Harrowing Novel of Genocide in the Wake of Indira Gandhi’s Execution

Jaspreet Singh’s novel Helium confronts memories of the 1984 pogroms against the Sikhs.

In November 1984, after Indira Gandhi’s assassination, politicians of India’s Congress party directed mobs to burn alive as many Sikhs as possible. Members of parliament and cabinet ministers distributed kerosene oil and white phosphorous. Witnesses talked about the use of rubber tyres to trap the target, create thick clouds of toxins and facilitate combustion.

I was a teenager in Delhi. A mob passed our block, attacking Sikhs on the street. We hid in a neighbour’s house. The few hours we were there fill a huge space in my mind. I’ve not been able to articulate those few hours, the burned remains of the books and buildings I saw later and the tiny particles of ash floating in the air. For years I tried hard to forget those moments.

Raj, the narrator of Helium, faces a huge predicament. His own father, a senior police officer, facilitated the violence in November 1984. The police were under direct control of the government. Under the watchful eyes of the cops, a mob directed by senior Congress party leaders burned alive Raj’s beloved professor. Later, Raj asks a question, which may be significant to younger generations in India: How do sons and daughters deal with the crimes of their fathers?

I wrote my first story, Arjun, in 2000. I had flown to San Francisco for a conference but skipped most of it and finished the first draft in 14 straight hours. Arjun is told from the point of view of a Sikh boy travelling with his mother and grandfather on the day of Indira Gandhi’s assassination.

My plan was to allow Arjun to grow into a novel but when I picked it up, I felt a narrative crisis. Most known models were inadequate to narrate November 1984. I had to figure out a new way to write. Helium was a resolution of a creative crisis.

In 2008, after finishing my first novel, I was invited to Delhi to work with HIV-positive orphans. They wanted ghost stories. After storytelling, I took long walks through the city and it was then the ghosts of 1984 returned. As I processed those Delhi experiences, walking with the ghosts, I started writing.

Helium has a hybrid form to better access the pogroms of November 1984 and the years that followed. It let me reveal traces of the horrific. To do it otherwise – as in a human rights’ report – is a paralysing affair and affects our capacity as humans to engage fully with the crime of crimes.

Helium’s hybrid form allowed me to pose questions such as: ‘What happened?’ and ‘What could have happened?’ It also allowed me to create distance. Despite all this, it was not easy to write. Helium involved a lot of research and is informed by survivor and relief-worker testimonials and is based on oral histories and private archives. These are stories of complicated grief and collective trauma. Unfinished mourning. Not just memory but post-memory and the transmission of trauma. It was not easy. Several times I tried to abandon the project.

Helium (Bloomsbury) is out now


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