Helium is a haunted novel. Virtually every page in this masterful tale by Toronto’s Jaspreet Singh (Chef) features a visitation from the dead or a trip to an otherworldly past. Literary figures as far apart politically as Rudyard Kipling and Primo Levi jostle for space with politicians and researchers from two centuries of Indian and British colonial history. Even the living seem to be dead on the inside, mere shadows of their formerly happy selves.
Raj, a Cornell University professor of rheology (the study of how materials flow), guides us through this world of the living dead and dead living. Returning to India in 2009, the weight of his memories overtakes him. The central traumatic event in his life – and in the history of modern India – is the Hindu massacre of Sikhs following the 1984 assassination of Indira Ghandi, during which Raj’s mentor at the India Institute of Technology was burned alive in front of his students. What begins as Raj’s quest to trace his former mentor’s wife, Nelly, with whom he was once infatuated, ends in a literary cocktail of rage, sorrow, and postmodern formal games.
In prose at once leisurely and purposeful, Singh directs Helium’s anger at past injustices and India’s continuing failure to acknowledge them. No one is let off the hook: “Sikh men chose silence, Hindu men chose complete denial,” one character says in an attempt to explain away incidences of rape during the Sikh “pogroms.” (This is Singh’s word; his novel makes moral and cultural comparisons between events in India and the Holocaust.) In reconstructing Nelly’s life during the 25 years following her husband’s murder, Helium forces readers to contemplate how an individual (and, by extension, millions of others) is able to live with the aftermath of tragedy.
That a book can pack such a powerful emotional punch while simultaenously indulging in colonial curiosities and scientific ruminations is a testament to the writer’s deftness and to the infinite source of narrative spells that is India.