Can You Hear the Nightbird Call?
By Anita Rau Badami
By Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez / @ZaraAlexis
Author: Anita Rau Badami
Format: Hardcover, 432 pages
Publisher: Knopf Canada
Pub Date: September 5, 2006
What began as a somewhat hopeful book, quickly and devastatingly spiralled into a travesty. I was left with the shock of death and loss for all characters and after reading the novel I was angry at its historical injustices.
At the same time, I regretted investing emotional attachments to characters that were deeply flawed. My sense of the novel’s downfall lay at the heart of its characters’ weakness to pride.
Harjot Singh is listless and “disappears” long before he actually decides to leave his family, his pride wounded because he was unable to freely land ashore once he arrived to Vancouver by ship on the Komagata Maru.
His daughter, Sharanjeet (Bibi-ji) Kaur, privately resents her station in life and her duties, unhappy to be obedient to her mother or selfless to her sister, Kanwar. This attitude is not entirely due to her spoiled upbringing, but rather an internal pride, vanity, and materialistic ambition that drives her to first steal her sister’s marriage prospect, Khushwant (Pa-ji) Singh from her sister, and then eventually her niece’s own son, Jasbeer.
Leela (Shastri) Bhat is ostracized by her grandmother, Akka, and her father’s relatives because she is considered a “half-breed,” a daughter of a Punjab, Hari Shastri, and an English woman, Rosa Schweers. Rather than accept her genetic fate and cultural liminality, she loathes her own grey eyes, fair skin, and “White” culture. Instead she prides herself in becoming the wife of a prosperous and prestigious man, Balachandra (Balu) Bhat, who comes from a well known Punjab family and high caste, and submerges herself into adhering to traditional Indian practices. Leela, opposite of Bibi-ji, resents being pulled from her home in India to Vancouver, fearful of becoming, yet again, nameless. Though she suffered racial cruelty from her Indian grandmother, she fails to accept her son’s choice in marriage to an English woman.
These and other characters provide a backdrop to the cruelty and harshness of the warring factions of the Hindu, Muslim, and Sikh people, which led to The Partition of India (with its Hindu majority) and Pakistan (with its Muslim majority). Violent acts of brutality by government and militant groups climaxed to the eventual killings of pilgrims at the Golden Temple. This act in itself prompted the assassination of Prime Minister, Indira Ghandi, which then led to vengeful killings of Sikhs throughout India. And a year later, Air India Flight 182 is bombed, killing 329 people on board from Canada over the Atlantic Ocean.
Perhaps it is Badami’s intent to situate her characters at the “wrong time in the wrong place,” but also to propel them forward into devastation and loss due to wrong choices, which stem from deeply rooted pride and discord.
The book is without resolution, but is a haunting reminder of the brutality and injustice of war, the interconnectedness between people, their actions, and their consequences, and the cost of life for the sake of land, name, autonomy, and religious freedom, where moderation seems to be the best answer though it is rarely used.
It is a novel of extremes, but then, extremity is at the heart of this book’s subject, while a lesson of temperance is still yet to be learned.