Can You Hear the Nightbird Call?

by Anita Rau Badami
432 pages,
ISBN: 0676976042

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Making a Home Anew
by Ingrid Ruthig

It's difficult not to be a little wary of books that are timely, political, and tug on the heartstrings. At its core, Anita Rau Badami's third novel, Can You Hear The Nightbird Call?, explores the politics of belonging, and asks: Where is home? Where does one go when not even 'home' proves safe?
Expanding on dominant themes in her previous novels, Tamarind Mem and The Hero's Walk (allegiances to family and home, and how identity and memory claim us), this book is ambitious in its intellectual and emotional scope and in its historical breadth. The novel spans more than fifty years, covering the 1947 Partition of India and Pakistan, along with subsequent conflicts and confrontations, and culminating in the explosion of Air India Flight 182 off the Irish coast in 1985. It tracks the lives of three women: Bibi-ji, Leela, and Nimmo. All three attain what they desire most, but find that these gains can be fleeting.
In India, as a child, Sharanjeet/Bibi-ji watches her father withdraw from his family. Eventually, overcome by the weight of unrealised dreams of a new life elsewhere, he leaves them altogether. The young, beautiful Sharanjeet, who "had been greedy for something much larger than the world she inhabited," takes up his cause. She comes to represent the dreamers and the ambitious, those who do whatever it takes to get what they believe they deserve.
The opening sentence seeds the book: "Years before she stole her sister Kanwar's fate and sailed across the world from India to Canada, before she became Bibi-ji, she was Sharanjeet Kaur." From those twenty-five words grows a study of the fragility of bonds, the makeshift nature of home, and identity.
Leela is one of the displaced, one who doesn't belong because of racial or religious differences. "She had once been Leela Shastri, the pale-eyed, thin daughter of Hari Shastri and Rosa Schweers, a half-and-half [Indian-German] hovering on the outskirts of their family's circle of love." Through marriage, she finds a sense of belonging, and asserts her social standing as a member of an important Brahmin family, only to relinquish that comfort when her husband moves them to Canada. There, she is determined to "cut this New World into the shape she wished it to be . . . She would redraw maps and mythologies like the settlers who came before her . . . Like them, she would make this corner of the world her own until it was time to return home." For Leela, being somebody is everything.
Finally, Nimmo, Bibi-ji's niece and only family member to survive the horrors of the Partition, struggles along with little knowledge of who she is. Her few childhood memories consist of vague flashes that she hesitates to accept as real. The images that do linger disturb her peace of mind: her mother hiding her in a grain bin just before the family's home is raided, and, upon creeping from her hiding place, the sight of her dead mother's feet suspended above the floor. For Nimmo, life boils down to seeking and trying to hold on to safety. "Her fear was a monstrous, silent thing that often woke her, sweating and shaking, from troubled sleep. It made her suspicious of everyone . . . every single one of them was a threat to her security, her peace of mind."
Many peripheral characters stream in and out of the novel, providing a broad picture of people in transition, adjusting to change. In Canada they are Leela's family, as well as the Indian immigrants who frequent Bibi-ji and Pa-ji's restaurant, The Delhi Junction, and live in the weigh station of the couple's large Vancouver house. In India, they are Nimmo's husband and children, including her sulky son Jasbeer, who is 'stolen' by his childless Aunty Bibi-ji, who offers to provide him with a Canadian education.
This book deals with the struggles of various characters for identity and sense of belonging, and with the inevitable shove-and-tug between those who are content with their lot and those who desire more. Even between family members there are reminders of the tenuous nature of all human relationships.
The writing itself raises only minor complaints. Foretelling slips into the otherwise trim prose a number of times: "Even later, the time came when she would sit in the same room, dark and filthy and smelling of death rather than fresh paint . . . " and " . . . he was wrong. Nine years later, Dr. Randhawa would return to Vancouver, and this time he would be greeted by an audience that not only filled the auditorium but flowed out of it as well." This telescoping disrupts the immediacy, jolting the reader out of the scene without serving the story in any way.
Badami's strength lies in portraying individuals and their interactions.The tensions and emotional intensity she manages to build draw the reader into each of her characters' lives, so that we're better able to understand and empathise with all sides. This subtle balancing act is no small achievement.
Can You Hear The Nightbird Call? is driven by the kind of hard-to-resolve issues that reflect all conflicts, past or present. It would be nice to think that one day we might live long enough to put painfully acquired wisdom into action, and that individuals will feel sufficiently confident to think for themselves, much as Bibi-ji's husband tries to do by building his own identity. "Pa-ji wouldn't deny he was fond of India, that it was a part of his being . . .But history was a picture hanging on the wall . . . It wouldn't do to let it swallow you whole." He declares, "What I am not wishing to do is interfere in the business of another country. I am Canadian . . ." Rather than adopt a view based on religion and politics, "in the blank state of a foreign country, Pa-ji came to understand, you could scribble the truth any way you wanted." By living in a place in the broadest sense, by separating people from the baggage of their past, he means to form his own unclouded perspective.
Nonetheless, uncertainty remains a constant, and it can be both exhausting and disheartening for those living with it. While tensions within the book resound with social-political difficulties and tragedies worldwide, the foreground scramble to make a better life, to move from old to new and find belonging is for many a painful daily reality.
Leela recalls her grandmother saying, "Nothing worse than to be a dangling person, a foot here and a foot there and a great gap in between. Imagine how painful it is to stay stretched like that forever." With this book, one which should garner much attention, Badami suggests that home can be found or made anew. Despite the conflicting tug of loyalties and differences, it's possible to place both feet solidly in one spot.

Ingrid Ruthig has completed a manuscript of her poetry, The History of Falling, and is editing a collection of essays on the work of Richard Outram. She co-edits LICHEN Arts & Letters Review.

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