Archive for October, 2006

Can You Hear the Nightbird Call?

Posted in Diaspora, India on October 30, 2006 by Ishrath Farhana

It has been one week since I finished reading Can You Hear the Nightbird Call? by Anita Rau Badami, and somehow I keep avoiding picking up another book. I am reluctant of diluting the experience, reluctant to bid adieu to Paaji and Bibiji, Leela, Nimmo. I am still mulling over how politics and history cut a swathe thorugh individual lives. I am looking with fresh curiosity at those of us who left Desh – that common denominator of immigrants from the Subcontinent.

In June 1985, Air India Flight 182 enroute from Toronto to Delhi exploded, killing all 329 passengers aboard. 15 years later in 2000, two Canadian Sikhs were charged with planting the bomb. Five years later, in 2005, they were aquitted due to lack of evidence. The release of this book coincided with the ongoing testimonies by family members of those on the doomed flight.

It has been suggested that Can You Hear the Nightbird Call? is a fictionalized account of the bombing of Flight 182 – it is not true. It is rather a story with the feel of a slice taken from the continuum of history. To begin somewhere, it begins in 1928 with Sharanjit Kaur’s childhood. Greedy, grasping, and endearing little Sharan, with more beauty than it is good to be blessed with for someone of her poor station. Sharanjit, who “steals her sister’s fate” by marrying the man who was intended for her, and moves to Vancouver.

The village and the family that she left behind disappear quietly from the map that suddenly sprouts new borders, new divisions, new countries. It is the Partition of the Desh into violent and arbitrary borders and one of the most tragic uprooting and flight of peoples across the land – peoples who half a century later have not managed to assimilate completely into societies. Racked by guilt, finding Kanwar or any of her surviving children becomes Sharanjit’s holy grail. To find them, and somehow make it up for “stealing” Paaji and living the safe and prosperous life her sister was supposed to live in Canada.

Bibiji and Paaji’s house is “open house” for all new Punjabi immigrants, and there is a stream of them coming through and staying put until they find their feet. When Paaji buys her an extravagant new house, the Taj Mahal, Bibiji rents out her old house to the Bhats. Enter Leela Bhat, the half white – half high-caste Brahmin, wife of Balu Bhat, the Bhats from Bangalore. It is Leela who carries an address scrawled hurriedly by a Delhi cabbie, Satpal. You are going to Vancouver, madam. My wife has an aunt in Vancouver, and if you ever find her… and thus Bibiji is reunited with her neice, Nimmo.

The story sweeps along, twisting the individual strands of these three women into love, neighborliness, sacrifice and tragedy for more than half a century. Nimmo is a mass of unresolved, troubled memories. She thinks she remembers Kanwar hiding her in a bharoli of corn when the mobs come banging on the door in the middle of the night. Her most secret memory is of the terror in her hiding spot, of hearing her mother’s wail as she is raped, and the smell of lavender soap from her mother’s feet as she dangles at the end of a duptta. Soap that Sharan coveted as a child,  that she has presumably sent her sister all the way from distant Canada. The childless Bibiji lands into Nimmo’s life like a whirlwind, and when Nimmo has gotten used to her small kindnesses, used to being in her debt, asks to adopt a son. The brooding and sensitive older son Jasbeer is sent away “to a better life, better prospects” from the straitened circumstances of Satpal and Nimmo. “It’s like sending him to a posh boarding school,” the parents comfort each other.

From there, the conditions are fertile to drive the sullen young Jasbeer into rebelling against authority and later, to fall under the influence of Dr. Randhwa, a proponent of an independent Punjabi state of Khalistan, with tragic consequences. Paaji and Bibiji are caught smack in the middle of Operation Bluestar, where soldiers stormed the Golden Temple to capture the radical Sant Bhindranwale. In the brutal assault lasted the entire night, civilian losses were esitmated to be in the thousands. Soon after, Indira Gandhi is shot by two Sikh bodyguards, unleashing a mania of revenge killings of Sikhs in the following days. Badami has exposed a dark chapter of India’s history.

In an interview with CBC radio, Badami reveals a bit about the dedication that the novel carries “To the man on the bridge at Modinagar”. She recalls that when travelling with her husband by bus to Delhi, “we witnessed how growing outrage manifests against the Sikhs. We saw a man being thrown over a bridge into a dry riverbed; he had been set on fire. By the time we reached Delhi it was like a war zone where many Sikhs had been murdered.”

Badami fails to draw a convincing connection between the violence against Sikhs in India and the act of bombing of AI Flight 182, if there is indeed a clear connection. I also have a contention that she has failed at some level to capture the trauma of the Sikhs abroad at the regime’s suppression and reprisals. Paaji’s benevolent and pacifist mantra of “live and let live” and “separation is a bad thing” was not a popular attitude, but there could have been more empathy towards Dr. Randhwa’s point of view without dismissing it all as self-aggrandizing hot air.

However, she breathes compassion and humanity into all her characters. This novel is fluid, moving seamlessly from cause to effect, action to reaction, incident by incident, individual to individual. It encompasses the immigrant experience in Canada. Bibiji from poor roots, who manages to live the American dream because of her hard work and perspicacity. Leela from a rich background who gives up security, ancestral home, and sense of belonging to come to a place where she will be a salesperson at the Bay for the rest of her life. You will have often encountered Paaji – there is nothing quite like a proud Sardar with a turban, pot-belly and all, to remind you of home in Pardes.

This is a story that had to be told, and Badami tells it with extraordinary compassion and humor.


What Say?

