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Families of Air India victims grapple with grief in moving novel

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The mysterious disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 provides a chilling contemporary backdrop for a complicated examination of how people coped with losses from the 1985 Air India bombing.

Canadian author, playwright and journalist Padma Viswanathan's second novel digs deeply and effectively into the psychology of bereavement, as well as providing outsiders with fascinating insight into Hinduism, Indo-Canadian culture and the history of Hindu-Sikh conflict.

The Arkansas-based Viswanathan's first novel, 2008's The Toss of a Lemon, also dealt with marriage, loss and recovery in Indian culture, and was shortlisted for many international literary awards.

Ashwin Rao, who tells the story, is an Indo-Canadian "narrative therapist," using storytelling to help his patients come to terms with their conflicts and issues.

In researching families affected by the Air India bombing, Rao becomes involved with one family in particular, the Sethuratnams. Distant relatives and close friends with Dr. Venkataraman, who lost his wife and young adult son in the bombing, "Seth," his wife Lakshmi, and daughter Brinda relate their involvement in Venkat Uncle's responses to the tragedy.

Set mostly in 2004, the year that the trial of two Sikhs involved in the bombing finally began, the novel uses flashbacks to chronicle incidents of Sikh-Hindu violence, such as the 1984 government assault on the Sikh holy temple in Amritsar and the assassination of Indira Gandhi later that year in retaliation.

Rao himself lost a sister and two nieces in the bombing, and while his own recovery process is a major theme of the novel, the reader becomes most heavily engaged in the effects of collateral damage on the Sethuratnam family.

Readers familiar with Chaim Potok's work reflecting Jewish culture may find similarly effective blending here of Indian cultural and religious experiences with an engaging story and characters.

Issues of religious leadership, the conflict of Canadian and Indian cultures, and family dynamics come across vividly in The Ever After of Ashwin Rao. Even reincarnation gets a bit of a workout.

Viswanathan might sometimes lose her readers in her characters' intensely personal consciousnesses as they try to come to terms with sudden conflicts, or revelations of violence, or emotional torment.

It's very late in the narrative when Seth's name is revealed to rhyme with "faith." But most linguistic and cultural ideas and terms are explained adequately, at least for the attentive reader.

Ashwin has a penchant for noting people's fragrances, somewhat as a wine connoisseur judges vintages. Occasional references and allusions to the poetry of W.B. Yeats is interesting, in a cross-cultural way.

And there's plenty of shared experience to communicate. Fellow devotees to a particular guru make themselves available to support the bereft Venkataraman.

"They didn't pretend to share what he was feeling. They didn't try to relieve him. They just reminded him, as if by prescription, that there was something more."

Seth's arranged marriage to Lakshmi exhibits the best of such a practice, unfamiliar for most Canadians, as well as describing a situation that could apply to the best interests of anyone marrying for love.

"He'd been consumed by her presence, their communion, all that was so surprising and delightful. It was spurred by erotic discovery, but reached quick tendrils into every part of his being."

While the "ever after" of Ashwin Rao is only hinted at by the story's end, some in this novel come to healthy, if difficult, closure with their grief, even though the outcome of the Air India trial is particularly unsatisfying.

Spending time with the Sethuratnams, however, is finally a very satisfying experience indeed.


Bill Rambo teaches at the Laureate Academy in St. Norbert.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 29, 2014 G6


Updated on Saturday, March 29, 2014 at 8:10 AM CDT: Tweaks formatting.

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