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Helium:
Jaspreet Singh's New Novel on 1984

A Book Review by ROSALIA SCALIA

 

 

 

HELIUM, by Jaspreet Singh, Bloomsbury, 2013, pp 304, ISBN-13: 9781608199563. $16.70.


Helium is sikhchic.com's BOOK OF THE MONTH selection for the month of June 2013. 

 

Helium, published by Bloomsbury USA, Jaspreet Singh’s second novel due to hit booksellers on August 6, 2013, tackles a difficult subject: the November 1984 anti-Sikh pogroms in India the day after Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination.

At 19, narrator Raj, his beloved Professor Mohan Singh, and a group of fellow college students of the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) were all returning by train to Delhi from a class trip.

When the train reaches the Delhi station and the group disembarks, a mob surrounds their beloved Prof. Singh throws a tire around his neck, douses him with gasoline and some white powder which Raj later realizes is phosphorous, and sets the professor on fire.

Raj, the brightest and most favoured of Prof. Singh’s students, becomes immobile with fear, and watches as a fellow student who may be intellectually mediocre but far braver, comes to their professor’s rescue before the mob bloodies him too. Injured, the courageous student and Raj, like the rest, take off running, leaving behind their murdered professor whose body disintegrates into nothing.

Prof. Singh and the students happened to have returned on November 1, 1984, the day that the anti-Sikh pogroms began in earnest, the innocent Professor singled out and attacked because his turban identified him as Sikh. The students, including the narrator, are Hindus. 

This 304 page novel chronicles the impact of this violence, and it’s negatives affects -- large and small -- thereafter on Raj as a witness to the horror, long after he has moved to the US, until he is compelled to return to India to find Professor Singh’s widow and to confront his father, a high-ranking police official, about the latter’s role in the genocide.

Originally from the subcontinent himself, author Jaspreet Singh moved to Canada in 1990 where he earned a doctorate in chemical engineering from Montreal’s McGill University in 1998.

Two years later, he devoted himself fulltime to writing and literature. His first book, a collection of short stories titled “Seventeen Tomatoes“, won the 2004 Quebec First Book Prize, and he followed this with his debut novel, Chef, depicting the damaged landscapes of Kashmir through the eyes of two chefs. 

This novel won the  2010 Observer Book of the Year and the Canadian Georges ugnet Award for Fiction. Jaspreet Singh’s work, a finalist for four awards including the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best Book, and long-listed for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, has been translated into French, Spanish, Italian, Punjabi and Farsi.

In Helium, Jaspreet Singh draws on his expertise as a chemical engineer with his eloquent and lyric descriptions of helium, the topic of Professsor Mohan Singh’s expertise: “The second element in the periodic table – ‘He’ – the so called noble gas. Colourless, odourless, tasteless, and monoatomic. The invisible ‘He’ atoms don’t interact much with each other (or with others) preferring ‘isolation’ or ‘solitude.’ The gas doesn’t ‘burn,” no combustion reaction in the presence of oxygen. Slowly it keeps escaping our earth’s gravitational field.”

He then quotes the professor’s lectures amid this description: “If we are not careful on Planet Earth, in thirty or forty years not many atoms of this ludicrously light element will be left behind. All our primordial helium has already vanished.”

Aside from Helium being the Professor’s research interest, its properties serve as an apt metaphor for Raj, who in character is like Helium gas. Due to the circumstances of witnessing the horrifying murder of his beloved teacher, perhaps survivor’s guilt, perhaps PTSD, and perhaps the knowledge that he somehow carried within all along but perhaps was unable to face -- his father’s unholy role in the genocide -- Raj himself, like Helium, does not interact with his family (his mother is dead and he is estranged from his father), with fellow former IIT students. Or with others, such as his colleagues at Cornell University where he teaches, and even his own wife, as evidenced by his crumbling marriage.

But he is drawn to Nelly, Professor’s Singh’s beautiful and mysterious widow and thus he sets off to find her during a sabbatical year.

Embedded in the book is veritable bibliography for anyone interested in reading or knowing more about this traumatic event in Indian history that remains unresolved now nearly 30 years later.

Raj finds Nelly in Shimla, a quiet Himalayan resort in Northern India where she embraces her own imitation of Helium, leading a superficially quiet life, still emotionally wounded by her losses.

Of course, the pogroms annihilated Nelly’s family. Her husband the Professor  and her vibrant daughter -- wearing the boy’s version of the “Mexican Day of the Dead” costume and mistaken for her son -- brutally murdered, and her son, estranged from her since age 8.

Nelly’s survival takes its own toll as she faces a Mt. Everest of denials of the pogroms in a nation that prefers to act as if nothing happened.

In Shimla where the shadow of colonial India is cast, Nelly works at the Centre for Advanced Studies as a librarian or archivist where she painstakingly, systematically and secretively documents the pogroms.

She half-expects Raj’s visit, so she isn’t surprised when he appears at her door, full of questions about her and Professor Singh, and about his murder at the train station.

As the story unfolds, it becomes apparent that what remains unsaid between them -- the spaces between them -- is as important as, or maybe even more important than, what is said. Raj and Nelly interact with each other much the same way Helium atoms interact with each other -- it does not take much energy to knock the two apart -- despite the strength of what bonds them: the loss of a man they both loved in a different way and a past sexual attraction between them that has evaporated much as the primordial Helium from the earth. 

Jaspreet Singh delivers a cerebral, haunting novel of loss and betrayal, of secrets begetting secrets, of courage as all the characters face those issues between them that can knock them apart easily and which prevents them from interacting with others easily.

Thus the book is aptly named ‘Helium‘.

A note about the illustrations:

The novel contains 25 black-and-white illustrations.

While many of them work in the novel  -- such as the sketches on pages 129 and 175, the chemical outlines, some of them are jarring for their misplacement in the text, such as the photos of victims from the Vesuvian destruction of Pompeii juxtaposed with the text of Professor Singh’s gruesome and bloody murder at the train station.

Also, the overall print quality of the illustrations is poor, which has nothing to do with the author or the text but with the publisher and the designer.

Perhaps the faded quality of the illustrations is a glitch in the advanced review copy version of the book and this will be rectified by the time the book hits the market. Another important note about the illustrations -- the photos depicting real people and real places -- blur the lines between fiction and non-fiction. The book is a work of fiction, but the black-and-white photos imply they all depict the characters and events within the text, thus giving the impression that this work is non-fiction.

This book is a gripping read.

 

Helium can be pre-purchased online at AMAZON and BARNES & NOBLE.

June 3, 2013

Conversation about this article

1: Sangat Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), June 03, 2013, 2:35 AM.

Rosalia ji: a fine review. Like Helium in the periodic table remains indestructible, so does Prof. Mohan Singh in Jaspreet's novel. If anything, both rise heavenwards.

2: Baldev Singh (Bradford, United Kingdom), June 03, 2013, 6:16 AM.

For the Hindus to single out innocent men, women and children because they are a tiny minority, over the slaying of a tyrant who had thousands of citizens, including Hindus, imprisoned without trial -- and it is alleged she even had her own son murdered in a plane crash! -- is beyond civilized behaviour.

3: Amandeep Sandhu (Bangalore, India), June 03, 2013, 2:59 PM.

Congratulations! A fine review. I look forward to reading Jaspreet's Helium.

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Jaspreet Singh's New Novel on 1984"









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