The Ever After of Ashwin Rao author Padma Viswanathan explores Air India tragedy with hindsight

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      During a trip to India, Nelson-born novelist Padma Viswanathan was asked why she wrote a book about the 1985 bombing of an Air India jet. She recalls being told that she was dredging up “old grudges” and “things from our past that we are ashamed of” in The Ever After of Ashwin Rao, which was short-listed for the 2014 Scotiabank Giller Prize.

      However, she feels that fiction can help people make sense of major incidents in the past.

      “Sometimes it takes a generation for people to understand the significance of what happened—and also for information to come out in various ways,” Viswanathan told the Georgia Straight by phone from Vancouver International Airport. “Unfortunately, we often cannot understand a historical event until quite a bit after it happens.”

      A central character in her novel is a McGill-educated psychologist, Ashwin Rao. He has written about survivors of a 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom in Delhi, which immediately followed the assassination of then prime minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards. While researching a new book on grief, Ashwin attends the trial of those charged with the Air India bombing that killed his sister and her children.

      Viswanathan’s title character is bothered by a 1987 nonfiction book, The Sorrow and the Terror: The Haunting Legacy of the Air India Tragedy, which was one of the first major examinations of the mass murder. Ashwin thinks the book portrayed victims as being worthy of recognition because they were hard-working, contributing immigrants rather than simply because they were Canadians.

      “I didn’t want to let either Canada or India off the hook [by] either claiming this as a solely Canadian tragedy or something that just happened over there,” Viswanathan said. “It’s something that’s really at the nexus of relationships between places—and the way people travel between those places—whether it’s physically or culturally.”

      Viswanathan, who lives in Arkansas, is one of several writers who will appear at this year’s Indian Summer festival, which runs from July 9 to 18 in Vancouver and Surrey. She’ll appear alongside Canadian author Jaspreet Singh, whose 2013 novel Helium focuses on the massacre of almost 3,000 Sikhs in Delhi. Helium explores how this bloodshed was fomented by high-ranking members of Gandhi’s Congress Party who sought revenge for the prime minister’s death at the hands of her bodyguards.

      “I’ve rarely been on-stage with people who might know my subject almost as well or better than I do,” Viswanathan said. “The fact that it’s a spontaneous event excites me.”

      Even though Ashwin’s name appears in the title of Viswanathan’s book, she initially planned to focus on another character, a physics professor named Seth who knew people who had died on the plane. But she said she eventually realized that Seth, who has a fascination for an Indian guru, could not bring a wider context to the book.

      “It was Ashwin, then, who entered as the person who was going to be able to do that,” she said. “He’s a lot less likable than Seth. He’s more obnoxious, but he’s also willing to call a spade a spade with regard to sectarian politics.”

      She pointed out that Indian political leaders can harness the country’s pluralism in a positive or negative direction. Viswanathan added that the roots of the mid-1980s communal bloodshed went back many years, emphasizing that Sikhs were jailed at a much higher rate than other resisters during Gandhi’s emergency rule from 1975 to 1977. Even though Viswanathan doesn’t feel that Gandhi was solely responsible for the violence, the author said that the Sikh community’s loyalty to a plural notion of India was well-known and long-standing.

      In June 1984, tensions exploded after Gandhi ordered the Indian army to launch a bloody attack on Sikhism’s holiest shrine, the Golden Temple complex in Amritsar, to flush out armed militants. This provoked Gandhi’s bodyguards to fire dozens of bullets into her four months later while actor Peter Ustinov was waiting in her garden to conduct an interview. The subsequent slaughter of Sikhs in Delhi and other centres enraged the diaspora, including militants in Vancouver, who placed bombs on two Air India jets less than a year later.

      Viswanathan’s Ashwin doesn’t care about the alleged perpetrators of this mass murder. “He feels the outcome of the trial makes no difference to him,” she said. “I didn’t focus on the perpetrators in my novel because I was much more interested in the effects on the families.”

      Padma Viswanathan and Jaspreet Singh will speak at 6 p.m. on Friday (July 10) at the Goldcorp Centre for the Arts at SFU Woodward’s.



      Radha Padmanabhan

      Jul 10, 2015 at 9:31am

      Excellent work and exploration by the author Padma Viswanathan. Hats off to her great work