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.

If This is a Man: The Truce by Primo Levi

I only had to read the first sentence of a Scotsman in Exile’s blog post of this book to put aside what I was reading and start this almost immediately; his review entitled And Over Our Heads The Hollow Seas Closed Up… continues its first line:

…These are words from the canto of Ulysses from Dante’s Inferno and they were quoted in the most moving book I’ve ever read, ‘If This Is a Man’ by Primo Levi.

I found a copy on the second-hand shelf of our local bookshop the very next day, a copy I now own that would have to be the most annotated, scribbled in, colour highlighted, dog-eared, pored over volume that I possess (thanks to the previous owner ZIMERI). When I was a student, we studied ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’; how fortunate that today’s students are reading and studying this equally important work.

I’m not sure if I so much as read the book as followed closely in the footsteps of Primo Levi as he recounted the events that unfolded during his journey and time in the concentration camp, due to the way he chooses to express himself, which can best be summarised in his own words:

I believe in reason and in discussion as supreme instruments of progress, and therefore I repress hatred even within myself: I prefer justice. Precisely for this reason, when describing the tragic world of Auschwitz, I have deliberately assumed the calm, sober language of the witness, neither the lamenting tones of the victim nor the irate voice of someone who seeks revenge. I thought that my account would be all the more credible and useful the more it appeared objective and the less it sounded overly emotional; only in this way does a witness in matters of justice perform his task, which is that of preparing the ground for the judge. The judges are my readers.

Thus we absorb only that which he personally experienced and perceive not just the daily routine, the trivial yet so essential implements of his survival, the relentless toil and the near brokenness, but we view also the different strata of man in that direst of circumstances, a kind of perverse hierarchy.

Primo Levi was a young man of 24 years, a chemist and part of a partisan band hoping to join the Resistance movement when captured by the Fascist militia and sent to a detention camp at Fossoli. A few weeks later, all Jews in the camp were told they would be leaving for an unknown destination, revealed to be the camps of Monowitz-Buna and Birkenau, part of Auschwitz.

650 people made the journey that day; on arrival, the majority were ‘swallowed by the night’ and 125 sent to the camps. Of those, only three made the return journey to Italy after liberation, Primo Levi being one of them.

He was fortunate to return and discover his family intact; we in turn are fortunate that he returned and wrote these two books to be read together, one the descent into darkness, the other the journey back towards an altered but real luminosity.

All I can really say is that if you haven’t read it, add it to your list and find the time one day to slow-read it, Primo Levi was an important chronicler of a difficult period in history and a man who was interested in and able to put into words his observations of humanity in all its capacity, something we all the better for knowing.