How does one deal with the loss of loved ones to a bomb on a plane? How does one cope when, twenty years after the attack, suspects are finally brought to trial for the crime? Psychologist Ashwin Rao, who lost his sister, niece and nephew in a fatal bombing of an Air India flight from Vancouver, deals with his grief by writing a book on the families of other victims on that flight. He becomes particularly drawn into the story of one Canadian family, whose members have dealt with their grief in very different ways.
In The Ever After of Ashwin Rao, Padma Viswanathan explores various ways that people respond to loss. Through Rao’s eyes, we see the unique difficulties of facing such a violent, unexpected death for a loved one — in one particularly powerful scene, two men from the same family search through images of bodies salvaged from the crash, looking for anyone from their family. One of them looks through the photographs methodically, column by column and row by row lest he miss faces he recognizes. The other lets his eyes dart around, barely registering on one photo before moving to another spot, haphazardly chosen. The reason, the first man realizes and relates to Rao, is that the second man wants to register only his own family members; he doesn’t want the burden of anyone else’s grief.
Along with grief is an undercurrent of anger throughout the story. Rao refers to a book on the bombing written by Bharati Mukherjee and Clark Blaise, and the inadequacies of the text to properly represent the tragedy. For example, a passage in the book refers to the children on the flight, how well they and their families have assimilated into Canadian life, and how tragic their deaths were. Rao points out, and quite rightly, that the children’s “Canadian” traits were and should be completely irrelevant — the tragedy of their deaths is simply because they died. Tied in to this is Rao’s anger at the Canadian government’s handling of the bomb. Other than their apparent incompetence in solving the crime, Rao compares the bombing to 9/11, and wonders why America took 9/11 personally whereas Canada seemed to consider the bombing an Indian tragedy, rather than a Canadian one, despite the number of Canadians on board.
The root of this anger is political, and it turns out that Rao was in India when Indira Gandhi is assassinated in 1984 and anti-Sikh sentiment turns violent. The horror of the riots is heightened by its contrast with the silly, manufactured horror of a haunted house Rao has set up for the neighbourhood children to introduce them to Halloween. Viswanathan is at her best when contrasting innocence with horror, and continues in this vein when dealing with victims’ stories, particularly families’ memories of the children on the flight. Later, some of the families blame Sikhs for the Air India bombing, echoing the violence back in India.
The thrust of the book is more personal than political however, and soon Rao sublimates his own grief and anger and focuses on the subjects of his book. While these stories are interesting in their own right — the family patriarch for example turns to religion, his daughter is stuck in a sexless marriage, and so on — the story to me loses some of the momentum that propelled the beginning so well. The writing is still solid throughout, as the author switches between perspectives, but the fire has been dampened somewhat, and the story never quite reaches its peak.
Thank you to Random House Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.