The Ever After of Ashwin Rao by Padma Viswanathan
The Ever After of Ashwin Rao by Padma Viswanathan is a recent novel about the 1985 bombing of Air India flight 182, its aftermath and the lives of those who lost family members in this tragedy. Ironically, this novel was published just as another airliner has disappeared, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, full of people who have also left families grieving.
In Canada we are quite familiar with the Air India bombing, we’ve read about it in our newspapers and it has been the topic of other novels, the best in my opinion Can You Hear the Nightbird Call? by Anita Rau Badami.
The Ever After of Ashwin Rao examines the lives of family members who are left to grieve, over the 20 years that pass from the day Air India 182 went down until the first trial takes place in 2004 – 2005. Twenty years is a long time – the survivors have aged while those who died have not – and their loss is felt forever.
Ashwin Rao is an Indian psychologist, trained in Canada, where he is engaged in a study of the grieving families. In encouraging them tell their “story” he hopes to help them come to terms with their loss.
Because the Air India tragedy was real – is real – while the characters in the novel are fiction there is a tangled web of truth and make believe, and you may recognize some of those who are real. I did not find the fictional Ashwin Rao completely convincing, but thought his story was secondary to the story of those he was interviewing - and those characters I did find both convincing and compelling.
Much of the novel is set in the fictional community of Lohikarma, a small town in the Kootneys of British Columbia, home to many immigrants from India. They came to this beautiful place to make a new life away from religious conflict. Here there is a university where many of the characters teach or study, and there is a religious community following the teachings of the guru Shivashakti where some find solace.
The facts of the bombing are woven into the story so that we come to understand how it was possible for the perpetrators to have achieved their aim to destroy this plane and kill all of these people, mostly Canadians of Indian ancestry. Although there were moments when my eyes glazed over as I read about the Indian politics and history that led to this bombing we need to understand it, because, as Padma Viswanathan writes ”the chains of history rattle” when the conflicts in India are brought to Canada along with the immigrants who came here.
It is the story of the struggles of the family members and their relationships that speak to our hearts. One, a father, travels with other family members, to Ireland where there were some recovered bodies to identify. As they step off the plane at the County Cork airport, “They made eye contact, acknowledging that they, too, had been singled out by history, tapped on the shoulder and asked to step out of the long file of people shuffling obliviously forward into an unknown future of children, grandchildren, spouses with whom to grow old.”
The novel ends with many family members in attendance for the verdict of a rather inconclusive trial in the spring of 2005. Some will find they have passed through the worst of their grief, while others may never find peace. Rao Ashwin will move on to another project, but this tragedy will forever be part of his life as it is for those he has interviewed.