Jaspreet Singh’s new novel, which revisits the pogrom of 1984, is a confluence of literature and science.
Rs. 499, PP292
That the pogrom against Sikhs in the winter of 1984 needs to be talked about over and over, that it is a memory that many will never be able to erase — is the impetus behind the story that Jaspreet Singh tells in his new novel Helium. An unlikely title but then helium is the subject of study of the protagonist’s favourite Professor Singh who dies soundlessly at the railway station on November 1, a burning tyre round his neck, incinerated by rampaging mobs with a state license to kill. And helium is the colourless, odourless, tasteless, invisible gas that is constantly escaping the gravity of the earth.
The protagonist himself, Dr Raj Kumar, specialises in rheology, the science of deformation and flow of ‘complex materials’, the ones with memory. “Water, for instance,” he says in the novel, “doesn’t have memory, but blood remembers its past. Volcanic lava flows and clays, too carry within them some deep traces of unresolved past.” In fact, the novel is a confluence of literature and science, which works sometimes but not always. And when it does not work, complex scientific information, as also an assortment of other details, seem to march off on their own, parading and preening. In fact, there is often a divergence, and one might almost call it indulgence, into the arcane. And many times it does not add up. Why, for instance, should it matter that the Simla Agreement was signed on Kafka’s birthday or that Raj cannot forget a Congress politician’s monstrous face like he cannot forget Einstein’s face. There is also Goebbels’ birthday and Leonard Cohen’s voice.
It is memories that Raj is piecing together with the meticulous application of a scientist but with the unhurried pace of a romantic poet. His quest takes him to Nelly, the dead professor’s wife. Her story is inextricably tied up with his own denial and guilt. Curled up somewhere deep in his recesses is the discomfiting, unacknowledged sense of an ugly truth about his own father, a much-decorated police officer, who perhaps earned his medals by looking the other way when violence erupted. Events, past and present, fuse into each other in a surreal world, quite like the flows that the protagonist is studying.
The author has chosen to tell the tale with an abstractedness that keeps the narrative levitating a few inches off the ground so that the blood and violence never become real. But the agony does. However, abstraction too needs sinew, it needs muscle. It needs the power of words, the brilliance of metaphor to sustain it. And that is missing in the novel. Language is a let down as it labours through events and the spaces in between, stumbling at the awkward turn of phrase or analogy (‘wrinkles that are like minor mountains’, ‘lost his balance and recovered the way mediocre singers do’). Reading it becomes a struggle towards lighting upon those occasional moments of richness when the writer, making observations on continental drift, says, “What holds things together is more important than what separates them”. Or how “Every summer they (the Sahibs) came to ‘Simla’ to ‘forget India’, but India always tagged along, showing its dirty feet”.
There is also the problem of point of view, which is that of a Hindu who, burdened by the dark deeds of his father, is discovering the greatness of Sikhism. However, one can see that the author is only using this switch of identity to give legitimacy to an uncritical and aggrieved discourse on the place of the Sikhs in the Indian polity. And tellingly then, whilst he pulls into his canvas a range of issues — the Gujarat pogrom of 2002, the demolition of Babri Masjid, the Union Carbide tragedy, the oppression of Dalits, the exile of MF Husain — there is no mention of the Hindus who were pulled out of buses and killed during the period of insurgency in Punjab.
The novel makes a grand promise but is more about a personal catharsis.
Neel Kamal Puri is the author of The Patiala Quartet and Remember to Forget