Feb 3, 2014


After the interview a shudder went through Trilokpuri, Kalyanpuri, Sultanpuri and Tilak Vihar’s Widow Colony:


Aug 11, 2013

HELIUM, 1984, pogroms: Thomas Bernhard in New Delhi

Thomas Bernhard, the great Austrian author, created several curious characters in his short play “The German Lunch Table.” An ordinary extended family sits down for a meal around a “natural oak” table, but somewhere down the line they find Nazis in the soup. Nazis in the soup. Nazi soup. The mother complains: When I open packages of noodles in the kitchen, I find Nazis inside the packages and they always enter the soup.
When I first read the play, I wondered if it could be adapted for Indian stage...

Jun 29, 2013


Novel revisits one of the darkest times in India's post-independence history, writes Bron Sibree

Jaspreet Singh's eagerly awaited second novel, Helium, is rather unusual, disturbingly beautiful and somewhat angry.

In some senses, it bears many of the hallmarks of Singh's lauded 2009 debut novel, Chef, which used a dying cook and the icy terrain of the Siachen glacier to examine the bloody India-Pakistan dispute over Kashmir. An emotionally distant narrator, haunting memories and a contested history - as well as an acknowledged debt to W.G Sebald - are all packaged inside a profoundly poetic novel that unfolds with the leisurely, meditative pace of a travelogue and the suggestive thrust of a thriller.

Like his debut novel, Helium is a relatively short 284 pages. But unlike the debut, Helium is so pointedly peppered with archival photographs and real-life names and utterances, along with the odd scientific image and artist's sketch, that it is palpably suggestive of a documentary, a non-fiction exposé.

It opens with its narrator, a professor of rheology (the study of the flow of matter) and a father of two who lives in Ithaca, New York, recalling his last sabbatical visit home to New Delhi to visit his father, who is recovering from serious surgery. He stopped over in Brussels on the way, to attend a rheology conference, and was stranded by the 2010 Eyjafjallajokull volcano eruption. The eeriness of the situation, coming after a rheology student presented a paper on the AD79 eruption of Vesuvius, sent him unwillingly into a mood of deep reflection on his life and his chosen field. "Everything in this world of ours flows. Even so-called solids flow. My own work focuses on the flow of 'complex materials', the ones with 'memory'."

Memory continues to drive the narrator when he lands in Delhi, just as it shapes and drives the novel, which is anchored both in the events of 2010 and in the more distant events of 1984. For what is tugging at our rheologist's consciousness, jostling for his attention among other memories from his life in Delhi and the very real happenings of 2010, is his memory of the time he witnessed the brutal murder of his former university professor.

The killing happened during the 1984 anti-Sikh riots that followed prime minister Indira Gandhi's assassination, an event the author calls a government-sponsored "pogrom" in which up to 7,000 Sikhs were killed. The narrator, whom we eventually learn is called Raj, was a 19-year-old Indian Institute of Technology student returning from a class trip, when he watched, paralysed, as a mob singled out his professor at a Delhi train station, threw a tyre over him, doused him in petrol and set him on fire.

Raj has a vivid recollection too, of witnessing a senior Congress party politician inciting the angry mob, urging them to kill every Sikh, in this bloody event. Often called India's holocaust, it remains a sore point in India today - several senior members of Gandhi's Congress Party were accused of inciting the violence, but were never convicted. The government launched the Nanavati inquiry into the riots in 2000, and it found one prominent senior Congress MP was "very probably" involved in organising the attacks. After the report was tabled in parliament in 2005, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh also apologised to the Sikh community, describing the 1984 riots as "one of the saddest, darkest moments in recent Indian history", but as recently as this year, individuals, still seeking justice 30 years later, cite ongoing cover-ups.

But the author is in no hurry to reveal the wider details and implications of that horrific event, which haunts the novel as surely and powerfully as it haunts its protagonist. Instead, Singh follows the unpredictable trajectory, the non-linear "flow" of memory itself, spilling backwards and forward in time in the manner of human consciousness, tantalising us with historical arcana and titbits as he unfurls his leisurely but purposeful narrative.