Posted in Uncategorized on October 30, 2006 by Ishrath Farhana

The foremost reason for reading is pleasure, and that to read more books is to experience more pleasure and to enlarge one’s capacity for pleasure.

Three Thingies

Posted in Uncategorized on October 28, 2006 by Ishrath Farhana

My very first tag! Thanks Lotus, for springing what has become almost a rite of passage into the Blogistan!

3 Thingies: a Friday Meme


3 things that scare me:
Losing my kids in a crowd
Slimy, clammy, creepie crawlies


3 people who make me laugh:


The holy trinity of Amar Akbar Anthony
The Onion
Mr. Bean

3 things I love:


A good read
Autumn walks
“A few good men” 😉


3 things I hate:


Slasher genre of movies / books
Strong perfumes


3 things I don’t understand:


Why wrestling?
Why Paris Hilton is famous


3 things on my desk:


Coffee mug


3 things I’m doing right now:


Reading great blogs
Mulling about the last book I read
Thinking I REALLY should get a handle on the chores


3 things I want to do before I die:


Learn HTML coding
Backpack through India, Go to Mecca for Hajj


3 things I can do:


Ride a bicycle
Make parathas
Read Arabic


3 ways to describe my personality:


Cheerful. Empathetic
Prone to sleeping a lot 🙂


3 things I can’t do:


Bungee jump, Swim

Speak Mandarin


3 things I think you should listen to:


Asha Bhosle and Kishore Kumar


3 things I think you should never listen to:


Rap music
Your kids singing rap music
Your parents singing gangsta rap!


3 favorite foods:


Mango in all avatars and pickles
Dal chaval
Chocolate ought to be a food group


3 things I’d like to learn:


Read sheet music
Sing opera


3 beverages I drink regularly:




3 shows I watched as a kid:


Star Trek – the original series
The Wonder Years

The God Particle

Posted in Science, SF on October 21, 2006 by Ishrath Farhana

This books promises a thriller which explores the place where particle physics and religion meet. The story of two men whose lives intersect when they both start exploring the physics phenomeon of the elusive Higg’s boson or The God Particle, the book explores an aspect of current physics theory and how it relates to and might even prove the existence of God.  It fails to deliver.

While The God Particle has Mike McNair and Kelly Smith engaged in an airplane coversation about the relative territories of science, reason, and faith, these are never explored much beyond seeming contention between science and spirituality. There is no common ground aside from each being a disparate way of seeing the universe.

If Cox had spent as much energy dealing with the implications of the science as he did voyeurism, sexual betrayal, and failed relationships, this might have been a read worthy of science fiction. When the narrative finally turned the bulk of its attention to the subject at hand near the end of the novel, the connection between the experimental brain surgery performed on Steve Keely and the superconducting super collider in Texas, it felt rushed.

Nothing in the league of Gary Zukav’s The Dancing Wu Li Masters, which is a super introduction to quantum physics and ties in very well with metaphysical implications about human consciousness and reality.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

Posted in Fantasy, Hist / Bio on October 21, 2006 by Ishrath Farhana

 I did read Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. From end to end. Twice. That should be a suitable testimony to my powers of endurance, considering that I felt amazingly let-down first time around. Several publications chose debut author Susanna Clarke’s novel as their Book of the Year. Must have been a slow year for quality books.

Neither Strange nor Mr. Norrell are people that you can root for. One is a selfish bookworm who wants things his way. The other is a selfish man who thinks everyone else is below him or pompous. The use of magic is not clearly imagined. There are thousands of books on magic and no actual wizards. The thistle-downed fairy *ha ha* villian is too good. It takes over 600 pages for the heroes to even suspect that something may be amiss. Ah, yes, and the dreaded footnotes. Sometimes footnotes and research can add to a story, but here, they just get in the way.

Having said that, this is a book with amazingly droll wit. Strange’s letters about Lord Byron were the funniest thing I’ve encountered this side of the Discworld. Certainly, the characterization of the faerie as cruel and capricious beings comes straight out of Pratchett. The second reading was more rewarding, beause this time, I was not waiting for what-happens-next and could savor the dry humor in the conversations, and enjoy the manners of the Napoleanic era. I think it is ultimately a misrepresentation to classify this novel as belonging to the genre of high fantasy. The painstaking research and history gets in the way.

Eats, Shoots and Leaves

Posted in Language on October 21, 2006 by Ishrath Farhana

Truss is pessimistic about the state of punctuation, but perhaps she’s been more exposed to silly prose than I have. While this is an often humorous book, I personally did not find much that I don’t already know, and therefore there were entire sections that were tedious. As with many  bestsellers, the hype runs away with the reputation, which then disappoints.

Bombay Time

Posted in India on October 10, 2006 by Ishrath Farhana

The Parsi residents of Wadia Baug, an apartment building examine their bonds with each other as well as their love-hate relationship with the city of their birth. Parsis are a small ethnic minority, whose relative affluence and Western orientation makes them stand out in a city of mass poverty.

Now the son of Jimmy Kanga, the resident success, is getting married and all the neighbors are invited. As each of the guest’s disparate, poignant stories unfold we follow the slow dissolution of Rusi and Coomi Bilimoria’s marriage, the fatal betrayal suffered by Rusi’s friend, Soli Contractor, the rise of Jimmy Kanga, and the sad case of the reclusive Tehmi Engineer. Above all, the novel gives us a sense of how this close knit Parsi community copes with individual struggles through humor, hope and courage. Umrigar dramatizes missed chances, lost opportunities, the disappointments of these ageing Parsi parents. A brilliant character study.