A documentary on past lives sparked Gurjinder Basran’s latest novel. Tracing the stories of children who recalled former existences, the program led Basran to reflect on the value of experience. If you know that you’re going to live again, she wondered, does this life mean less?
“I remember thinking how strange it must be for them to grow up and know—100 percent know—that they were somebody else,” Basran says to the Straight, over coffee at a downtown restaurant. “And for their families to know that, and how it might change—if they were not particularly religious—their views on life.”
Around this time, in 2012, Basran was dealing with her mother’s declining health and beginning to consider the ripple effect that choices and actions carry over generations. “I think we take it for granted,” she continues, “that we’re all self-made and our lives are a product of our choices, when really our lives are a product of everyone’s choices.”
These invisible inheritances are the framework for her sophomore novel, Someone You Love Is Gone. Following Simran, a 40-something mourning the death of her mother, the novel binds three narratives—“Now”, “Then”, and “Before”—to chart how Simran’s present stems from growing up in a turbulent home in Canada and from her mother’s days prior to that, as a single woman in India.
Beyond the trip-wire dynamic between Simran and her younger brother and sister, her misfortune is compounded by a failing marriage and a strained relationship with her daughter. Middle age is “just that ripe time in your life when you do start to question ‘What does marriage mean?’” Basran says. “It’s almost a personal reckoning. ‘Well, if my children are raised and we’ve accomplished this, and we own everything we wanted to own, what now?’ ”
Even with this privilege, “you still can feel empty,” she adds. “Whether people want to admit it or not, I think most people feel that way.”
Simran’s formative heartbreak was the banishment of her brother, Diwa, who as a boy exhibited signs that he was reincarnated. (On the subject, Basran remains broad-minded: “I think that reincarnation is probably just as plausible as some of the other options.”) Reunited with him in adulthood, Simran addresses the necessities of secrets and forgetting while sifting memories of their shared early years and decades apart.
Functioning in the world, anyway, requires selective amnesia. “If we don’t forget some of our past experiences, we’re not allowing something new to happen,” Basran says. “If we only rely on past information to dictate our choices in the future, we’re not actually leaving any room for possibility. We’re just operating in probability mode, and I think that that creates dissatisfaction.”
Originally, the plot moved between “Now” and “Then”, but “Before” emerged during a productive two weeks that Basran spent at a writers’ retreat, which yielded half the book. Distilling scenes into verse and subsequently expanding them allowed her to manoeuvre through several creative roadblocks. “I have mad respect for poets,” she says. “If I could, I would love to be a poet. Poets seem so self-assured and earnest about their work, and I am neither.”
Just as Everything Was Good-bye, her Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize–winning 2010 debut, showed she could portray characters of real vitality, Someone You Love Is Gone proves Basran knows deeply the ways personal history is etched by time and events. “This is what happens,” Simran observes. “The past is always changed by the present. There is no true account, not even the number of years that have gone by. It’s what the years hide, reveal, and keep secret, what they tuck into days and minutes, what they fold and slip into dreams and nightmares—that is where the real living is.”
Basran, who came to British Columbia from England as a child, acknowledges that “there is an expectation that as an Indian writer that I will write Indian books, whatever that means. Maybe that’s about cultural identity, and this book is less about cultural identity, as it is just about identity.…Culture shouldn’t be a genre.
“It will be nice when we don’t have to count how many diverse voices we have,” she says. “And that we don’t have to expect a story from a diverse voice to be that one representation of what diversity means.”
The desire to connect and belong underscores Basran’s fiction. Her characters reel from absence and grief, placing apparent success at risk in search of a sense of home. Rather than the metaphysical, Someone You Love Is Gone broaches a life’s worth and the facets of self—parent, child, sibling, spouse—that compose families and individuals alike.
“The thing that gives our lives meaning is hope that it can be different,” Basran says. “I know that comes up thematically as well. There’s a need to move on. There’s a hope that things will be better.”