Can You Hear the Nightbird Call? By Anita Rau Badami
Once again as I finished this book I thought, like with so many others, about how fortunate I am that I live in Canada, a country where I take my safety for granted. I live in peace and freedom. I do not fear a knock on the door. For many people living in countries such as India there is not such an assumption of safety – and for some immigrants to Canada there is still fear of the danger of violence and revenge-seeking enemies from their homeland here as well. Can You Hear the Nightbird Call? opens in India in 1928, amid a peaceful community of Sikhs and Hindus who live in close proximity to their Muslim neighbours. This peace is shattered in 1947 with the withdrawal of the British and the partition of the country into India and Pakistan. In the violence of this time innocent people are murdered and the seeds are sown for generations of intolerance and revenge.
We follow the lives of three women and their families – their lives connected between India and Canada. Bibi-ji, the eldest, used her charms to secure a good husband. He is a man who has ambition and sees his future in Canada. They immigrate in 1946, before the violence that came with partition - violence in which Bibi-ji's only sister is killed and her niece Nimmo forever damaged by the trauma of her mother's death. Safely away in Canada, Bibi-ji embraces her new life; she and her husband establish a restaurant, The Delhi Junction, which becomes a meeting place for new immigrants, many of whom live with Bibi-ji and her husband. Bibi-ji watches over them as they learn English and the customs of western living - by watching the daytime soap operas. It is a good life.
Leela and her husband immigrate to Vancouver after partition, where they are welcomed by Bibi-ji, first as tenants and later as friends. In India the Sikhs and Hindus are fighting but here in Vancouver these women and their families find they have much in common, and see each others different traditions as interesting rather than threatening. Leela, who is the daughter of a Hindu father and a German mother, had never felt at home in India where she was seen as an oddity. The mixture of cultures and colours in Vancouver give her a freedom of place that she has never before known.
Nimmo is the niece of Bibi-ji. Bibi-ji searched for her family members after the violence of partition and is overjoyed to discover that Nimmo is alive. Nimmo is married to a loving husband and has three children when Bibi-ji makes contact. Nimmo and her husband are struggling to support their family and agree to allow their eldest son, Jasbeer, to come to Canada and be raised and educated by the childless Bibi-ji.
These characters are all in place in Vancouver and India - living in peace and prosperity until1984. The chain of events that end this peace includes the decision by Indira Gandhi’s government to send an army into a Sikh temple. Rioting ensues, many are killed, and a short time later Indira Gandhi is assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards.
The country erupts into violence and the lives of these women and their families are changed forever.
Badami says, “After Indira Gandhi was assassinated, we did think that there might be some trouble. But nobody expected it to go beyond basic anger, sorrow or anything.” In a CBC radio interview Badami tells of travelling with her husband by bus toward Delhi at this time. “As we progressed down a hill to Delhi, we saw signs of growing anger against the Sikhs — which was really unfair, because it was two people who had assassinated the prime minister, but the anger was directed at Sikhs in general, who were innocent people,” she says. “We saw a man being thrown over a culvert into a dry riverbed; he had been set on fire. When we reached Delhi, it was like a war zone.” In the ensuing months, many Sikhs were murdered. Badami knew that the repercussions would be devastating.
In her novel Badami describes the changes that take place in Vancouver after the assassination of Indira Gandhi. Neighbours, Sikh and Hindu, who had previously lived as friends were now divided - there is escalating tension in the community. Jasbeer is now a young man and Bibi-ji watches helplessly as he is drawn into an increasingly militant organization of Sikhs. Badami asks herself, “What is it that drags them there? I was curious about that, and I still haven’t found a particular answer. I think any of these people who turn into a quote-unquote terrorist gets there by different routes.”
The novel culminates in the Air India bombing on 23 June 1985, killing all 329 passengers and crew. Badami was still living in India at the time and witnessed the grief first hand as her neighbour’s wife had been killed on that flight. He later committed suicide.
Badami herself immigrated to Canada in 1991, and in 1996 published her first novel Tamarind Mem, followed by Hero’s Walk in 2000. Can You Hear the Nightbird Call? was, for Badami, a story brewing since the assassination of Indira Gandhi, and only now, twenty years after the Air India bombing has it been told.
And - advance notice of one of our readings in the fall of 2007 - Anita Rau Badami will be reading at the Charles W. Stockey Centre on Tuesday, 16 October at 7:30 p.m.