Raj recalls how, within minutes of meeting him, Mohan Singh became his mentor and friend, introducing him to his much younger wife Nelly - with whom our narrator remains slightly infatuated 25 years later - and to many potent, philosophical, scientific and literary ideas outside the professor's area of specialisation, which was helium, "He", the so called noble gas.

It was from the professor too that Raj first learned of Primo Levi, whose famous autobiographical stories were about his experiences of the holocaust. The periodic table, his mentor once explained, "connects the world of molecules to the world of humans".

He invokes the nature of helium and the words of Levi to help fathom the 1984 massacre, to make sense of what he calls "our periodic table of hate". His own driving impulse - one which he tries, unsuccessfully, to resist - is to explain humans and human memory in terms of atoms, molecules and elementary particles, and it's this that imbues this unusual novel with an eerie, almost sinister beauty. Unable to shake the memories of 1984, to make the past stay in the past, Raj finally, 25 years after his professor's death, gets on a train to Shimla to search for his widow, Nelly. He has discovered from one of his former ITT colleagues that she is rumoured to work there as an archivist. He finds her, armed with a lame apology and a handful of questions. What happened to her two children during the massacre? Did his father, a senior police officer, offer to give her a lift that fateful day at the Delhi train station?

He finds Nelly, "with the aura and grandeur of an ageing beauty", just where he thought she'd be, in a Shimla library, "the coldest library in the world". In the ballroom of the old Viceregal Lodge, which now houses the Institute of Advanced Studies, is a library, he notes, housed in "the space where the British Empire had danced when nine million Indians died of famine". Locked deep in sadness, Nelly's avid interest in the avian world, he discovers, is the only salve for her deep wounds. He no longer feels the sexual attraction for Nelly he once did, but meeting her forces him to confront his unacknowledged memories about 1984. Memories that have menaced his equilibrium and driven the narrative all along.

But as the novel picks up in pace and moves towards its shocking revelations and ultimate denouement, Raj, or rather Singh himself, cannot help but meander through the idiosyncratic colonial history of Shimla, deliver us a treatise on ornithology in India and its British civil servant founder, Allan Octavian Hume - also a co-founder of India's Congress party - and point out that every slope, every tree in the area "carries traces of colonialism".

His rambling ruminations on history and his frequent ironic asides on everything from Dyer-Meakin beer to Buna rubber add up to what is effectively an alternate chronicle of India's recent history. It moves from the time of Lord Curzon, Rudyard Kipling, the British Raj and Amritsar to that of Jawaharlal Nehru and Gandhi, then on to a different Gandhi, and Operation Blue Star, Trilokpuri, Hondh-Chillar, Bhopal and Delhi's enduring reputation as an unsafe place for women. There are cryptic historical clues to a different but parallel narrative to the one in plain sight - an inquiry into the 1984 Sikh massacre and the nature of memory and forgetting.

It's an oddly haunting, somewhat mysterious novel with something of the free-flowing consistency of "hyper-beautiful helium-4". A novel that doesn't shy away from delivering a savage indictment of the Congress party or the suggestion that Shining India, as one of its characters says, "works for a small minority".


This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as Memories of a massacre
Sunday, 09 June, 2013


Jun 3, 2013

ORIGIN OF MOUNTAINS (16 translations)


Once upon a time elephants were able to fly. Completely white and delightful, the flying creatures also destroyed a lot of objects, houses, and trees. One day a fatigued elephant perched on a big tree. The tree fell. On several children. So, with a single thunderbolt, the gods cut off its wings... Collective punishment...What we see as mountains now are really those elephants without wings, and the ever-thickening clouds hovering about the upper slopes are really the detached wings. Together, the clouds and the mountains mourn their loss, and what comes down is rain.

