Helium by Jaspreet Singh

I doubt this book would have crossed my path, had it not been sent to me by The Guardian in recognition for an extract quoted from my review of Caroline Smaile’s The Drowning of Arthur Braxton, one of my outstanding reads of 2013.

Helium2However, I am glad that it did, as it is an example of important fiction that crosses between cultures and provides us with insights into other worlds and perspectives, lessening our ignorance of events which often account for the unspoken attitudes and undercurrents present in countries that visitors, travellers and outsiders rarely gain access to. We are seeing more novels written in English from immigrants written from outside their country, alluding often to tragic events that have happened in their home country; for many, the reason they have fled.

Last year one of my favourite reads was one such book, Vaddey Ratner’s In the Shadow of the Banyan, based on a true story of the survival of seven-year-old girl of royal descent under a despotic regime in Cambodia and fictionalised as a tribute to those who were lost, in particular her own father. It is a stunning portrayal seen through the eyes of a child with both a chilling and hopeful view of humanity.

Indira Gandhi

Indira Gandhi

Helium centres around one man, Raj, a scientist who was an only child; we learn he left India 25 years before and will discover the reason why, along with his continuous fascination for science, the periodic table and memories. One memory in particular influences his journey and decisions, the attack of his college professor, a Sikh, who along with thousands of others in 1984 are targeted and killed in revenge for the assassination of the Prime Minister Indira Gandhi (daughter of India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru), in what was believed to be a government assisted genocide.

“How wrong Professor Singh was that day on the train when he said that the three most important questions for us concerned the origin of the universe, the origin of life and the origin of the mind. He forgot to add other questions or shall I say he forgot to ask the three really significant ones: Why do people respond differently to traumatic events? How do we remember the past? Why when ‘meaning’ collapses in our lives, do some of us seem to locate a new ‘meaning’?”

Rashtrapati Niwas, built 1888  Source: Wikipedia

Rashtrapati Niwas, built 1888
Source: Wikipedia

Raj, who faces his own challenges as a husband and father back in the United States, returns to India and unable to face his father, whom he suspects of being involved in those events, looks for the wife and children of his Professor and finds her working in an archive at Rashtrapati Niwas, formerly the Viceregal Lodge in Shimla, Himachal Pradesh.

“Clara has her romantic ideas of India and she clings to those ideas and I am a personification of those ideas. I am not allowed to narrate the dark side of that romance – how ugly the collective consciousness of a nation can be.”

Singh references Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table, a novel of science and memory and a man who survived persecution in the concentration camps of WWII and who wrote that outstanding, compassionate masterpiece If This Is A Man: The Truce which I was fortunate to read last year. And the black and white photos throughout the text are a sure reference to W.G.Sebald, another author he admires and relates to. They have the effect of making the reader almost forget that this is a work of fiction, and are a more than subtle reminder that the background events certainly did.

Jaspreet Singh’s character Raj is conflicted, being neither victim nor perpetrator of any crime, except perhaps ignorance, he reads Levi but can’t embrace his humanity or gift for forgiveness. He is angry, as much with himself as anyone else, and must live with the knowledge and acceptance of his role as bystander.

It is a novel that addresses the attempt to escape the past through distance, both physical and cultural and is a reminder that even as many as 25 years will not keep the past from affecting the present when confronted with people, places, books and reminders of that past, that without facing up to our inner demons, they will likely continue to possess and haunt us.

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10 thoughts on “Helium by Jaspreet Singh

  1. Each person a story. Many I interact with at work are immigrants and or refugees. The department next to me deals with new Americans. Each time I speak with one, I can’t help but wonder about their lives prior to coming to the US – and even here, because it isn’t easy to settle in and be accepted.

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  2. Very interesting review – Helium sounds like one of those novels that helps us understand the world far better than many weighty non-fiction works. Have you read Abdulrazak Gurnah’s By the Sea? He captures the loneliness and dislocation of what it feels like to live in a country not your own despite the horrors his narrator has fled.

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    • I don’t know that work, thanks for mentioning it. I think this work actually provokes the reader to find out more and deals less with the events themselves than the complicity of where in relation to events one sits. In Raj’s case, that somewhere comfortable caused him great discomfort, though nothing compared to what a true victims suffered.

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  3. Beautiful review, Claire! The massacre of 1984 is one of the tragic events in recent Indian history and the way successive governments haven’t done much to bring the perpetrators to justice is really sad. It is really wonderful that ‘Helium’ is about this important and sad historical event. I loved that passage you have quoted about Raj’s wife Clara. I think that is very true and I think it applies to any country – visitors to a country always have a romantic notion of it. I also liked very much what Professor Singh said and what the narrator thought about. It made me think of the first lines from Albert Camus’ ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’“Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest – whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories – comes afterwards.” I remembered Primo Levi’s book when I read your review and it was nice to know that the author was inspired by that when he wrote ‘Helium’. Thanks for this wonderful review, Claire. I liked it very much. I will keep an eye for this book.

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    • Thanks for sharing that quote from Albert Camus Vishy, and so appropriate, this year being the 100th anniversary of his birth.

      Yes, there is a universality about Clara’s romantic notion and Jaspreet Singh references the protagonists view in the epigram at the front of the book with this quote from W.G.Sebald.

      “How I wished during those sleepless hours that I belonged to a different nation, or, better still, to none at all.”

      However, the opposite can equally be true, that perhaps we all possess a need to see our own country through rose tinted glasses when portraying it to potential visitors and that to criticise it is preferable from within, no one likes to hear criticism from the outside.

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      • Thanks for sharing that W.G.Sebald quote, Claire. Very thought provoking. I also loved what you said about the need to see our own country through rose tinted glasses and also criticising it from within. Very beautifully put and very true.

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