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Book lead: 'Helium' by Jaspreet Singh

Novel revisits one of the darkest times in India's post-independence history, writes Bron Sibree

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 09 June, 2013, 3:43pm

New Delhi-born, Toronto-based author Jaspreet Singh's eagerly awaited second novel, Helium, is rather unusual, disturbingly beautiful and somewhat angry.

In some senses, it bears many of the hallmarks of Singh's lauded 2009 debut novel, Chef, which used a dying cook and the icy terrain of the Siachen glacier to examine the bloody India-Pakistan dispute over Kashmir. An emotionally distant narrator, haunting memories and a contested history - as well as an acknowledged debt to W.G Sebald - are all packaged inside a profoundly poetic novel that unfolds with the leisurely, meditative pace of a travelogue and the suggestive thrust of a thriller.

Like his debut novel, Helium is a relatively short 284 pages. But unlike the debut, Helium is so pointedly peppered with archival photographs and real-life names and utterances, along with the odd scientific image and artist's sketch, that it is palpably suggestive of a documentary, a non-fiction exposé.

It opens with its narrator, a professor of rheology (the study of the flow of matter) and a father of two who lives in Ithaca, New York, recalling his last sabbatical visit home to New Delhi to visit his father, who is recovering from serious surgery. He stopped over in Brussels on the way, to attend a rheology conference, and was stranded by the 2010 Eyjafjallajokull volcano eruption. The eeriness of the situation, coming after a rheology student presented a paper on the AD79 eruption of Vesuvius, sent him unwillingly into a mood of deep reflection on his life and his chosen field. "Everything in this world of ours flows. Even so-called solids flow. My own work focuses on the flow of 'complex materials', the ones with 'memory'."

Memory continues to drive the narrator when he lands in Delhi, just as it shapes and drives the novel, which is anchored both in the events of 2010 and in the more distant events of 1984. For what is tugging at our rheologist's consciousness, jostling for his attention among other memories from his life in Delhi and the very real happenings of 2010, is his memory of the time he witnessed the brutal murder of his former university professor.

The killing happened during the 1984 anti-Sikh riots that followed prime minister Indira Gandhi's assassination, an event the author calls a government-sponsored "pogrom" in which up to 7,000 Sikhs were killed. The narrator, whom we eventually learn is called Raj, was a 19-year-old Indian Institute of Technology student returning from a class trip, when he watched, paralysed, as a mob singled out his professor at a Delhi train station, threw a tyre over him, doused him in petrol and set him on fire.

Raj has a vivid recollection too, of witnessing a senior Congress party politician inciting the angry mob, urging them to kill every Sikh, in this bloody event. Often called India's holocaust, it remains a sore point in India today - several senior members of Gandhi's Congress Party were accused of inciting the violence, but were never convicted. The government launched the Nanavati inquiry into the riots in 2000, and it found one prominent senior Congress MP was "very probably" involved in organising the attacks. After the report was tabled in parliament in 2005, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh also apologised to the Sikh community, describing the 1984 riots as "one of the saddest, darkest moments in recent Indian history", but as recently as this year, individuals, still seeking justice 30 years later, cite ongoing cover-ups.

Singh follows the unpredictable trajectory, the non-linear "flow" of memory itself, spilling backwards and forward in time

But the author is in no hurry to reveal the wider details and implications of that horrific event, which haunts the novel as surely and powerfully as it haunts its protagonist. Instead, Singh follows the unpredictable trajectory, the non-linear "flow" of memory itself, spilling backwards and forward in time in the manner of human consciousness, tantalising us with historical arcana and titbits as he unfurls his leisurely but purposeful narrative.

Raj recalls how, within minutes of meeting him, Mohan Singh became his mentor and friend, introducing him to his much younger wife Nelly - with whom our narrator remains slightly infatuated 25 years later - and to many potent, philosophical, scientific and literary ideas outside the professor's area of specialisation, which was helium, "He", the so called noble gas.

It was from the professor too that Raj first learned of Primo Levi, whose famous autobiographical stories were about his experiences of the holocaust. The periodic table, his mentor once explained, "connects the world of molecules to the world of humans".

He invokes the nature of helium and the words of Levi to help fathom the 1984 massacre, to make sense of what he calls "our periodic table of hate". His own driving impulse - one which he tries, unsuccessfully, to resist - is to explain humans and human memory in terms of atoms, molecules and elementary particles, and it's this that imbues this unusual novel with an eerie, almost sinister beauty. Unable to shake the memories of 1984, to make the past stay in the past, Raj finally, 25 years after his professor's death, gets on a train to Shimla to search for his widow, Nelly. He has discovered from one of his former ITT colleagues that she is rumoured to work there as an archivist. He finds her, armed with a lame apology and a handful of questions. What happened to her two children during the massacre? Did his father, a senior police officer, offer to give her a lift that fateful day at the Delhi train station?

He finds Nelly, "with the aura and grandeur of an ageing beauty", just where he thought she'd be, in a Shimla library, "the coldest library in the world". In the ballroom of the old Viceregal Lodge, which now houses the Institute of Advanced Studies, is a library, he notes, housed in "the space where the British Empire had danced when nine million Indians died of famine". Locked deep in sadness, Nelly's avid interest in the avian world, he discovers, is the only salve for her deep wounds. He no longer feels the sexual attraction for Nelly he once did, but meeting her forces him to confront his unacknowledged memories about 1984. Memories that have menaced his equilibrium and driven the narrative all along.

But as the novel picks up in pace and moves towards its shocking revelations and ultimate denouement, Raj, or rather Singh himself, cannot help but meander through the idiosyncratic colonial history of Shimla, deliver us a treatise on ornithology in India and its British civil servant founder, Allan Octavian Hume - also a co-founder of India's Congress party - and point out that every slope, every tree in the area "carries traces of colonialism".

His rambling ruminations on history and his frequent ironic asides on everything from Dyer-Meakin beer to Buna rubber add up to what is effectively an alternate chronicle of India's recent history. It moves from the time of Lord Curzon, Rudyard Kipling, the British Raj and Amritsar to that of Jawaharlal Nehru and Gandhi, then on to a different Gandhi, and Operation Blue Star, Trilokpuri, Hondh-Chillar, Bhopal and Delhi's enduring reputation as an unsafe place for women. There are cryptic historical clues to a different but parallel narrative to the one in plain sight - an inquiry into the 1984 Sikh massacre and the nature of memory and forgetting.

It's an oddly haunting, somewhat mysterious novel with something of the free-flowing consistency of "hyper-beautiful helium-4". A novel that doesn't shy away from delivering a savage indictment of the Congress party or the suggestion that Shining India, as one of its characters says, "works for a small minority".

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