(Excerpted from HELIUM by Jaspreet Singh, 2013, Bloomsbury, Page 161) 


Det fanns en tid då elefanter kunde flyga. Helt vita och bedårande vållade dessa flygande varelser också svåra skador på många saker såsom hus och träd. En dag landade en utmattad elefant högst uppe i ett stort träd. Trädet föll. På flera barn. Så med ett enda åsknedslag klippte gudarna av vingarna … Kollektiv bestraffning … Vad vi nu ser som berg är egentligen dessa vinglösa elefanter, och de allt tjockare molnen som hopar sig runt de högst belägna sluttningarna är deras spridda vingar. Tillsammans sörjer molnen och bergen sin förlust och det som faller ner är regn.

(translation by Ulla Lundquist-Rosenqvist)


Hace mucho tiempo, los elefantes podían volar. Completamente níveas y encantadoras, las criaturas voladoras también destruían muchos objetos, casas y árboles. Un día, un elefante fatigado se posó en un enorme árbol. El árbol cayó. Cayó encima de muchos niños. De ese modo, con un sólo relámpago, los dioses cortaron sus alas… Castigo colectivo… Hoy en día, lo que nosotros vemos como montañas en realidad son aquellos elefantes desalados, y esas nubes que se espesan eternamente, y que se ciernen sobre las pendientes más altas, son en verdad las alas desprendidas. Juntas, las nubes y las montañas, lloran su pérdida, y eso que cae es la lluvia.

(translation by Edith Veronica Luna)

En una época remota los elefantes eran capaces de volar. Esas criaturas, completamente blancas y deliciosas, destruían montones de cosas, viviendas y árboles. Un día, sintiéndose fatigado, uno de los elefantes se posó en un árbol enorme. El árbol se cayó. Encima de varios niños. Entonces, fulminándolo con un solo rayo, los dioses le cortaron las alas... Castigo colectivo... Lo que consideramos montañas hoy día, son en realidad esos elefantes sin alas, y las nubes que se arremolinan sobre los picos y las pendientes son en realidad las alas cortadas. Juntas, las nubes y las montañas lloran su pérdida, y lo que cae es la lluvia.

(translation by Cristina De La Torre)


Nekad davno slonovi su mogli da lete. Potpuno bela, ta divna leteda stvorenja su takođe uništavala mnoge objekte, kuce i stabla. Jednog dana neki umoran slon spustio se na najbliže drvo. Drvo se slomilo i palo. Na nekoliko dece. I tada, jednim udarcem groma, bogovi mu odsekoše krila... Kolektivna kazna. Ono što danas vidimo kao planine, u stvari su ti slonovi bez krila a sve gušci oblaci iznad visokih padina su njihova krila. Zajedno , oni oplakuju svoj gubitak, a nama to stiže u obliku kiše.

(translation by David Albahari)

U stara su vremena i slonovi mogli da lete. Prebijeli i prelijepi, ovi su letaci rusili sve pred sobom – kuce i stabla, bez razlike. Desilo se jednom tako da se neki malaksao slon spustio na drvo da se malo odmori.  Drvo se, pod njegovim teretom, srusilo na grupu djecurlije.  Za kaznu, kako njemu tako i svim ostalim slonovima, bogovi mu, munjom, munjevito odrezase krila. To sto mi danas zovemo planinama, to su zapravo slonovi bez krila a oblaci nad njima, to su davno izgubljena krila slonovska. Tuguju, zajedno, oblaci i planine. Njihove suze mi zovemo kisom.

(translation by Ivan Tadic)


Houve um tempo em que os elefantes conseguiam voar. Inteiramente alvas e encantadoras, estas criaturas voadoras destruíam também coisas, casas, e árvores. Um dia, um elefante cansado pendurou-se numa grande árvore. A árvore caiu. E caiu em cima de várias crianças. E então, ao ribombar de um único trovão, os Deuses retiraram-lhe as asas... um castigo colectivo... o que agora vemos como montanhas são, na realidade, esses mesmos elefantes desprovidos de asas, assim as nuvens eternas que pairam, espessas, sobre os cumes cimeiros são as suas asas perdidas. Em uníssono, nuvens e montanhas choram esta perda mútua e eis que é por isso que chove.

