Book Review: Helium, By Jaspreet Singh


The year 1984 was catastrophic for India’s Sikhs. On 6 June, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi ordered her troops to fire on the Golden Temple, killing thousands. On 1 November, the day after Gandhi was assassinated by two of her Sikh bodyguards, a pogrom of the country’s Sikhs occurred during which up to 8,000 people died.

The government and police force were believed complicit in these crimes, a view echoed in 2011’s WikiLeaks, which showed the US administration also believed this to have been the case.

In his second novel, the multiple award-winning writer Jaspreet Singh investigates this massacre. Raj is a chemical engineering professor at Cornell University who gained his first degree in Delhi. He remembers as a 19-year-old student watching his beloved professor being incinerated.

Twenty-five years later he returns to India to seek out his late professor’s widow and find out more about what happened. In the process he will need to examine his feelings about his father, a retired police chief, who may have been involved in the attacks.

Singh tackles an important and relatively neglected aspect of history, the story taking in not just the anti-Sikh pogroms but also 2002’s anti-Muslim ones. Other themes tackled include the continued existence of dalits (untouchables) in India’s unjust caste system.

Raj is not an easy first-person narrator to follow: his testimony drifts and obfuscates like Himalayan mists. These digressions of his may be partly related to his identity as a somewhat paranoid man prone to mistakes, but more lucidity would have been preferable to the endless meandering of his thoughts.

Still, Singh’s prose is capable of moments of great power: “ ... dozens of Sikh bodies on fire. Smell of burning wool and rubber tyres and human flesh ... the black cloud of smoke touched the sky ... This was our Periodic Table of hate.”

The mention of  the Periodic Table is no accident. Primo Levi’s classic of that title is foremost in Raj’s mind; the dark irony of a survivor of the massacres eventually being destroyed by them is nonetheless never far beneath the surface.

In one particularly chilling part, a politician offers the Congress Party immunity from investigation for the 1984 anti-Sikh pogroms. The condition is that he in turn must promise not to delve into the 2002 anti-Muslim pogroms by the Hindu party. This is a thought-provoking, if wandering, tale.