Can You Hear The Nightbird Call?
Anita Rau Badami
Random House of Canada
A dangerous question, glimmering with risk and possibility, but one Montreal novelist Anita Rau Badami asked herself as a girl growing up in India. Why not tell tales? The stories the imaginative Badami spun as a child in convent school were not always well received by the nuns who taught her. “What big lies you tell!” one of them chided. “Please ask your mother to see me.”
Readers will be grateful that nothing stopped Badami from telling tales. The Montreal-based, 45-year-old author’s two best-selling novels, Tamarind Mem and The Hero’s Walk, have now been joined by her most ambitious and powerful work yet, Can You Hear the Nightbird Call?
As we chat in Badami’s NDG home over steaming cups of chai, her dark eyes glow, mischievous one moment, grave the next. She is warm and intense with a throaty and unfettered laugh which punctuates our talk.
“I never thought about being anything else,” Badami says when asked why she became a writer. “I always loved reading and didn’t need any other entertainment.”
Badami worked as a journalist and wrote children’s stories before turning to the novel. “I treat my writing like a job,” she emphasizes. She has the classic “room of one’s own” in her home and works from nine in the morning until about three or four in the afternoon, “with breaks for tea and lunch.” Evenings are spent with her family, but nights Badami is back at her desk, revising. “I love the quality of silence,” she says.
Badami’s influences include Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children and “most everything by Dickens. I admire the way these masters handle history, always secondary to story,” she says.
“My memory keeps getting in the way of your history,” reads the epigraph to the novel, and a traumatic piece of lived history was the catalyst for Nightbird. “It was autumn of 1984,” Badami recalls, “just after Indira Gandhi was assassinated by two of her Sikh bodyguards. I’d been married two weeks. My husband and I were travelling back to Delhi after our honeymoon. From our bus window I saw a Sikh man set on fire, then thrown over a bridge.”
The traumatic incident is the seed for what became Can You Hear the Nightbird Call? However, Badami didn’t begin work on the novel until 1995, when “the revenge killings of innocent Sikhs became linked in my mind with the Air India disaster of 1985.” The novel took her six years to write.
Her biggest challenge in writing Nightbird, Badami says, was “keeping the history in backdrop, not letting it eat up the story. I wanted to humanize the facts, to give life and shape to the dry bones of history and to the randomness of reality.”
She achieves her intention, linking the lives of three women whose fates are entwined by love, chance, and ultimately, the cycle of violence. The story spans over half a century, from the years leading up to the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947 to the explosion of the Air India flight. The narrative moves seamlessly between the personal and political; this is a novel in the truest sense, where issues are explored to their depths through freshly imagined characters and a compelling story.
We live side by side with Bibi-ji, the most brash and beautiful of the three heroines, who grows up poor and fatherless in Panjaur. From age four, her job is to pick up the excrement of the family’s cows. The smell invades her days, spoiling her relish of rice and dal, and poisons her dreams. Before her father disappears when Bibi-ji is six, he infects his younger daughter with the dream of Canada, a golden promised land whose name sounds to the little girl “like the mournful call of geese flying over fields,” a place rich with luxuries like lavender soap and chocolate. It’s also a place where magic happens: the poor come back rich, not only with money, but with the greater wealth of knowledge.
Bibi-ji, inheritor of her father’s dream and that troublesome “Why not?” question, steals the heart of her sister’s fiancé. Returning with him to Vancouver, the couple open a café which becomes the hub of the vibrant “desi” community. Indians and Pakistanis cluster at the same tables, discussing their lives, bound by a taut rope to “home.”
Once settled in Vancouver, Bibi-ji meets the pale-eyed Leela, who becomes her new neighbour. Born and bred in Bangalore, with a German mother and an Indian father, Leela struggles with the stigma of being “a half-and-half,” underlining the novel’s theme of in-betweenness. On the way to the airport (from India back to Canada) a young taxi driver hands Leela a slip of paper with his name and address. His wife Nimmo has an aunt in Vancouver, where Leela and her husband are headed. It turns out that Bibi-ji is, in fact, Nimmo’s aunt.
And so the three women’s lives converge. This is a novel where women are front and centre, transforming hardship and pain into potency. In Badami’s experience, “women never talk about getting back [home]. Instead they are focused on keeping their children safe, cooking their family’s next meal, and picking up the pieces of their lives. Women are resilient.”
Badami’s three heroines were partly inspired by a collection of survivors’ testimonies published by People’s Union for Democratic Rights/People’s Union for Civil Liberties in 1984 about the impact of the Delhi riots.
Though the novel deals with death, it is full of life. Badami vividly evokes the everyday sights, sounds, smells, and above all, tastes of both India and Canada. Readers may experience extreme cravings for samosas and parathas, for tandoori and naan, as their fragrant spices seem to emanate from the very pages.
Badami also writes vividly about sexuality. “I don’t like heavy-handed sex scenes,” she says, “or men’s-mag porn. I try to make the sexual connection new, to get at the uniquieness of eroticism particular to a moment in my characters’ lives.” In a memorable scene between Nimmo and her husband Satpal, their youngest child has scribbled on the wall. As Satpal whitewashes over the marks, Nimmo tries to help, spattering most of the paint onto the floor. Satpal stands behind his wife, holding her hands in his, murmuring, “like this.” When they part, Nimmo’s and Satpal’s handprints remain on the wall. “Leave it,” Nimmo commands. “If our children can draw on our walls, why can’t we?” The handprints remain, emblems of the couple’s passion. Years later, when that same room is dark and smells of death, and Nimmo’s eyes settle on those handprints, “she would feel a tiny spark of that distant, joyous moment when her husband’s body had lain on hers, warm and so very alive.”
The novel reaches a devastating climax when the conflicts of the past erupt into the lives of all three women. Followers of Indira Gandhi order the army into the Golden Temple, the holiest of Sikh shrines. The resulting destruction leads to Gandhi’s assassination by two of her Sikh bodyguards, which in turn triggers revenge killings of innocent Sikhs, such as Badami witnessed on the bridge. Less than a year later, Air India Flight 182, en route from Canada to India, explodes off the coast of Ireland, killing all 329 people on board. Two Canadian Sikhs are charged. The escalation of violence in India, which reverberates in the Indo-Canadian community, pushes Badami’s three resilient heroines to their limits. To the author’s credit, we experience these events through the lives, thoughts and experiences of her characters; we live through the devastation with them.
Badami proves that a novel can bring home the impact of political events with an immediacy and power that newscasts and historical texts cannot. Badami’s novel has universal resonance. “Readers feel the impact of history without having necessarily experienced it,” she says. “The story drags you in.”
Can You Hear the Nightbird Call? is ultimately a story about connectedness between people and their far-flung worlds, just as in “Indra’s Net,” a mythical story read by Leela’s daughter:
Indra, the god of heaven flung a net over the world…At each node of this net there hung a gem…if you looked at one you saw all the others reflected in it….When one gem was touched, hundreds of others shimmered…in response, and a tear in the net made the whole world tremble.
Badami is already on to her next novel. “It has a lot of snow in it” is all she will give away. We will just have to wait, but no matter. Badami is the real thing. mRb