Painful past revisited

Reviewing Jaspreet Singh’s earlier book for this paper three years ago, I called it a minimalist narration of monumental events. That was Chef, set against a beautiful Kashmir landscape, but you saw the rot and rut through his narration’s gossamer gentleness. Come 2013. A year to go for the 30th anniversary of a pogrom that chills us even now.

With Helium, We get starched gossamer this time. Crackling, tearing, forcing us to introspect each time we see what’s been glossed over by the powerful and the culpable. Even though it’s termed a fiction, the tone of the book is so intense you think the writer is either sharing personal angst or he’s a damned good writer. Or both. He also peppers the book with photographs, some of their sources acknowledged, but mostly random, some relevant because of where they’re placed amidst the text, their entire mysterious existence causing us to doubt the initial disclaimer that everything is fiction, “based on imagination”.

The book is so ambiguously inward I flouted my own guideline of not going beyond the framework of the work itself, and looked around for Singh’s explanation. In an interview with a UK newspaper, he confirms his first hand experience. He had to hide in a neighbour’s house during the 1984 conflagration after Indira Gandhi’s assassination. The Congress in the name of outraged common folk unleashed terror on Sikhs in the capital.

“The few hours we were there,” says Singh in the interview, “fill a huge space in my mind.” Later, he saw the burning and the “tiny particles of ash floating in the air”. He interacted with sufferers, read and researched until the pain was as much his, and now, of course, the reader’s.

Small comfort all this, but I had to know. And knowing settles the issue; his words are indeed spasms from a violent past.

Protagonist Raj revisits Delhi, the city of momentous trauma from his past. This and subsequent trips (to a colonial, white-faced Shimla) take him to emotional landscapes that etch out the truth in slow unhurried curlicues. As a student, he’d witnessed the brutal mob killing of his favourite professor Mohan Singh.

“For so 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 hands, three legs and seven tongues…” The professor’s wife had been his love. Years later, his own family disrupted, the ache persistent, Raj returns and seeks her out, the beautiful Nelly, now disfigured by defenders of ’84. Raj also realises his father’s culpability in the pogrom. Time passes. Nothing has changed. People move on. People die. But the particles of ash still float in the air if you have the vision to see them.

That’s how Singh could have written it. Like a story. Neatly pointed out and reasoned out. Looking for answers, I came across readers’ responses to the book. The majority felt “this subject” should have been treated better. One of them evoked Khaled Hosseini and said the work would have succeeded had it been written like The Kite Runner.
But I believe this is the only way this book could have been written. The digressions, the scientific detours and metaphors, the jerky coalescing of past and present, the phantoms and the sharp jabs of pain.

You convey precisely when your vehicle, your method is right. Here the medium is the pulse of the message. Even while trying to achieve an artful coherence, the bristling anger is unsuppressed, the hatred for what happened comes across, shockingly palpable. It’s as if a sufferer struggles to surface through the author’s craft.

The crisscrossing between past and present, antagonist and friend, Delhi and Shimla, the use of apparently relevant pictorial evidence, the jargons of science and ornithology, the jagged, almost subconscious descriptions — all this contributes to the documentary feel, as if we are seeing or living through the real, both past and present. Like taking a peek into a private diary. The railway station is a metaphor, where once something terrible happened. Later, Raj stands on the platform remembering the “operatic cacophony of birds”.

Even the bizarre, random corners shadowed by dark comedy bulwark the overall veracity of experience. The intimacy between Raj and Nelly is so starkly brought out, verbal graphics would have weakened its telling. Not so the ill-feeling, the intense rejections and the bitter recollections of a helpless past. Because this is what runs like a naked electric wire through the novel, shocking the reader time and again.

Helium is a document of past atrocity that unexpectedly rises beyond the universal to become painfully, guiltily personal. When Raj badgers his father to look again and again at the blood-spattered arena of his crime, the complicity comes home to roost, and not just in a literary character. 

Jaspreet Singh
Bloomsbury2013, pp 284

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