I read, and greatly enjoyed, The Toss of a Lemon years ago. Now Padma Viswanathan is back, this time with a Giller Prize nomination, again with a book connected to India, but now one firmly grounded in Canada’s history and conflicted mixture of cultural obligations as well. The Ever After of Ashwin Rao is every bit as complex and emotionally sensitive as one might expect from a literary award nominee. While it didn’t quite engender the same lasting sense of enjoyment that I seem to recall The Toss of a Lemon creating, it still manages to be a marvellous work of fiction.
Despite its title, I’d argue that The Ever After of Ashwin Rao is not, actually, about Ashwin Rao. He is the nominal protagonist and the first-person narrator for most of the book. And, true, Viswanathan spends a lot of time developing him as a character: the events of the book affect him, and we seem him coming to terms with his own losses. But over time, the story of Seth’s family overshadows Ashwin’s own narrative. Viswanathan shares details he couldn’t have access to—though, I suppose, there is an argument to be made that all of these details are actually part of a narrative Ashwin wrote, as part of his narrative therapy procedure, and do not actually reflect what happened. How’s that for an unreliable narrator?
Regardless, my point is that this book is about so much more than a single man working through his grief. Viswanathan’s careful creation of an Indian–Canadian psychologist who is looking to create a book of interviews and stories about those grieving over the Air India Disaster, when he himself lost a sister and niece and nephew in the disaster, is clever and heartwrenching to equal degrees. She fixates upon one of the most prominent and tragic events in recent Canadian history, yet she manages to capture the most human elements and reactions to it. Although the trial of the alleged perpetrators is ongoing in the background, it never takes the forefront—it is just setting, a way of establishing the atmosphere and tone in which Ashwin does his work.
As humans (sorry, aliens and robots who are reading this in the far future when my reviews are the only remaining corpus of human writing), we all have some kind of experience with grief. We know that grief has strange, unforeseeable and lasting effects on individuals. We handle it in different ways. Some people gather their grief close to their chests, hoarding it as if the feeling alone can somehow compensate them for their loss; others want to share and open up and form new connections as compensation for ones they will never feel again. There is no right or wrong way to grieve, provided your grieving process is right and healthy for you.
Ashwin isn’t interested in the grieving process, however, so much as he is interested in the aftermath of that process. With twenty years passed since the disaster, he wants to know how well families have “adjusted” to what happened. The immediate feelings of grief are gone—and what is left? This is the “ever after” of the book’s title: the harsh and inescapable truth that, when people die, we keep going. And like a ripple propagating forward through time after a time-traveller inadvertently steps on a butterfly, this grief has profound but subtle influences on the people it touches.
For me, the highlight of this book is not so much any individual’s portrayal as it is the way Viswanathan contrasts Indian and Canadian cultures. Ashwin, Seth, Venkat, and Lakshmi are all Indians who immigrated to Canada (though in Ashwin’s case, he then moved back to India)—they have a “Canadian experience” that has affected them, but they were essentially raised Indian. Seth and Lakshmi’s daughters, on the other hand, are Canadian by birth, Indian by heritage. Their conceptual framework is quite different—and they were so young when the disaster struck that their reactons differ in that respect as well. Viswanathan is sensitive to these differences in her characterization, making for a rich tapestry of human emotions and behaviours.
Ashwin draws parallels between the Air India Disaster and the Golden Temple massacre in India, where Indian military forces stormed a Sikh temple that was under the control of resistance forces. This led to massive fallout: Gandhi’s subsequent assassination at the hands of her Sikh bodyguards, and then mob-conducted pogroms against Sikh families in India to which the government and police turned a blind eye. Later in the book Ashwin continues to ruminate on the complicated, fragmented nature of Indian religious consciousness: how Britain divided its colonial possession along Hindu and Muslim lines, leaving the Sikhs out in the cold. Do the Sikhs “deserve” or “need” their own nation? Is it even right or reasonable to silo people by religious identity? Even though I am capable of comprehending and considering these questions from an abstract perspective, it’s impossible for me to understand them in the context that a character like Ashwin, who grew up in India, does. I was reminded, once again, of how my own life and upbringing and privilege to live in a “stable” and “boring” place like Thunder Bay, Canada has influenced my perception of what the world is like.
Of course, the Air India Disaster was not really an Indian disaster but a Canadian one, even if our government didn’t seem to take that point at the time. The victims were, by and large, Canadians—that they happened to be of Indian descent, on an Indian-owned airline, was beside the point. The perpetrators, too, were likely Canadian—albeit influenced by Indian–Sikh radical ideologies, sure. But as Viswanathan and my own Wikipedia-fuelled research indicate, it’s not like CSIS and the RCMP were totally ignorant of potential threats. They just didn’t act on them. Then, in the years that followed, a strange silence and reluctance to admit wrongdoing. Two decades before a trial.
That idea that the Air India disaster was not the Canadian government’s responsibility because the passengers were of Indian descent is the potent descendent of a much more overt and noxious colonialist streak that runs through our history. Viswanathan invokes the Komagata Maru incident, reminding us that Canada was very much “for white British subjects only” well into its time as sovereign country. I don’t know if it’s because of or in spite of our stereotypical reputation for politeness and fairness that we don’t want to talk about, acknowledge, or make amends towards those sorts of missteps in our past … despite our pretensions towards humility on the world stage, we are not so different from that country to our south (Canada’s sweater), and the close ties we maintained with mother Britain occasionally meant we were worse. The fact that, in 1985, these people didn’t receive better posthumous treatment because of their ethnicity and heritage speaks to the continued conflict within Canada about what it means to be Canadian, to be a citizen, to have “a Canadian culture.” That is a conflict that remains as-of-yet unresolved.
This is probably why the book is so affecting, why it’s so difficult to read despite being, on its surface, placid and perhaps even dull in its lack of events to punctuate its equilibrium. It evokes so many ideas, especially uncomfortable ones. I dragged my heels reading this—it’s a reasonable-length book, and I’m reading one that is arguably longer now in about the space of two days—but you need to take your time to let the feelings sink in.
I said earlier I didn’t enjoy this as much as Viswanathan’s first novel. That shouldn’t be taken as criticism of this one. Enjoyment probably isn’t the most appropriate term for a book like this. And they are different types of stories: one is a sprawling, multi-generational look at changing attitudes, while the other is a more constrained attempt to chart the vicissitudes of grief. It’s difficult to compare them or judge one against the other, so I don’t want to try. Both are probably worth reading, if this sort of fiction—Indian-Canadian, semi-historical, emotional and literary in tone and breadth—is what you’re in the mood for. It’s heavy; I should have gone for a definitely-lighter book afterwards but seem to have ended up with a similarly moving title instead. Such is life.
I don’t want to go into spoiler territory discussing the twist or the denouement that follows. Suffice it to say, I’m not sure I understand the impulse that led Viswanathan to do that—but I understand the sentiment behind those closing pages. We spend so much of our life at the mercy of chance events, of others’ actions, of unforeseen consequences that influence our own opportunities. There is an impulse in all of us to act, to move, which can either manifest itself as lashing out or as reaching out, depending on our emotional pique of the moment. Above all else, there is that fundamental and unshakeable truth: time marches on. We can’t go back. We can’t revisit loved ones long gone; we can’t undo mistakes—ours or others’.
Like Seth, heading along the beach and into the ocean, we have only one choice: do we walk or do we run into our future? Do we cower, or do we embrace it with open arms?