Can You Hear the Nightbird Call?

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.

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15 Responses to “Can You Hear the Nightbird Call?”

  1. Oy vey, I have the book sitting here on my desk and plan to chomp down on it sometime this week. Anocturne, your review looks tantalizing and I’m so tempted to read it , however I should wait until I am atleast halfway through the book,no? Tell you what, I am going to bookmark this post and return to it after I read it…would be great to compare notes!

    Seriously tho’ from having scanned it, yours is a delicious-looking review!

  2. @Lotus: how I envy you the Harborfront reading!! wish i was there – why didn’t you drag me there?! what did she choose for the excerpt reading? and i adore the picture you posted – where did you find it? the pictues on all her dust jackets are so plain.

  3. hi again, anocturne!

    Ohhh, OK, thanks for letting me know, I’ll make sure I drag you (even if it’s kicking and screaming) to the next Asian literary event! 😉

    For the life of me I can’t remember where I got that picture of Anita from – it reminds me that I simply must give credit to the source (something I keep forgetting to do!)

    For the reading she chose pages 195-200…I haven’t read the book yet, but the audience seemed to enjoy the passages!

  4. @Lotus: i returned my copy to the library, so you must peep into your copy and let me know about pages 195 – 200. i rather think they’re the bit where the principal calls in Jassi’s guardians to discuss his latest infraction, i.e. Jas being caught with a huge kitchen knife in class. ROFL incident and a personal favorite!

  5. Yup,anocturne, you’re dead right! I’m on page 230 and loving it!

  6. @Lotus: 🙂 you’re a lady after my own heart.

  7. Wonderful review! At 432 pages, this is quite a massive read.

  8. @ Niranjan: darling – the massiveness is an illusion. it’s got a decently large typeface, so it won’t make your eyes water. and the story itself is a surprisingly fluid read. Badami doesn’t rely on “technique” and doesn’t do anything clever with the text. her story relies instead upon genuinely warm and human characters – they are so real that they seep from the page and straight into the heart.

  9. Thank you for your thorough review. You do us all a service.

    I have heard Badami’s name so much lately but didn’t know what the fuss was about. Now I am convinced that I must read Can You Hear the Nightbird Call? It sounds like my type of literature.

    Thanks also for your kind comments on my reader’s blog.

  10. I finished this wonderful book last night and put a link to your truly excellent review on my post. Like you said, it’s hard to move on to another book, because to do that would almost be like severing our friendships with Bibi-ji and co., also, I, too, have been watching other Indian expats and mulling over what their histories could be. An excellent , excellent book!

  11. You and Lotus make this book like an absolute must read. So it’s going on my TBR list.

  12. @ Cereal Girl: why, thank you. but i probably should mention that i am partial to the Indian authors, perhaps because i can relate to their work, so Badami, Mistry, Anosh Irani, Robin Maharaj, and others of the ilk are perennial favorites. i like your page very much, and that bit about reading everything – that i can relate to! [have been known to read shampoo labels whilst on the throne, teehee]

    @Lotus: thank you for the shout-out.

    @Booklogged: i can’t help feeling you belong on this page, so am adding you. welcome aboard.

  13. Of all the books I have read this has to be the one that has touched my soul the most. Badami has written this book in a style where you actually feel you know these people, you are part of them and share their joys, sorrows and hopes. I never wanted this book to end, I wanted to continue to share with my new found “friends” every part of their lives. But alas, all great things must come to an end. I have recommended this book highly to all of my friends and told them to prepare to applaud, laugh, cry but most of all…fall in love with each and everyone of the characters of this most wonderful book.

  14. Hi Sylvie. thanks for visiting, and you might just be the push i needed to get of my arse and finally post something about the reads i’ve been ploughing through.
    This book and the author are my favorites. Have you read her other two novels, Tamarind Mem, and The Hero’s Walk? I have a review of The Hero’s Walk here.

  15. spiele

    … see also this nice travel article

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