Helium reminds this reviewer of Rohinton Mistry’s Such a Long Journey. Both books are essentially fiction but based on contemporary events in India. The background of Mistry’s novel is the period when Indira Gandhi was the country’s prime minister (the writer had some unflattering things to say about her and, as a result, the film based on the book was banned in India). Jaspreet Singh’s theme is narrower—the November 1984 anti-Sikh riots that followed Indira Gandhi’s assassination. The riots thread their way all through the book, linking the main characters together. Curiously enough, both Jaspreet Singh and Rohinton Mistry are ethnic Indians based in Toronto, Canada.
The narrator in Helium is Raj, an academic teaching at Cornell University in the US. He is haunted by the past. While still a student in Delhi, he has lived through the horrific pogrom on the Sikhs which, as he discovers, was state-sponsored, with leading Congress politicians—who are named—leading the rioters. His professor, a turbaned Sikh, finds himself in the wrong place, at the wrong time. As he emerges from a railway station, he is cruelly murdered in the way that many other Sikhs also perished: doused with kerosene or petrol and burnt with rubber tyres pinioning their arms and legs. The professor’s daughter is also killed and his son disappears, while his enigmatic and beautiful wife, Nelly, moves to Simla to work as an archivist.
Raj returns from the US some years later and reaches out to her, while trying to piece together details of the riots and those responsible for them. His own father, a senior police officer then, Raj finds out, had a direct hand in the riots and was rewarded for it.
Helium has all the ingredients of a powerful and compelling novel and the writer does not disappoint us. The best passages deal with the violence that followed Operation Bluestar, the army’s assault on the terrorists inside the Golden Temple, and Singh’s insights on the Sikh faith. The story of Guru Nanak’s encounter with some “sham holy men in Benares”, though well known to most Sikhs, figures in the book. Nanak saw them splashing water towards the sun. Intrigued, he asked them what they were doing. We are sending water to the souls of our ancestors who are thirsty, they replied. Nanak then started splashing water in a different direction and when asked why he was doing that, he replied that he was sending water for his fields in the Punjab!
However, his main characters somehow do not convince, and the obsession of the narrator with sex gets irritating. He is bold enough to name those Congress politicians who directed the anti-Sikh riots: Maken, Bhagat and Tytler. But Kamal Nath as well? That the Scot, Allan Octavian Hume, founded the Congress party is common knowledge, but that he was an ornithologist as well, who donated his collection of 80,000 birds to the British Museum, was a pleasant revelation. But Singh has got the facts on Ved Marwah, a former head of the Delhi Police, wrong. It is true that he was ordered to terminate the report he was preparing on the riots, but he was certainly not “hounded for the last 25 years”. Instead, he was made a governor!
Jaspreet Singh is at his best in some of his descriptions. Take his observation on Nek Chand’s famous garden created out of scrap material in Chandigarh: “Broken bangles, broken plates, broken china, pottery, old tyres, scrap material—he had filled them with a new meaning without destroying the old. Nek Chand’s dialogue with the past was a perfect counterpoint to Le Corbusier’s architectural cleansing, I thought. Le Corbusier’s ‘open hand’ tried to purify the past; Nek Chand, on the other hand, celebrated impurity. Le Corbusier considered past as waste, Nek Chand embraced waste.”
The title of the book is intriguing. Helium, the so-called noble gas, is colourless, odourless, tasteless and monoatomic, the writer tells us. “Liquid helium, the coldest fluid, boils at extreme low temperatures, around minus 269 degrees Celsius”. There is clearly some connection between the properties of this gas and the anti-Sikh riots, since the analogy recurs several times. But this reviewer at least could not fathom the link. Nevertheless, Helium bounds along with great pace and is a promise of better things to come.