium redeems itself through the moments of insight, the anger and the all too human injustices and realities it exposes. Raj is not a hero, only a different kind of survivor.