The Ever After of Ashwin Rao, by Padma Viswanathan
Terrorist acts beget more terrorist acts, retaliations so horrifying, sins jumping across to the next perpetrators, down the line, till it’s our own family members dying nasty deaths at the hands of someone out to get revenge.
In The Ever After of Ashwin Rao, the narrator is a lonely middle aged psychologist, gentle and kind, but also struggling. He is emotionally shut down after the deaths of his sister and her two children, his niece and nephew. Their deaths were the result of the Air India bombing in 1985. The plane departed from Vancouver, BC, en route to London and then New Delhi and Bombay. The Canadian authorities responsible for investigation and persecution fumbled and bumbled, the trial not beginning till April of 2003. Almost two years later, two of the accused were found not guilty, the third plead guilty and got a five year prison term, which was later extended due to further charges of perjury.
Although this novel is not historical fiction, it contains elements of the Canadian trial, along with historic details of tragedies and pogroms in India which were the catalyst for this tragedy.
Ashwin is now researching how people cope with the aftermath of a tragedy, which leads him back to Canada to witness the trial and write about individuals who have been affected.. He has largely buried his own feelings regarding his family’s loss, when he becomes infatuated with a family whom he is researching. He sees the weirdness and even the humour of his infatuation with the family patriarch, who reminds him of his father, his sexual attraction to the man’s very proper wife , and his sexual attraction to their eldest bewildered daughter. Yet he is helpless to resist his ‘crush’ on this family, whom he interviews and writes up in his case studies as his ‘subjects’. Even uncomfortable with describing them to himself as ‘subjects’, he wrestles with his own stifled emotions.
The writing is exquisite, and Ashwin’s insights are keen. Noting another ‘subject’s’ spiral into vengeance, Ashwin writes in his journal: “Daily life depended on the suppression of a person’s worst fears. Bereavement kicked open the doors to let the demons swell, stretch their tongues, show their fiery eyes.” The loss is so maddening, it naturally leads to further bad decisions. This character becomes a focal point for worry by the rest of the characters at this point.
The Canadian government and many people don’t work hard at consoling the bereaved, either. After the bombing, the Canadian Prime Minister sends a telegram of condolence to the India's Prime Minister, despite the fact the people on board the airplane were all Canadian born or naturalized. Although their origins, or ancestor’s origins were Indian, they were Canadians. The author suggests this denial was a factor in the government’s failure to pursue the criminals, bring them efficiently to trial, and find them guilty. Not only are the characters disillusioned by these factors, but scalding racial insults further take their toll.
Despite the grim historic realities in this novel, there are moments of humour as well. The family and others whom Ashwin interviews live in a fictional town, Lohikarma, BC, which surely resembles Nelson, BC, a town so interesting it’s worthy of this characterization.
In reality Nelson is a small city of mostly pink faces who purchase Indian groceries, practice yoga, use Sanskrit phrases among themselves, even when meeting strangers, and use ‘Namaste’ as a standard greeting. The proportion of population who’ve travelled to India is astonishingly high, so it’s not surprising that Viswanathan created this bigger and better version of Nelson, her Lohikarma.
Has she been to Nelson? Was she intrigued or appalled? Her painterly descriptions of the lake, European types practicing Eastern traditions, steepness of sidewalk stairs cut into mountain sides, and the beauty of the town depict a fondness for the place, if not a sense of bewildered head shaking.
At one point, Viswanathan reveals a conversation and reaction between two characters,“ ‘where is mind?’ he enquired, aflame with insight. ‘Is it here?’ he wanted to know, pointing at his temple… I resisted the urge to point at my elbow, my ass, my open door.” The plot of this novel bounces around unexpectedly and paints a vivid description of the people, town and its environs. It’s a fun read, compelling but painfully serious too.
This book probes the human psyche when hell bent on vengeance, but it illuminates with kindness and humour. If the beast of vengeance is about to devour you, this might be a therapeutic novel for you to read. Or perhaps you could pass this title on to someone who’s been a worry to you lately?