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Author Jaspreet Singh on his new novel based on the anti-Sikh riots of 1984,and the politics of remembering.

Written by Paromita Chakrabarti | New Delhi | Published: November 24, 2013 3:59:49 am

Author Jaspreet Singh on his new novel based on the anti-Sikh riots of 1984,and the politics of remembering.

Jaspreet Singh remembers 1984 as the year he grew up. His father was an officer in the Indian Armed Forces and the family had shifted to Delhi only the year before. October was nearly over,winter was just about to set in,when Indira Gandhi,the then prime minister,was shot dead by her Sikh bodyguards.

The weather changed more swiftly than 15-year-old Singh could imagine,the city wealing up in ugly scars. Tucked away in a government housing complex in south Delhi,the family waited uneasily for calm. Then one day,a mob passed by their block,attacking Sikhs on the street. Singh and his family took refuge in a Hindu neighbour’s house. “The few hours we were in their house fill an enormous space in my mind. I have 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 air. For years,I have tried hard to forget those moments,” says Singh,now 44,a chemical engineer-turned author,whose second novel,Helium (Bloomsbury),is an account of the traumatic aftermath of the anti-Sikh riots of ’84 and its impact on a family.

“Memories have an elastoplastic quality of their own,” he writes in Helium. In the intervening years,even after he moved out of the country to Canada in the ’90s,Singh began to realise that forgetting was a double-edged sword; that,as Milan Kundera had noted in his novel,The Book of Laughter and Forgetting,“The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” In India,over the next 30 years,not a single memorial would be erected in memory of the nearly 8,000 people who lost their lives in those brutal four days when the state government was said to have actively colluded in the massacre. “What we are really talking about here is complicated grief and collective trauma. Unfinished mourning. Not just memory,but also postmemory. Transmission of trauma. It is never easy,” says Singh in an email interview.

Helium follows Raj,a professor of rheology (the study of the flow of matter) at Cornell University,who,as a student in Delhi’s IIT,witnessed the murder of his favourite Sikh professor by a mob in 1984. Years later,he returns to India to stitch together the story of how the pogroms destroyed the professor’s young family — his wife Nelly,his son Arjun and daughter Indira as it did the lives of countless others. “The past had come like bitter drops of helium…; this helium was neither inert,nor invisible,nor light,and refused to disappear,” says in the novel.

It was a book that had been biding its time. “I have been processing the events of November 1984 for the last 29 years. Several times,I tried to repress the memories,each attempt a failure…,” he says. In 2008,after finishing his first novel,Chef,Singh was in India for a series of conversations with HIV-positive orphans. “When the children found out that I was a writer,they demanded stories. What kind? Ghost stories… This was truly heartbreaking. Every afternoon after sharing those with children,I would step out for long walks through the city,and it was then that the real ghosts of 1984 started to return. By a photocopier shop in Munirka,by a car mechanic’s shop near Jawaharlal Nehru University. As I was processing those Delhi experiences,walking with the ghosts,I started writing Helium,” he says.

It’s an angry,disturbing,and often distressing narrative on the politics of memory,and is informed by survivor and relief work testimonials,oral history,private archives and his experiences. Singh writes of leaders who incited the mob,and went on to become Union ministers,of a prime minister who claimed,“when a big tree falls,the earth shakes” and of people who lost everything. Peppered through the narrative are photographs and diary entries,scientific diagrams and analogies,making it difficult to classify it as fiction. “Helium is really rough-and-ready notes for a book that belongs to the ambiguous,interstitial zone between history and traumatic memory. Between sound and silence,text and image,and the ‘objective’ and the ‘intimate’. Paradoxically,this… allowed me better access to the pogroms of November 1984 and the years that followed. It allowed me to reveal the traces of the horrific. To try to do it otherwise — say as in a human rights report — is a paralysing affair,and affects our capacity as human beings to engage fully with the crime of crimes,” he says.

To avoid that crisis,Singh took recourse to literary artifice in structuring the book. “I found most known literary models,including my favourite writer of Partition stories,(Saadat Hasan) Manto,inadequate to narrate November 1984. To represent ’84,and to work through the tragedy,I had to figure out a new way to write. Helium,among other things,was a resolution of my creative crisis. The narrator belongs to an ‘objective’ discipline (rheology) that relies heavily on evidence provided by mathematics,measurements and visualisations. The book begins with a Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM) image of a volcanic ash particle. But really,this is the beginning of intimate encounters with the living and the dead,and his long overdue work of mourning. In a way,the book grew out of that SEM image of an ash particle,” he says.

Helium traverses a wide literary and cultural arc of writers and artists who have worked on the impulses of forgetting and remembering — from Primo Levi to WG Sebald to Amrita Sher-Gil to Roberto Bolaño. Inspiration also came from sources as unlikely as Vladimir Nabokov and outdoor artist Nek Chand,who created Chandigarh’s rock garden “using innumerable shards of the past.” Part of this intermingling can be ascribed to his scientific training and part to his admiration for writers like Sebald. “Levi’s The Periodic Table is a fine way for a chemist to organise memories. The book has 21 chapters,each titled after a chemical element…The narrator sees strange parallels between humans and the properties of these atoms. It is also a homage to another favourite writer of mine: WG Sebald. Memory,Sebald wrote,even if you repress it,will come back at you and it will shape your life. This is true both for an individual and the collective. Memory is also an essential part of imagination. Time and again,we are summoned to appointments,not with the future,but with the unresolved past,” he says.

Singh realised his own debt to imagination early in life. He worked as a research scientist at McGill University,Montreal,for two years before making a serious attempt to become a writer. “It was not a sudden transformation. Ever since I was six,I had a great desire to write,but I didn’t know how to go about it. The reason it took me a long time to make the decision is because I also enjoyed my research work. The creative processes within the sciences and the kind of writing I do are not very different; I feel they have a lot in common. And this book of mine,among other things,is really a coming together of disciplines,” he says.

Now he’s trying his hand at something simpler: a story for children,set in the land of snow and ice. “I grew up all over India — in Punjab,Kashmir,Delhi,Bangalore and Chandigarh. In 1976,we moved to Kashmir. Those years continue to cast a huge spell on me. Most of my stories are set in the mountains.”

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