New Yorker critic James Wood once said of the writer Geoff Dyer: “He combines fiction, autobiography, travel writing, cultural criticism, literary theory, and a kind of comic English whining.” Take away the comic English whining and add a touch of genocide circa India 1984 and you have an idea of the tour de force that is Helium. It’s not an easy book to classify, and that’s a good thing.
Some books are a roller-coaster ride; the novel Helium is more a flickering hall of mirrors. After decades away, the novel’s narrator makes an exile’s trip back to a shining new India to see his ailing father (who may be faking) and to revisit his much altered homeland. In the years abroad, he has travelled the globe, to Mexico, Montreal, the United States, and Iceland, but his troubled heart is fixed on India circa 1984. That year, during a pogrom against Sikhs, the narrator’s beloved engineering professor was killed at the New Delhi train station; a mob doused him with gasoline and set him alight in front of his horrified students.
The novel argues that such acts of violence were not spontaneous, not simply bloody revenge for the killing of Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards; the novel states that the killers were actively encouraged and orchestrated by well-known government officials and condoned by the police and authorities who, over a course of days, allowed mobs to maim and kill (blood for blood, the murderers cried).
The narrator, now a professor himself, is critical of the old British colonial regime in India and its crumbling remnants (“architecture as crime”), but he is even more vitriolic toward the new booming India and its post-colonial denial of old sins while new money flows to a lucky few.
“Our national genius, to make the poor defecate on the roadside,” a character complains over drinks. “Six hundred million don’t have proper toilets.” The same character complains that Mahatma Gandhi is held up as a loin-clothed poster boy for India’s image of peace and spirituality, nicely masking the massive violence and class conflict in India’s past and present.
“How ugly the collective consciousness of a nation can be,” the narrator thinks to himself, but does not say to his ex-wife, a translator who finds India “romantic.”
The narrator deems Indira Gandhi a hideous monster (the plane lands at the airport named after her) and Delhi is described as a wounded city, guilty of collective amnesia. Modern university buildings themselves are complicit, designed by “an architect who had erased the past” echoing the narrator’s disconnection from family and loved ones. The city is wounded and he has been wounded; psychological and historical are tied up, parents and leaders and family and nation are all connected.
Our narrator, retracing a path home, is also on another quest, to the mountains of Shimla, in search of Nelly, his mentor’s wife who, vanished after his brutal death (the narrator was infatuated with her decades before). Yet another search hangs on whether his father, a high-profile police officer, was involved in the murderous pogroms that have so affected the son and Nelly. There is no easy ending; it is doubtful that father and son can be truly reconciled, but as the narrator says of the tectonics and geology of the Himalayas, “What holds things together is more important than what separates them.”
Jaspreet Singh’s writing always has an astute scientific side: Our narrator’s area of study is rheology, the study of flow, whether volcanic lava or money or memory or blood. In the years after the killing of his professor, the student attempts to estimate the speed with which fire engulfs the average human body, but cannot finish the calculations.
Helium is loaded with science, but it is also a very literary book. Primo Levi’s work on the death camps haunts these pages and small black-and-white photos are interspersed à la W.G. Sebald; there are mentions of Roberto Bolano, Vladimir Nabokov, George Orwell and the strange Russian film Stalker. The blur of genres reminds me of Michael Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter, and Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard seems a melancholy influence on the compelling voice.
Helium is not a laugh riot, it’s an angry accomplished work, and will be a controversial book in India, which should give it legs (I believe India has slightly more readers than Canada).
Decades after the pogroms, there are no memorials and no one has been punished; indeed, as on Wall Street, the guilty seem to be rewarded. Many want to move on and forget, but for the troubled narrator, the trauma and memory won’t go away. “The past had come like bitter drops of helium, but he didn’t know how to handle it; this helium was neither inert, nor invisible, nor light, and refused to disappear.”
Silence around killings can be complicity. This is a noisy novel about silence.
Mark Anthony Jarman is the author of 19 Knives, Ireland’s Eye, My White Planet, and others; he teaches at the University of New Brunswick and is a fiction editor at The Fiddlehead.