(translation by Paula Cóias)


Det var ein gong at elefantar kunne fly. Aldeles kvite og vidunderlege var dei, men dei flygande vesna kom også til å øydelegge mange gjenstandar, hus og tre. Ein dag vagla ein sliten elefant seg i eit stort tre. Treet fall. På fleire born. Og med ein einaste lynblenk skar gudane vengane av den… Kollektiv avstraffing… Det vi ser som fjell i dag, er i røynda desse elefantane utan vengar, og dei alltid tjuknande skyene som heng kring dei øvste brattane, er i røynda dei avskorne vengane. Saman sørger skyene og fjella over det dei har mist, og det som kjem ned, er regn.

(translation by Gunstein Bakke)


Ing sawijining dino, nalikagajah isih isa mabur, gajah-gajah kuwi katon putih memplak anyenengaké. Ananging, kéwan iku ugangrusak  barang-barang, omah, lan wit-witan.  Sawijining dino, ana gajah kang kesel mabur. Kéwan iku banjur mlangkrik nang sawijining uwit. Uwité sak nalika ambruk. Ngembruki bocah cilik-cilik.   Sak nalikaana blêdhèg nyamber. Mung kanthi sak samberan blêdhèg, sewiwi si gajah tugêl. Para Dewa maringi ukuman bebarengan…Sing saiki katon gunung, sejatine kéwan kuwi mau. Gajah-gajah kang wus kélangan sewiwi.  Pêdhut kandel kang tansah temèmplèk ing èrèng-èrèng gunung sejatine tugêlaning sewiwi. Pêdhut lan gunung banjur pada nangis bebarengan amarga kélangan sewiwi, tibaning luh kuwi kang dadi udan.

(translation by Cordula Maria Rien Kuntari)


大きな落雷とともに、神々は象の翼を切り取ってしまった・・・みんなで決めた罰だった・・・      今日、山に見えるのは、本当は翼を失った象なんだ。そして、その上に厚く重なる雲は、本当は切り取られた翼なんだ。雲と山が一緒になって悲しんで、雨が降るんだ。

(translation by Junko Thurston)


Il fut un temps où les éléphants pouvaient voler. Tout blancs et merveilleux, ces créatures volantes ont aussi détruit bien des objets, des maisons, des arbres.
Un jour, un éléphant fatigué s'est perché sur un grand arbre. L'arbre est tombé. Sur quelques enfants. Puis d'un seul coup de tonnerre, les dieux lui enlevèrent ses ailes... Châtiment collectif... Les montagnes que nous voyons maintenant sont en fait ces éléphants sans ailes, et les épais nuages qui en chevauchent les parois supérieures sont leurs ailes détachées. Ensemble, les nuages et les montagnes pleurent de chagrin, et ainsi tombe la pluie.

(translation by Francois Bourque)

Il était une fois des éléphants qui volaient. Totalement blanches et délicieuse, les créatures volantes détruisirent nombre d’objets, de maisons, et des arbres. Un jour, un éléphant fatigué se percha sur un grand arbre. L’arbre est tombé. Sur plusieurs enfants. Alors, d’un terrible coup de foudre, les dieux leur ont coupé leurs ailes. Punition collective. Les montagnes que nous voyons maintenant sont en fait de gros éléphants sans ailes, et les épais nuages qui planent sur leurs hauteurs leurs ailes détachées. Ensemble, nuages et montagnes pleurent leur perte, et cela devient pluie.

(translation by Carol Fives)

Il était une fois où les éléphants pouvaient voler. Complètement blancs et charmants ces

 créatures capables de voler, ont détruit aussi beaucoup d’objets,  des maisons, et des arbres.

Un jour un éléphant très fatigué était perché sur un gros arbre. L’arbre s’écroula.

Sur plusieurs enfants. Alors, d’un seul coup de foudre les dieux lui on coupé ses ailes.

