At three in the morning, New Delhi’s air is mostly remnants. This is its quietest hour, though the city is not still. The sounds of night business concluding, morning business being prepared, all sorts of shrouded transactions: these carry. But the air itself is nostalgic with acrid exhaust, cookstove smoke, the dying breaths of jasmine and bougainvillea breaking down into each other, night exhaling the prior day.
Please excuse: poetic lapse. I orient by smell. The night-scent excited me as I locked my door and ascended, then stopped, descended and re-entered the flat to check again: taps off, windows locked, no food anywhere. I don’t normally second-guess this way-I have many neuroses, just not this one-but I would be away in Canada for a year. I would leave my key with a fellow resident but didn’t want to leave her a reason to use it.
I locked the door again, and went upstairs to lay the key in its envelope on Vijaya’s threshold. She was a widow I barely considered a friend, particularly since she wanted to be more than that. Fetching my bag from the landing, I trotted briskly down the stairs, across the courtyard and into the carport, clicking my tongue for the cat. Dirty-orange fur, three rickety legs, strangely swollen jowls; it slunk around as though hoping to be hit.
I put out last night’s take-away, lamb biryani, at the usual spot. I had never wanted to keep a pet, but was overcome by the urge to feed the patchy creature. A memory knocked. My nephew, Anand, at six months maybe. When do they start with the pabulum? My sister, Kritika, was feeding him. She called me over-“Watch, Ashwin!”-as she lifted the little spoon toward his face and he opened his mouth, SO wide, his head bobbing a little, the eyes so serious, as though this were a contract he had agreed to fulfill: survival. My sister and I laughed until our sides hurt.
And two years after Anand came my niece, Asha.
Asha, my Asha. The child of my life. Sometimes I thought I recalled a whisper of her smell-green grapes and the pages of books; perhaps a hint of nutmeg?-but even the motion of my mind turning toward it fanned it away.
The cat still hadn’t appeared and my auto-rickshaw was waiting. “Airport,” I told the driver, no good morning necessary. He had been, for fifteen years, my favourite among those at the corner rank-almost surly, always prompt. He tossed his beedi and unthrottled his engine.
Two weeks from today, June 23, would be the nineteenth anniversary of a jet bombing that killed 326 people I didn’t know, and three I did: Kritika, Anand, Asha. It had taken nearly eighteen years to drag two perpetrators into court. Last spring, April 2003, I had gone to Vancouver to witness the trial’s start. My first time back in Canada since 1985. A Screaming Reluctance to See It had battled in me with a Driving Compulsion to See It. Guess which won?
About the book
In 2004, almost 20 years after the fatal bombing of an Air India flight from Vancouver, two suspects - finally - are on trial for the crime. Ashwin Rao, an Indian psychologist trained in Canada, comes back to do a “study of comparative grief,” interviewing people who lost loved ones in the attack. What he neglects to mention is that he, too, had family members who died on the plane. Then, he becomes embroiled in the lives of one family caught in the undertow of the tragedy. This surprising emotional connection sparks him to confront his own losses.
The Ever After of Ashwin Rao (Westland Ltd) imagines the lasting emotional consequences of a real-life act of terror, confronting what we might learn to live with and what we can live without. Shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize 2014, the book is a stunning new work set among families of those who lost loved ones in the 1985 Air India bombing, registering the unexpected reverberations of this tragedy in the lives of its survivors. The Ever After of Ashwin Rao demonstrates that violent politics are all-too-often homegrown in North America but ignored at our peril.