A haunting story of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots told from the point of view of a perpetrator’s son.
In Jaspreet Singh’s haunting tale Helium, Raj sees his professor from IIT-Delhi being burnt alive in 1984. Twenty five years later, Raj travels from the U.S. to confront his father who was a senior IPS officer during the anti-Sikh pogrom. He searches and meets Nelly Kaur, the professor’s wife, who is secretly putting together an archive of 1984 in Shimla.
Raj is a professor of Rheology, which is the study of the flow of matter. The first part of the novel is his interior monologue in a language informed by his trade. In free flow flashbacks, he moves to the period before the pogrom, to his tender relationship with his professor, to his helplessness at the killing, to his willingness to acknowledge his father’s role, to his struggle to confront the father, to his angst at his split from his wife and being disallowed from meeting his daughters. The narrative veers towards stream of consciousness but is propelled by his sense of purpose: to meet Nelly.
The novel comes alive when Raj travels to Shimla. Jaspreet allows Nelly to take over the story, to tell her tale as a woman witness to the pogrom. In this discourse on riots, the author centre-stages those who are seldom given voice when histories are documented. The novel shows how, even though she is a victim, she has been repeatedly attacked and silenced. The author parallels India’s colonial past with how, in the last three decades, the history of our own violence has been misheard and denied. This story thus gives emotion and expands the periphery of the factual horror presented in the book When a Tree Shook Delhi where, among other travesties cited, the authors show how swiftly and stealthily truth was erased from government files and court houses.
Finally, Raj confronts his father. He takes him on a ride across Yamuna into Trilokpuri, one of the sites of the worst massacres. But the father feigns Alzheimer’s. It is a shame because the illness, bought from a doctor, discredits the genuine sufferers of the illness. The novel shows how the strategy of denial has been practiced to perfection by the powers that be. The plot has a few jump points in the links between this story and the events of Babri Masjid and Godhra but, given that such perpetuators are basically alike irrespective of their political affiliations, the storyline remains credible. The book uses photographs to echo the sentiments it evokes but that makes it look like a laboratory report, the subject of study being human consciousness.
The hope that the book evokes is that the next generation will acknowledge the previous generation’s culpability in the violence and will work to bridge hearts. The book moves and even upsets the reader but that is needed if we have to work towards a society that chooses not to bury its ugly past. As a fight for justice, if victims, arguments, and evidences are the three basis on which the law acts, then the book does a fine job of expanding the canvas of the narration of the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom. My hope is that the possibility of justice evoked in fiction comes true in reality.