 Punition pour tous!. Les montagnes que nous voyons maintenant, sont réellement

ces éléphants sans ailes, et ces nuages de plus en plus denses qui planent près des cîmes

sont vraiment ces ailes brisés.

Tous deux, les nuages et les montagnes pleurent leur perte, et la pluie en est le résultat.

(translation by Aurise Kondziela)

Il était une fois des éléphants capables de voler. Entièrement blanches et belles, ces créatures volantes n'en détruisaient pas moins nombre d'objets, de maisons et d'arbres. Un jour, un éléphant fatigué se percha sur un gros arbre. Cet arbre tomba. Sur plusieurs enfants. Alors, d'un seul éclair, les dieux lui coupèrent les ailes... Punition collective... Ce que nous voyons et prenons pour des montagnes sont en fait ces éléphants sans ailes et les nuages qui sans cesse s'amoncellent et planent au-dessus des versants supérieurs sont en fait leurs ailes détachées. Ensemble, les nuages et les montagnes pleurent leur perte et ce qui tombe est la pluie.

(translation by Laurence Videloup)


Er was eens een tijd dat olifanten konden vliegen. Helemaal wit en betoverend, maakten de vliegende beesten ook veel objecten, huizen, en bomen kapot. Op een dag streek een vermoeide olifant in een boom neer. De boom viel. Op meerdere kinderen. Daarom, in één bliksemflits, sneden de goden zijn vleugels af... Collectieve straf... Wat wij nu als bergen zien, zijn eigenlijk de olifanten zonder vleugels, en de steeds dikkere wolken rondom de hoogste hellingen zijn eigenlijk de verwijderde vleugels. Samen rouwen de wolken en de bergen om hun verlies, en wat neerkomt is regen.

(translation by Sadiqa de Meijer)


Едно време слоновете можели да летят. Напълно бели и
възхитителни, летящите същества унищожавали в същото време много премети, къщи, и дървета. Веднъж, един уморен слон кацнал на някакво голямо дърво. Дървото паднало. Върху няколко деца. Тогава, с една единствена мълния, боговете отрязали крилете му ... Колективно наказание ... Това, което виждаме сега като планини, всъщност са онези слонове без крила, а все по-сгъстяващите се облаци, които кръжат около най-високите склонове са наистина отделените им крила. Заедно, облаците и планините скърбят за своята загуба, и това, което пада надолу е дъжд.

(translation by Roumiana Stantcheva)


Lank gelede kon al die olifante vlieg.  Hulle was geheel en al wit en n plesier om na te kyk.  Maar die vlieende olifante het baie skade aangedoen.  Hulle het huise en bome  beskadig.
Op n dag was een van die olifante baie moeg en het in n groot boom gaan sit.  Die boom het gebreek en val toe op n groepie kinders. Toe, met n donderslag het die gode die vlerke van die olifante afgekap...almal was gestraf omdat een verkeerd gedoen het... wat ons nou as berge sien is eintlik daardie olifante sonder vlerke,  en die groeiende wolke op die hange van die berge is eintlik die afgekapte vlerke van die olifante.
Wanneer die berge en wolke treur oor wat met hul gebeur het sien ons hul trane wat neerval as reen.

(translation by Anna Bergen)

Oct 13, 2012

HELIUM: my new novel

November 1984...

Jul 5, 2012


W.G. Sebald on Robert Walser: “How is one to understand an author who was so beset by shadows … who created humorous sketches from pure despair, who almost always wrote the same thing and yet never repeated himself, whose prose has the tendency to dissolve upon reading, so that only a few hours later one can barely remember the ephemeral figures, events and things of which it spoke.”

