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Terror and Memory

Anita Rau Badami's new novel takes a flight back to history with sharp sensitivity and limited passion



By Anita Rau Badami


Price: Rs 495; Pages: 432

Indeed it is not by accident that India's "rich past" is a cliché: our vibrant, violent histories have cried out to be recorded for posterity not merely as fact but also as fiction. By the simple economics of demand and supply, aided by the magic of inspiration, imagination, anger and angst, Indian writers have unflaggingly responded to this clarion call. Diasporic Indian English writers have continued to wrestle with ghosts of the national past even as they (the ghosts) have increasingly pranced across global arenas. By now, we could possibly claim the birth of the Indian post-postcolonial novel, of Indira's India, and beyond. An India bewilderingly bequeathed to us by our freedom-fighting ancestors only to take on the shocking hues of anti-Sikh/Muslim/Hindu as its primary colours. And an India "Abroad" whose nostalgia hinges on the smells of curry leaves and cumin powder emanating from street-corner restaurants, but dissolves all too easily into suspicion and selfishness as "breaking news" from "Home" triggers fear and frenzy.

BADAMI: Effortless lucidity of storytelling
Anita Rau Badami's Can You Hear the Nightbird Call? spans a crucial 60 years of Indian history of the Sikh community of Punjab and its immigrants to Canada, commencing 10 years before Independence (and Partition), and ending after the blow-up of Air India flight 182 headed to India from Toronto on June 23, 1985, killing all 329 people on board. The nightbird's call, signifying a web of warning, is knit tightly around all the stories that unfold through the novel, mainly of sisters Kanwar and Sharan-the older sweet and plain, the younger shrewd and pretty-and their marriages, descendants and unfolding futures.

Badami structures her novel loosely as a tale of three women-Sharan, known as Bibi-ji in Vancouver's fragile diasporic bliss as she manages her husband's restaurant and the many lives around her with equal equanimity and enthusiasm; Nimmo, her dead sister Kanwar's daughter who grows up to a cautious happiness in Delhi, deeply content in a passionately loving marriage with three children but always shadowed by dreaded memories; and Leela Bhat, a Hindu housewife who is an integral part of Vancouver's Little India. By sheer chance, Sharan is able to locate her lost niece Nimmo in adulthood and bring Nimmo's elder son Jasbeer to Canada with the promise of a better future. Jasbeer, recalcitrant and resentful, grows up to embody, it seems, the nightbird's warning call: certainly, for much of the novel, he threatens to be Sharan's nemesis, inspired by the separatist movement for Khalistan. But at the end he reappears, disappointingly, as the rehabilitated resuscitator of his mother Nimmo, by then broken by the brutalities of history. The de-lionizing of Jasbeer is, in fact, symptomatic of Badami's systematic copping-out of sticky/tricky plot situations.

Of course, there is much that is commendable in Badami's novel, not least of which is the effortless lucidity of its story-telling. Characters come to life as they pull through or perish in some of India's most horrific events in the past century. The novel is strewn with moving sequences of living and loving. And yet it remains just another novel about the terror of non-secular India, told with sharp sensitivity but limited passion. An insistent tap-tapping of a moral in Sharan's story-who must die grieving for having stolen her sister's intended beau in adolescence-is hardly of consequence on such a large, grand canvas of the breaking and re-making of nations.

The novel fails, I believe, for its wariness to take terrorism by its horns (or bombs, or guns, or prisons, or muzzles). Though the intention to lay the blame squarely on Indira Gandhi's regime and her biggest political blunder, the Emergency in 1975, is woven through its interlocking narratives, the blaming/naming lacks punch for being both too simplistic and too tame. To live up to its brand new calling, the post-postcolonial Indian novel needs to up-end "poco" theorising and find new paradigms for memory and history. Unfortunately, this novel takes us back to the kind of plot that existed well before much of its embedded histories had unfolded. Clearly, Badami must now seek newer bottles for freshly-fermented-and fermenting-wine.


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