When Canada's literary glitterati gather in Toronto on Monday to crown a winner of the prestigious Scotiabank Giller Prize and celebrate its shortlisted authors, Padma Viswanathan will be among the feted. The B.C. native is one of six authors shortlisted for the $100,000 prize, nominated for her devastating Air India bombing novel The Ever After of Ashwin Rao.
In the book, Ashwin is a psychologist whose sister, niece and nephew were on the doomed flight in 1985, in which 329 people, mostly Canadians, were killed. In 2004, with the criminal trial of two suspects underway, Ashwin throws himself into a research project, interviewing others who lost loved ones in the bombing for a study on comparative grief.
Ms. Viswanathan, 46, lives in Arkansas. We reached her earlier this week in Toronto, at the offices of her publisher.
At what point did you think you might write a work of fiction based on the Air India bombing?
I really backed into it; it was not my intention when I started this book to write about the bombing. My initial impulse was actually to write about a man, Seth, a physics professor in a small western Canadian town I called Lohikarma, an invented town based on Nelson, B.C., where I was born. He's a devotee of a very popular Indian guru and I knew he would suffer some crisis of faith. And I thought that would start the novel. But when I began working on it, I realized I didn't know what could make a man like him attach to a guru in this way until I lit on this.
It was right after the trial concluded that I started work on this, so it must have still been on my mind: the very inconclusive conclusion to the trial. So I thought, "Okay, he has supported a friend through the loss of his friend's wife and son in the bombing, and that's how he realized he needed some attachment outside of his family." Seth really felt as though it could have been his wife and daughters on that flight and this terror, this potential loss, drives him into the arms of this guru. So that's how I started writing about the bombing, which became the whole theme and the driving force for the book.
You were 17 when the bombing happened; what sort of impact did it have on you?
I grew up in a relatively homogenous suburb of Edmonton; I understood that I was a visible minority in that small town. But I don't think I understood myself sort of racially in this country in the way that the bombing brought home. I felt a different level of identification as South Asian. And so it was this sort of precarious racialization that I entered into in my late teens. I think it was one of the things that made me an observer of the ways that the position of South Asians here has changed in the 30 years since.
This is a work of fiction, but you are very clear about the history leading up to the bombing, as well as the botched criminal investigation. But also the political insult – with our prime minister calling India to express his condolences when it had been a plane full of Canadians. Is this book an opportunity set the record straight, in a way? Or do you think history has done that?
I feel history has done that up to a point, but in terms of the details, think about [Prime Minister Stephen] Harper's official apology for this; he spoke of [blood-feuds of the past]. But the grievances that led up to the bombing were really relatively recent and that's something that the book traces in some detail.
Did you interview family members of victims?
No, I did not. I had no desire to do what Ashwin does. Ashwin interviews these families because he's trying to draw connections between their experiences; he's making psychological generalizations of a sort that are not the novelist's task to make. I created these people and I put them through this trauma. So if people who lost family members or loved ones aboard that plane find themselves in these pages, I'm glad, but I was not going to try to intrude on anybody's experience to make this work.
How much is Ashwin a proxy for you? At one point he says "religion has hobbled my countrymen; it has poisoned my country." Is that your thinking coming through his mouth?
Much more than I want to admit. Yeah, he's definitely my alter-ego that let me tell the story.
Did you hear from any of the victims' families after the book was published?
I heard from a few family members. Lata Pada, who is probably the premiere practitioner of Indian classical dance, her husband and two daughters were on the flight. She came to the launch of my book and she took my hands and she said, "I'm so glad you've written this; it's disappearing from the public consciousness." I was enormously touched by this because, of course, I've been very worried about how the family members might take this. Because, as I said, I didn't talk to any of them in the course of research. A number of other people came to my other events. Also this man has written to me whose sister was on the flight and we've stayed in pretty close touch since and he wrote to me about the ways this book has brought back to him aspects of his experience and how he was giving it to his parents and his other sister to read. So it did not make me feel that I had done a disservice to their experience. I was both very humbled and proud to feel that I had returned their experience to them in a way that helped.
To be shortlisted for the premiere Canadian prize for fiction with this story – which initially was not understood by some to be a Canadian story –that must be something for you.
It's tremendous. And it demonstrates the real beauty of this place. It has always been moving to me the ways that Canadian culture struggles to be inclusive. You can see over the course of the novel the way Canada changes in its relationship to the stories of its visible minorities as the generations passed. The book has, I admit, considerable anger and criticism as well as a feeling of gratitude toward this place. I don't feel I belong to Canada or India or now the U.S. even though I live there. But I do feel an identification with Canadian literature. I only became aware of this when I finished my first book and I wanted to come back to Canada to find my agent, to find my first publisher. I was almost 40 then, and I had never felt any kind of a true patriotism or attachment in this way. Any kind of patriotic feeling is troubled, naturally. If you belong to a place, you own all of its difficulties and shames as well as whatever makes it proud. So I understand the history of Canadian literature in this way. But I claim it. And the Giller makes me feel like it's claimed me also.
This interview has been condensed and edited.