Jun 30, 2012


My first visit to Banff was really an instant response to a grainy, black-and-white photo in a book called The Emigrants by W.G. Sebald. Upon arrival (the book still in hand) I stood in front of the colonial castle of a building depicted in the photo. On the slopes of the magic mountain stood the ominous, yet inviting Banff Springs Hotel, but it had the feel of a sanatorium, and the mountain behind it was perhaps the only one in the world named after an element in the Periodic Table. Sulphur gave me full permission to name all the mountains close-by: Cadmium, Strontium, Aluminum… They were hills really, but I called them mountains anyway.
The streets in the town were all named after wild animals (Lynx, Gopher, Wolf, Cougar). From Grizzly I noticed a thin veil of fog and apricot coloured dots by the green ridge of Mount Sulphur. Clumps of pure gold as if on fire. I have little recall now whether it was Mary or Chantal at the Parks museum who introduced me to a tree called a larch: a peculiar conifer that turns yellow in fall and sheds its needles (as soft as the material silkworms end up making). The larches made me climb up Sulphur, and along the ridge I also “discovered” an abandoned cosmic ray observatory.
Whenever I recall Banff I cannot help but think of cosmic rays and neutrinos. Particles that go right through you. No charge. Almost no mass. Ghost particles. They are all around us, invisible, dancing. Tens and thousands of them, passing through things immersed in time, and passing through things immersed in space, and SPACE in Banff really belongs to the natives, and the names they gave to the mountains continue to have a ghostly presence. Sleeping Buffalo, the original name given to the mound colonial engineers relabelled Tunnel Mountain. The Cloud Maker, more appropriate and beautiful than Mount Rundle, named after a missionary.

Apr 6, 2012


"Whatever was going on within me, said Austerlitz, the panic I felt on the start of any sentence, soon extended to what is in itself the simpler business of reading, until if I attempted to read a whole page I inevitably fell into a state of the greatest confusion. If language may be regarded as an old city full of streets and squares, nooks and crannies, with some quarters dating from far back in time while others have been torn down, cleaned up and rebuilt, and with suburbs reaching further and further into the surrounding country, then I was like a man who has been abroad a long time and cannot find his way through this urban sprawl anymore, no longer knows what a bus stop is for, or what a back yard is, or a street junction, an avenue or a bridge. The entire structure of language, the syntactical arrangement of parts of speech, punctuation, conjunctions, and finally even the nouns denoting ordinary objects were all enveloped in impenetrable fog."

Photo: Oana Sanziana Marian

Oct 7, 2011


AFTER DEATH    (translated by Robert Bly)

Once there was a shock
that left behind a long, shimmering comet tail.
It keeps us inside. It makes the TV pictures snowy.
It settles in cold drops on the telephone wires.

One can still go slowly on skis in the winter sun
through brush where a few leaves hang on.
They resemble pages torn from old telephone directories.
Names swallowed by the cold.

It is still beautiful to hear the heart beat
but often the shadow seems more real than the body.
The samurai looks insignificant
beside his armor of black dragon scales.

Aug 25, 2011


Mr. Bhatt joined a local group called the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons, which has waged a long campaign to force the army to account for what it says are at least 8,000 people who have vanished in the conflict in Indian-controlled Kashmir.

Aug 22, 2011


Not so long ago, New York-based Indian writer Siddhartha Deb reviewed a novel by Hari Kunzru. “Globalization,” Deb began, “the most pressing issues of our time … has usually proved a poor subject for fiction. Far too many of the Anglo-American novels referring to globalization are full of what the critic James Wood has called ‘irrelevant intensity,’ exhibiting an endless fascination for pop-culture trivia, post-structuralist meta-theories and self-referential irony.” Deb found Kunzru's Transmission an exception, partly because it betrays the irrelevant intensity after the 30th page or so “when it finds its course with something as simple as a man walking down a highway. … Kunzru seems genuinely interested in ideas and social problems, such as the predicament of the disenfranchised.”

Deb’s own book, The Beautiful and the Damned: A Portrait of New India, comes after two highly acclaimed novels (The Point of Return and Surface), and focuses on something as simple as five characters. Although categorized by the publisher as “Social Science – Business Affairs,” it reads more like a nonfiction novel, that all-encompassing fuzzy genre.
“Everywhere there seemed to be construction and ruin, hard to distinguish from each other.”