To Read About Massacres
On 31 October 1984, Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards. By that evening, riots were happening throughout Delhi. By the next day the unrest spread all over India.
The target of the unrest was India’s Sikh community. And when it all ended, up to 17,000 Sikhs were dead and over 50,000 displaced.
The events aren’t exactly hidden, but they also don’t receive the attention that 17,000 dead over four days should receive. Situations with a lower body count have been labeled acts of genocide by the UN, but the four days in 1984 are still officially referred to merely as “anti-Sikh riots”.
It is under this backdrop that Helium, by Jaspreet Singh, takes place.
Interspersed with photos of the violence, Helium uses chemistry analogies to describe human nature. Although the story centers on an Indian-American scientist named Raj and his search for the truth of what happened and what his family’s culpability was, it is also a striking introduction to the history of an event that does not have the international recognition it should.
In many cases, good historical fiction can give readers a better introduction to historical events than the dry scholarly books that send forth endless dates and names like soldiers marching relentlessly toward the trenches. Helium definitely fits in this mold. The horrified eyes of a student watching a beloved teacher necklaced on a train platform, the subsequent guilt resulting from not intervening and the soul-searching of past interactions with Sikh peers.
And, overarching all, coming to terms with the complicity of family and the struggle of deciding just how responsible the son is for the sins of the father.
There is so much more to the story than reducing it to the overarching themes, but those themes provide a look into society that is both uncomfortable and overdue.
- August 21, 2020