When Multiculturalism Fell into the Sea

A fictional psychologist attempts to heal the trauma of the Indo-Canadian community

How many times can identity be hyphenated? What if an emigrant’s new country refuses to accept that person, or does so only superficially? Does death assign a permanent identity? What if no country claims the corpse?

In The Ever After of Ashwin Rao, Padma Viswanathan’s second novel, Ashwin Rao, a Canadian-trained psychologist, loses his sister, niece and nephew in the catastrophic June 1985 bombing of Air India flight 182 from Montreal to London and Delhi. After graduation from McGill University as a foreign student, Rao returns to India. But in 2004, when the British Columbia Supreme Court begins the trial of two suspects, he travels to Canada to interview the families directly or indirectly affected by the disaster. Rao’s therapeutic technique is to turn their suffering into a narrative that can help them heal.

The Ever After of Ashwin Rao offers scant insight into Rao’s own psyche—a grieving middle-aged bachelor, a witness to violence against Sikhs in his predominantly Hindu community in India—but details instead the emotional lives of two interviewees, Seth and his daughter, Brinda, who have lost friends in the attack.

Seth, a physics professor in Lohikarma (a fictional town in British Columbia) is in close contact with Venkat, whose wife and son were on the attacked plane. Venkat, a colleague and a member of Seth’s extended family, and an already difficult person, grows ever more irrational and is incapable of coping with the tragedy; he becomes a burden to Seth and his family, who must find a way to care for him.

The book is about grief, about losing loved ones and finding a means to fill the vacuum. It explores how characters react to their pain: with denial, religion, logic, depression or revenge.

The novel starts in 2004 but contains many flashbacks. Seth had been traumatized when he accompanied Venkat to Ireland in 1985 to identify the recovered bodies. Dazed by the shock, Seth stared into the Atlantic Ocean for hours on end, chased after the flotsam the waves washed ashore, unsure of what he might find. Seth and Venkat saw or heard about disfigured corpses, some attacked by sharks. Venkat calmed himself through Hindu rituals. Seth discovered that prayers soothed him.

After returning to Canada, unable to share his horrific experiences with his family, Seth began a quest for a god to heal him and help him make sense of what he had witnessed. Eventually he became the follower of a guru named Shivashakti, a man often considered God by his devotees. Seth’s daughter, Brinda, who was romantically involved with a boy who had been aboard the downed plane, hid her wounds by staying in a sexless marriage for a decade. She reveals the truth to Rao when she finds herself in need of therapy.

The chapters alternate between Rao’s, Brinda’s and Seth’s perspective but written by Rao as his therapeutic technique. Little direct detail is provided about the mental state of Venkat, since he refused Rao’s interview request.

In addition to dealing with grief, religion and history, the novel examines the immigrant experience. Lakshimi, Seth’s wife, took up secular meditation in search of healing, happy that Canada, unlike India, offered her the freedom to be who she wanted to be without having to justify her decisions to every relative.

The bombing was a double trauma for these Indo-Canadians, who not only lost loved ones and their sense of security, but felt ignored by Canadian society—their society. The tragedy was trivialized, sometimes as brutally as when a man pushed through the crowd in front of the B.C. Supreme Court and spat out, “Go back home to the Dark Age! We don’t want your problems in Canada”—a remark that made both Seth and Rao feel “too humiliated for eye contact” when Venkat arrived. Prime Minister Brian Mulroney sent an official letter of condolence to the Indian government but no message of sympathy to the grieving Canadian families, making Indo-Canadians wonder which country they belonged to.

The trial, lasting almost 20 years, ends without providing closure. Three hundred twenty-nine people were killed, 82 of them children, and the Crown obtained only one conviction.

“It is hard to remember the only thing worth remembering: the difference, if any, between before and after the verdict. Not guilty … Who Are the Guilty? Only they and their Maker know,” thinks Rao.

Rao interviewed more people, but readers mainly get details about Seth and Brinda, non-practising Hindus who suffered from an act of sectarian violence perpetrated by the Sikhs. The book takes care to explore the pain of the Sikh communities and offers insight into the massacres and oppression that occurred during the 1984 occupation of the Golden Temple and the succeeding battle with the Indian Army. Rao had seen Sikhs burnt alive whose only crime was being born into a targeted religious group. Discrimination against Sikhs was not limited to India: they were treated as “first-class fighters [and] second-class citizens” in Canada. When Canada went to war, they were given soldiers’ uniforms but not the privileges that came with them.

Viswanathan compares the effects of the bombing of a plane containing hundreds of Canadians with those of the 9/11 attacks in the United States. “After the World Trade Tower attacks, nearly half of all Americans showed PTSD symptoms … Had Canadians suffered similarly, following the bombing? … Canadians at large did not feel themselves to have been attacked, although nearly every passenger aboard that flight was a born or naturalized Canadian.”

The author suggests that the September 11 attacks traumatized the western world, but the Air India bombing was perceived as a “brown-on-brown attack,” a matter that did not concern Canada.

Padma Viswanathan is a British Columbia–born author currently based in Arkansas. Although she did not lose a family member to the Air India tragedy, it has coloured her perspective. Hers is not the only book about that tragedy: another, Children of Air India: Un/Authorized Exhibits and Interjections, a collection of poetry by British Columbian Renée Sarojini Saklikar, was recently nominated for a B.C. Book Prize. And in 2006, Anita Rau Badami’s novel Did You Hear the Nightbird Call? made a strong attempt to address the conflicts and emotional stresses within the Indo-Canadian community after the bombing. These books provide a means for Indo-Canadians to deal with trauma and to document their history.

The Ever After of Ashwin Rao is an ambitious novel that tries to offer insights into the minds of many different characters at many different times, at the same time stitching in passages about philosophy, physics, mathematics, immigration, culture clash and other topics. These disparate and offhand elements are not always well integrated into the narrative: their weight and significance remain unexplained. Seth’s story achieves closure, but not Ashwin Rao’s, who is more interested in the lives of others than his own; readers are left wondering why the protagonist left his girlfriend and how his life will change after having written the narratives of his interviewees.