Anatomy of grief

Can grief be mapped? Does it have a form, a shape, an anatomy? Does the pain of loss ever heal or does one keep on unravelling till the very end?

Padma Viswanathan’s protagonist steps into these deep, swirling questions almost 20 years after an act of terrorism left hundreds bereft. His quest isn’t merely academic, for he himself holds a painful secret related to the tragedy close to his heart.

The Ever After of Ashwin Rao is based on a real-life tragedy that took place on June 23, 1985. An Air India flight between Montreal and New Delhi via London was bombed out of the sky over Irish waters. More than 300 people died, mostly Canadian citizens of Indian origin. Even though the characters in the novel are fictitious, as is the town most of the action is set in, as the author stated in an interview, “Every South Asian Canadian I know is about one degree of separation from somebody who lost someone... in the bombing.” What followed was two decades of investigative and legal bumbling and hand-wringing. The Khalistani militant group Babbar Khalsa were deemed responsible for the bombing, ostensibly as revenge for Indira Gandhi’s Operation Blue Star.

The Canadian authorities, accused of ignoring warning signs, tried to wash their hands of the incident, calling it an ‘Indian’ tragedy, even though that was not how Canadians, including Indian-Canadians, saw it. Investigations culminated almost two decades later in what was Canada’s most expensive trial. However, in the 2005 trial, where the novel’s timeline culminates, no one was found guilty.

Back to the book, our protagonist Ashwin Rao, an Indian psychologist trained in Canada, is partly mystified and partly appalled to discover that not only had “Canada failed to prevent the bombing... (and) failed, for 18 years, to bring it to trial... (they had also) failed to take the bombing up in scholarship.” Determined to fill this academic gap, Ashwin decides to write his own book. For this, he embarks on a series of interviews with the families of the victims almost 20 years after their loss, intending to find out what happens to those who get left behind. What his respondents don’t know is that Ashwin himself has lost his sister and her two children, including his beloved niece Asha, in the disaster.

One family of respondents especially tug at Ashwin’s heartstrings — that of Professor Sethuratnam, or Seth. At this point, the book breaks out of Ashwin’s (rather ponderous, it must be said) narration and switches to Seth’s. Seth and his family did not lose a direct family member, but loss and grief, and their consequences have nevertheless dogged their lives. The story continues to weave back and forth between Ashwin and Seth — and his daughter Brinda, who reminds Ashwin of his niece — till it culminates in more than one shocking twist.

For a book that was on the 2014 Giller Prize shortlist, The Ever After of Ashwin Rao is surprisingly messy. Apart from being a tad wordy in parts, the structure itself is questionable. First, the manner in which a significant portion of the story is given over to Seth’s perspective, though the title suggests otherwise, is not quite smooth, even though the Seth parts are more interesting. Moreover, Ashwin Rao is a practitioner of narrative therapy — essentially, listening to his clients and then “framing individual maladies as stories within stories within stories, the way people are nested within families and societies”; the idea being to tell them versions of their stories as imagined by him, in third person. In the overall scheme of this book, it isn’t clear if the Seth parts are ‘real’ events or if they are a result of Ashwin’s narrative therapy re-imagining. If it is the latter, there is no way for Ashwin to know of the level of details revealed, indicating he must have made them up, thus making him the ultimate unreliable narrator. This matter remains unresolved.

The Ever After of Ashwin Rao is not an easy read — perish any hopes of racing through it over a lazy weekend. But,  it is hard not to place oneself in this chronicle of an attempt to understand ourselves and our world in the wake of events that have shaped recent history. At 360-odd pages, it is not a very long book, but feels dull and heavy, at times interminable. Were it not for the twist at the end, one might have wondered about the point of it all.

This is Padma Viswanathan’s second book; her first, The Toss of a Lemon, being critically acclaimed. As a Canadian citizen of Indian origin — she was only a child during the bombing — even though she didn’t lose any family members, she has mentioned feeling deeply connected to the event. Perhaps that is the book’s pitfall. That said, it would only be fair to acknowledge that a novel based on such a tragic disaster, followed two decades later by such a miscarriage of justice, was never going to be a joyful telling.

The Ever After of Ashwin Rao
Padma Viswanathan
2015, pp 368

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