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.