1984 through Indian Eyes:
Literary Accounts of Operation Blue Star and the Anti-Sikh Pogroms
By Lori Way
Part V – Helium by Jaspreet Singh
In commemoration of the 30th anniversary of Operation Bluestar in Amritsar, India, in June, 1984, and the anti-Sikh pogroms that took place the following November in New Delhi, Lori Way continues her series of essays discussing works of literature focusing upon these events. You can see her entire series here.
A senior Congress leader, his Nehru-Gandhi khadi clothes fluttering in the wind, is standing close to the station master’s office on the platform, guiding the mob like the conductor of a big orchestra. Khatam kar do sab sardaron ko. Khatam kar do saanp kay bacchon ko. Finish them, children of snakes. Destroy them all. — Jaspreet Singh, pages 30-31 from Helium
The modern age offers almost unlimited media sources, making it possible for individuals to connect easily with people from around the world. Information about the global Sikh community is also readily available, and blogs such as American Turban help to spread the news of events that matter to Sikhs worldwide. Yet we must remember that no such technology existed for Sikhs hoping to share information about what was going on around them during 1984. Author Jaspreet Singh writes in his 2013 novel, Helium, that this was “the time before YouTube and Facebook and fearless bloggers, we didn’t know what was really going on, media was state-controlled, people turned on short-wave BBC to find out what really happened or what was happening in the country” (34). Thus much of what we know about the attack on the Golden Temple and the anti-Sikh pogroms comes from those who lived through that time in India and are willing to share their stories.
Jaspreet Singh has made his home in Canada since 1990, but he was in Delhi during 1984 when, as he states, “they burned books and humans simultaneously” (Singh, “Carbon”). His second novel, Helium, is the story of Raj Kumar, a man who had witnessed the “necklacing” execution of his Sikh professor and mentor at a train station in Delhi during the anti-Sikh pogroms:
It was sickening, you had to see the horror to believe the horror and it was so unreal I almost didn’t believe my sense organs. But the fire and the smoke were so absolutely real, different from the way they are done in the movies. During the combustion I could not use my knowledge of chemistry and physics to extinguish the flames. How fast they engulfed his entire body. I could do nothing. (Singh, Helium 31-32)
Years later, after establishing himself as a professor of rheology (the flow of matter) at Cornell University, Raj returns to India during a sabbatical to see his father. He also feels the need to find Nelly, the widow of his former mentor. Even though he had been close to her while he was a student, Raj is unaware of the full extent of what she went through as a result of the pogroms. Nelly had worked as an archivist, and she carefully hid documentation of 1984’s violence before it could be destroyed. It is in Nelly’s hidden files that Raj finds evidence of a massive cover-up, and learns that his own father, a high-ranking police officer, had played a role in the events.
The graphic violence in the book parallels Singh’s discussion of the time period in his 2013 essay, “Carbon.” He writes that
In November 1984, politicians of India’s ruling party directed mobs to burn alive as many Sikh citizens as possible. Members of Parliament and Cabinet Ministers distributed kerosene oil and white phosphorous. Witness testimonials talk about the innovative use of rubber tyres to simultaneously trap the target, create thick clouds of toxins and facilitate combustion. (Singh, “Carbon”)
Singh also comments on the omission of information within the Indian Congress’ “official” history of the era, published in 2012. Singh counted a mere 400 words related to November 1984 in their publication, and a listing of only four Congress leaders who were “suspected” of collusion with rioters: “While libraries all over the world are filled with books and documents that detail not just the crimes but also the precise mechanisms behind them, for India’s Congress party, to this day, the names of the guilty exist only within the realm of suspicion” (Singh, “Carbon”). Singh’s characters in Helium attempt to right some of these wrongs, however, as they reveal the truth about the anti-Sikh pogroms and confront some of the perpetrators.
Helium is an intelligent, well-researched novel that delves into many different scholarly disciplines. The narrator’s academic background in rheology (as well as the author’s own doctoral-level work in chemical engineering) comes through over and over again as he uses scientific metaphors to describe his experiences. The novel also expresses an appreciation for art and literature, and is punctuated with moments of eroticism similar to those found in Khushwant Singh’s Delhi: A Novel (see my review here). Yet these interludes do not overshadow the dominant theme of condemning anti-Sikh violence. In addition to its detailed and thoughtful discussions of 1984’s history, Helium also revisits events such as the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh massacre, 1947’s India-Pakistan partition, and the 2002 violence in Gujarat. Jaspreet Singh’s novel urges readers to reflect upon India’s true history, seeking the same factual clarity that Raj expects from scientific data.
Although Helium is a work of fiction, it sends a real and pertinent message that India cannot build a strong foundation for the future without making peace with its past. Protagonist Raj Kumar says that “Reconciliation is impossible without justice” (Singh, Helium 242), and the first step down that road is to share accurate information about what really happened during this time. The 30th anniversary of 1984’s violence has placed more media attention upon investigations of the events, including an inquiry at the request of British Prime Minister David Cameron regarding his own country’s possible involvement (see the BBC article here), and the first-ever U.S. Congressional briefing on the anti-Sikh pogroms on September 30.
Manmeet Singh, a filmmaker with Sach Productions, mentioned in the briefing that Indian media was still highly controlled and “it’s all for sale” (qtd. in The Sikh Coalition; watch the video here). Authors like Jaspreet Singh should be commended for providing the world with a view of 1984’s events which remains defiantly independent.
Majumder, Sanjoy. “UK Advised India before Temple Raid.” BBC News. British Broadcasting Company, 7 June 2014. Web. 18 Oct. 2014. <http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-26027631>.
The Sikh Coalition. “Congressional Briefing on the 1984 Anti-Sikh Pogroms in India.” YouTube. 2 Oct. 2014. Web. 9 Oct. 2014. <http://youtu.be/Q11VTQTouDw?list=UUfsX4tfLvcIe5EPGIo9Jsig>.
Singh, Jaspreet. “Carbon.” OPEN Magazine. N.p., 9 Nov. 2013. Web. 18 Oct. 2014. <http://www.openthemagazine.com/article/arts-letters/carbon>.
—. Helium: A Novel. New York: Bloomsbury USA, 2013. Print.