A fairy tale ends with “they were married and lived happily after”. The event of a wedding supposedly creates an after effect that permanently improves the lives of the participants. But in this novel, Padma Viswananathan presents another type of event that more plausibly has ever lasting consequences.
This book is partially about the Air India bombing that killed over two hundred Canadians. The people on that airplane were either Canadian born or naturalized. After the bombing, the Canadian Prime Minister got it into his head to send a letter of condolence to the Indian government. The characters in this novel resent not having any government condolences conveyed to them, their family members gone, their own lives forever diminished.
Viswanathan raises the question: “Who had lost what?” She writes, “No wonder they had failed, for eighteen years, to bring it to trial.” The government and the media didn’t seem to address that this event was about Canadians. When the trial was finally held, and concluded, the result was an acquittal. The person likely responsible for building the bomb was eventually sentences to nine years for perjury, only. There has always been a sense of bewilderment over the failure of our system to investigate, coherently process findings, and efficiently take this to trial. To be diligent, in other words.
But this novel is about much more than the details of the case, it’s about how individuals cope with the politics and results of vengeance. The author attempts to delineate the historic details of who first sinned against whom, but since none of that is knowable, the effect is more to see how a train of vengeance careens through individual’s lives, unstoppable.
Grim though the subject matter is, this novel is fascinating. The brave author takes on the persona of a middle aged man, a psychologist who lost his sister, and her children, his beloved niece and nephew in the bombing. Ashwin Rao returns to Canada for the trial, although he doesn’t expect much of an outcome.
The author has created an utterly convincing character, who is devastated, yet doggedly getting on with his own dreary life. Consumed with imaginings of how his sister and the kids must have died, he meanders through a lakeside park. “Snow on a far peak. Goose turds on the lawn. Wild rose bush at the water’s edge. Child on a blow-up alligator. Birds in the trees, those dying generations at their song.
Turgid, clay-coloured clouds-here they came. Their unpredictability was the most predictable thing about them. I rose and turned my back on the lake. Behind me a splash, as of a boy falling out of the sky. The rain began.”
Lonely and isolated, he gloms on to a family in the fictional town, Lohikarma, in British Columbia. I confess to loving this novel partly because this Lohikarma seems to represent Nelson, BC, a town quite weird in itself, worthy of being written up as a character in a novel, although the author makes Nelson a much bigger and better place than it probably is. The university is not only still going, it’s thriving, modern and fairly large and legitimately employing people! Of course, the instructors grumble among themselves about it being a bit of a backwater. As ashram peopled with the white ladies is sulwar kameez outfits rankle an Indian born female character, especially because the outfits are old fashioned, and out of style. A sly humour snakes through this entire novel, despite the empty sadness all the characters experience.
Mostly this is a book about characters:
Ashwin Rao is the sad psychologist who narrates the novel, even from the point of view of the other characters, yet always insightfully.
There is the family whom Ashwin has become infatuated with, Seth, a kindly professor who reminds him of his own father; Lakshmi, the wife, whom Ashwin finds very sexy despite her stern correctness; and Brinda the eldest daughter, whose beauty also tantalizes Ashwin, though he tells himself he is only attracted to her because she reminds him of whom his niece might have grown into, if she had lived. They are coping with Seth’s dismal colleague Venkat, who has surrounded himself with uncaged parrots after losing his wife and son to the disaster. He teaches his favourite parrot the catch phrases of ring wing Hindu nationalism, which Ashwin finds especially apt, being repeated by a parrot. The final character is Lohikarma itself, a vision of Nelson, breathtakingly beautiful, and only slightly less weird than it really is.
The plot is complex, bizarre, unpredictable and irresistible, yet always perfectly plausible, especially if you’ve ever been to Nelson. What with this latest airplane dissapearance (Malaysian Airlines Mh370), there is an added resonance that makes this novel highly recommendable.
Reviewed by Mary Oxendale Spensley