Air India tragedy backdrop to B.C. born author’s latest novel

Published: March 28, 2014

Padma Viswanathan released her second novel, The Ever After of Aishwin Rao. Submitted photo.

LARISSA CAHUTE
VANCOUVER DESI

B.C. born author Padma Viswanathan didn’t lose any immediate family in the Air India bombing.

But, as a South Asian Canadian, she’s deeply tied to the tragic event that saw more than 300 people — the majority Canadian — killed when the flight from Montreal to Delhi exploded over the Atlantic Ocean on June 23, 1985.

“Every South Asian Canadian I know is about one degree of separation from somebody who lost someone in their family in the bombing,” Viswanathan told Vancouver Desi by phone after landing at Vancouver International Airport.

She can remember that summer day in 1985 vividly: A young high school student, she was sitting at the kitchen table in her family’s Alberta home when she found out about the tragedy.

“I was a teenager when the bombing happened — it was shocking and mysterious to me,” she said. “It made me think about race in a way that I hadn’t really been made to before – about my own place in this country.”

Since that day, the bombing has inspired intensely emotional responses, aimed at everyone from the Sikh nationalists thought to be behind the hijacking to the RCMP and CSIS, whose mishandling of the case led to 20 years of investigation and prosecution, as well as the most expensive trial in Canadian history.

“There were just so many questions,” Viswanathan said about the trial in the early 2000s which ended “inconclusively.”

Nearly 30 years later, Viswanathan is still trying to understand it with the publication of her second novel The Ever After of Ashwin Rao (Random House Canada), which is what brings her to B.C. for book signings in Surrey and Victoria this weekend. Her first novel, The Toss of a Lemon, was published in eight countries and was a bestseller in three.

In her latest book, the title character and narrator Aishwin Rao uses the Air India bombing as the backdrop for a larger investigation into the mechanics of human grief and the ways in which people forge unlikely new connections in the wake of tragedy.

Rao, a psychologist, decides in 2004 to return to Canada from India to interview the bombing victims’ families as the trial commences, but the reader quickly learns he also lost family members that day.

Although the characters are fictional, Viswanath fully represents them on the page, having family members remember the deceased not only for their positive qualities, but also their flaws.

Bad things don’t only happen to very virtuous people,” she said. “When I lose somebody close to me, when I recall them, I don’t only want to recall the wonderful things. I do recall the wonderful things. But I also recall their problematic aspects, and their pains, and the ways that they caused pain. All of this is part of who they were.”

Viswanathan was born in Nelson, B.C. and moved to Edmonton when she was four-years-old. She lived in Edmonton for 25 years and attended the University of Alberta.

Padma Viswanathan’s latest novel, The Ever After of Aishwin Rao. Submitted photo.

Viswanathan currently lives with her husband (a poet and translator) and children in Fayetteville, a college town in Arkansas, where she’ll soon begin a creative-writing professorship at the University of Arkansas this fall.

Despite this distance, Viswanathan retains a strong attachment to her home country, with The Ever After of Aishwin Rao mainly set in Vancouver and a fictional version of Nelson, B.C., called Lohikarma.

Viswanathan is holding a book signing at Surrey’s Black Bond Books at Central City Mall Saturday at 2 p.m. and at Victoria’s Russell Books on Sunday at 2 p.m.

— with files from Michael Hingston, Edmonton Journal

lcahute@vancouverdesi.com
twitter.com/larissacahute

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