Jaspreet Singh talks about his new novel based on the 1984 anti-Sikh riots.

Jaspreet Singh is a trained chemist and an award-winning Canadian-Indian author. His new novel Helium, on the anti-Sikh pogrom, is told from the point of view of a guilty police officer’s son. Excerpts from an interview:

Why Helium?

In the story, the element Helium was the research specialisation of Raj’s professor at IIT- Delhi. This ‘cosmic’ element has peculiar and very fascinating properties. For instance, Helium does not ‘burn’.

Why did you choose to tell the story of the Sikh pogrom from a Hindu point of view?

November 1984 was a huge crime against humanity. I was curious about the second-generation: the children of perpetrators, organisers, and facilitators of the crimes. Raj, the narrator, faces a huge predicament. His father, a senior IPS officer, facilitated the violence. The police, as you know, were under the direct control of the central government. Under the watchful eyes of the cops, a mob directed by senior Congress party leaders burnt alive Raj’s beloved IIT professor.

Later the traumatised Raj asks a question that might be of some significance to the younger generation: How do sons and daughters deal with the crimes of their fathers? Raj is unable to move forward until he has processed this. Ultimately, he decides to acknowledge his father’s crime. He no longer hides or distorts it, but he is no longer silent about it.

Your journey as a chemist to writing about the pogrom…

I wrote my first story, ‘Arjun’, in 2000. I was in San Francisco to attend a conference on Materials Science but ended up skipping most sessions. In my hotel room I started and finished the first draft in 14 hours. ‘Arjun’ is from the point of view of a Sikh boy who is travelling with his mother and grandfather on the day of Indira Gandhi’s assassination.

My original plan was to allow this story to grow into a novel. But I was still processing the traumatic events of 1984. Also, whenever I picked up the story, I felt a narrative crisis. Most known models — including my favourite writer of Partition stories, Manto — seemed inadequate to narrate November 1984. I had to figure out a new way to write. This book, among other things, was a resolution of my creative crisis.

Any parallels between Raj and you?

Helium is Raj’s story. Not mine. It is through Raj we hear about Nelly; he tells her story periscopically. Helium is informed by survivor and relief worker testimonials and is based on oral histories and private archives. The hybrid form allowed me to pose questions like: ‘What happened?’ and ‘What could have happened?’ It also allowed me to create distance. Despite all this it was not easy to write. I often tried to abandon the project.

The book is also about Nelly’s haunting testimonial on the pogrom. Comment.

Nelly is a significant part of Helium. She is our narrator’s link to the targeted collective. In Shimla, Nelly clandestinely assembles an archive of November 1984, files and boxes containing concentrated pain and evidence. Later she sets up an oral history institute in Delhi. But the world around her is not interested, and continues to treat Nelly as a ‘contaminated object’.

How does the absolute denial of justice to the Sikhs seem to you?

One of the most significant books to examine the judiciary’s sinister role after November 1984 was co-written by Manoj Mitta and H. S. Phoolka: When a Tree Shook Delhi. Supreme Court lawyer H.S. Phoolka worked tirelessly for the last 29 years for justice for the victims. Two chapters detail the manner in which Justice Ranganath Misra, a sitting Supreme Court judge, conducted his investigation. How he “exonerated H.K.L Bhagat and Rajiv Gandhi” and the rewards he received from the Congress Party. I strongly recommend this book to those trying to comprehend ‘1984 and after 1984’.

Do you view penance as a way of healing the wounds of 1984?

I do pose questions about resolution, but I don’t propose answers. Also, I have stayed away from ideas connected to religious penance. Raj has a unique way to do his work of mourning.

He is compelled to see Nelly after a gap of 25 years and compelled to tell, as objectively as possible, Nelly’s story. He is finally able to confront his father. The notes he has gathered will help him write a book about 1984; at the very least the book will keep the memory alive. But, his next stop is The Hague: The UN International Criminal Court.

Any writers who have influenced your work?

Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table is a fine way for a chemist to organise memories. The book has 21 chapters, each titled after a chemical element: Argon, Hydrogen, Potassium, Sulphur, Nitrogen, Gold… He sees strange parallels between humans and the properties of these atoms. Helium is also a homage to another favourite writer of mine: W.G. Sebald. Both were engaged with the subject of genocidal violence and other calamities. These two are my literary fathers, so to speak.

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