In June 1985, an Air India flight from Montreal to New Delhi was blown up over the Atlantic Ocean, not far from the coast of Ireland. Of the 329 people who died, 268 were Canadians. At least, they thought they were Canadians; some were Canadian by birth, and some were Canadian by request, but the brown skin of the majority of the passengers resulted in an oddly muted response to Canada’s largest mass murder.
This lack of outrage, this failure to see the bombing as a Canadian tragedy (the proportion of victims to national population is roughly the same as the proportion of 9/11 victims to the general American population in 2001), is the underlying subject of Padma Viswanathan’s second novel, The Ever After of Ashwin Rao. Very different in subject matter from her debut, The Toss of a Lemon, this new book is the best kind of political novel: the kind that doesn’t force you to constantly notice it’s a political novel.
Ashwin Rao first leaves India in 1969 to study in Canada – first medical school, then psychology. He finds a Canadian girlfriend, Rosslyn, and settles into his practice. When his father becomes ill, he travels back to India – at first temporarily, but when a good job opportunity presents itself, he accepts a permanent position. Coinciding with Ashwin’s return is an increase in political tensions in India, leading to the storming of the Golden Temple in 1984.
When Indira Gandhi is assassinated, revenge is taken on Sikhs. Ashwin and his father hide their Sikh neighbours, but just down the road, two men are burned alive. In 1985, Ashwin’s sister Kritika plans a visit to India with her two children. The last time Ashwin speaks to her is just as they are leaving for the airport to catch Air India Flight 182.
This narrative – the devastating loss of his family – is interwoven through a research project that Ashwin feels compelled to do: travelling across western Canada to interview the bereaved families about their experience. He doesn’t intend to mention his personal connection, playing up instead his psychological research. He is particularly angry about The Sorrow and the Terror, a real book written by Clarke Blaise and Bharati Mukherjee that describes the child victims as “bright synthesizers, not iconoclasts and rebels,” as “smart, ambitious children who won spelling bees in a language that their parents spoke with heavy accents; … gave classical dance recitals while they waited to go into engineering, medical or law school [and] pleased their parents by avoiding school proms and dances where kids misbehaved.” For Ashwin, their “chastity-obedience-intelligence had nothing to do with whether they deserved to be acknowledged as Canadians. Those children weren’t deserving of investigative attention because of their virtues. They deserved to live because they were alive.” Moreover, “Mukherjee and Blaise are novelists. They should have known better.”
Despite the rage simmering inside him, Ashwin manages to keep his secret until he meets the Sethuratnams, who were close to Dr. Venkataraman, a professor who lost his wife and son. In a narrative unfolding reminiscent of Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs, Ashwin develops something of a crush on the Sethuratnam family. The book then takes us back through Venkat’s losses and his subsequent mental health issues along with Ashwin’s increasing involvement in the affairs of the Sethuratnams. The novel is sweeping and meandering, but Viswanathan keeps control of the narrative threads while still examining the underlying racism of the public response, the much-delayed and dragged-out investigation, and the unsatisfactory trial.
Canada had only fully opened up its immigration system to Asia, Africa and the Caribbean in the 1960s. By the time of the plane bombing, Canadians were just beginning to frown upon the racism that had only recently been so common as to be banal. All of this helps to explain why Canadians felt little personal grief. Would the public response be different today? Would it have made a difference if the targeted plane had been an Air Canada Boeing 747?
This vexed question of what constitutes – politically, emotionally, viscerally – a Canadian continues to trouble us, despite the public rhetoric that talks about new Canadians and inclusivity. I have white skin and English as my first language: people here have no hesitation in referring to me casually as Canadian, even though I am not Canadian and my accent shows it. This is not always the case for people of colour.
Viswanathan has written an important book – one that deserves to to find international recognition. Pondering our unexamined prejudices might be deeply uncomfortable but it is absolutely necessary.
J.C. Sutcliffe writes about books at slightlybookist.wordpress.com.