Saturday, December 07, 2013

When a big tree falls, the earth shakes

By John Cheeran
Despite this being the age of social media, in the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections in 2014, it is quite expected that a few voices will bring back such far away things like the massacre of the Sikhs in 1984. 
Is the 1984 riots still an election issue? During the campaign for Delhi assembly elections did anyone raise it? People are hardly worried about justice, but are enthused by the prospect of a slash in their electricity bill. (By the way, it was Narendra Modi who reminded the Muslims in Gujarat that if you want justice, you will not have peace.) 
Now it is interesting that as a non-resident Indian Sikh, Jaspreet Singh is very much interested in the riots of 1984. He was in Delhi when the riots followed in the wake of prime minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination by her Sikh security guards on October 31, 1984. 
Singh, finally, has written his 1984 novel. Helium (published by Bloomsbury, 290 pages, Rs 499) is a guilt-ridden account of the 1984 riots by a Hindu academic (an IITian) based at Cornell, of how the events left a trail in his life. But it is largely left unexplained why it has taken the narrator 25 years to look back and find out his top cop father’s role (read complicity) in the unspeakable events during the “three or four days in the past that ruptured his relationship” with him, and another five years to put together this periodic table of betrayal, complicity and guilt. 
There is much drama that Singh works into Helium. But even without such stuff, (for eg, the narrator’s affair with his professor’s wife, a serene Sikh beauty, that is,) the unspeakable horror that followed when the big tree fell should have been enough to hook a reader on.
Jaspreet Singh, however, raises a pertinent question – “Why don’t you Sikhs forget what happened a long time ago?” This is a question the majority tend to ask these days, especially the social media crowd, for whom 1984 and 2002 are mere milestones while they are busy moving on to greater things, such as giving Narendra Modi the prime ministership of India. 
And Jaspreet’s reply too is important – “For the same reason we Indians don’t forget British colonialism, the Amritsar massacre or Mahatma Gandhi’s Dandi march. We don’t even forget mythological events like Diwali and Dusshera. And you want me to forget something that happened as recently as in 1984? Did you do something wrong then? Is that why you want us to forget?”
In a telling line, Singh writes “Ordinary citizens were mere bystanders; they watched the pogroms the way one watches the Republic Parade or a cricket match.” 
Sadly, justice has been denied to the survivors of the 1984 riots. Much the same can be said about the survivors of 2002 riots in Gujarat. Who will you blame but the political system? Or yourself? Is having a Sikh as prime minister (two terms) enough atonement? Will voting Modi into the PM’s seat be lacerating penance for 2002 riots? Or for the puppy that was caught on the wheels of the chief minister’s car?
As a work of fiction, Helium fails to make the cut, despite its roots in history. Singh’s digressive, pastiche style is ambitious but fails to hold together. Sample this: “During the PhD oral examination, for some unknown reason, my mind drifted to my own student days, and I could not help thinking, amid a jumble of stray thoughts, about the most harrowing event I ever witnessed.” Such unknown reasons bring Helium down and make it colourless.  
The anger is understandable but Helium rises to absurd levels when Singh writes: “Then it dawned on me: the Congress Party had conducted its first major genocidal pogrom exactly ninety-nine years after it was formed, and exactly one hundred years after it was conceived in the hill station of Shimla.” 
And statements such as “Operation Blue Star was the biggest disgrace in the recent history of our country” remains a partisan sentiment.
But it is disturbing that there have been few meaningful works of fiction based on the riots in 1984 and 2002. Our inability to imagine the violence, the horror and the hardship of those trying times exposes us to the charge of co-conspirators.

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