Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 30, 2016

The Ever After of Ashwin Rao, by Padma Viswanathan #BookReview

The Ever After of Ashwin RaoSome time in my adolescence when I stopped thinking about myself so much, I began to wonder how it was that my parents had learned to live with the losses of WW2, and how the Holocaust survivors in my neighbourhood had managed to rebuild their lives.  What strengths did they bring to their experiences, and what capacities had they had to learn in order not to be crushed by them?   These questions interest author Padma Viswanathan too, exploring them in her second novel The Ever After of Ashwin Rao which was shortlisted for the Canadian Giller Prize in 2014.

It’s an ambitious novel, using a psychologist narrator to interpret stories of the victims of terrorism.  Ashwin Rao lost a sister and her two children in the 1985 Air India bombing, but his plans for writing a book about the impact on families of the victims doesn’t include analysing his own feelings.  While Ashwin is at pains to narrate his story objectively, it doesn’t take long for the reader to realise that Ashwin has cut himself off from even the possibility of relationships, even to the extent of having a vasectomy so that he can’t ever suffer the pain of losing a child.  ‘Tis better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all’? Not for Ashwin, it isn’t.

At home neither in his birthplace India nor the tight-knit Indian communities in Canada, Ashwin is prompted by the long-delayed trial of the home-grown radical Sikh bombers to return to Canada (where he was trained in ‘narrative therapy‘).  He is ambivalent about attending: A Screaming Reluctance to See It had battled in me with A Driving Compulsion to See It. And when he gets there he feels that the trial is a sham.  It is 20 years after the event and it was too late because (post 9/11) everything had changed, and nothing at the trial would do anything to prevent future terrorism.  As for the perpetrators, hot air buffoons not worthy of naming, there is no adequate punishment and no government in the world possessed a moral sceptre weighty enough to flog these puny fellows. 

While the reader notes that the narrator is supposed to be writing a book about how other people have learned to do more than just cope when tragedy strikes, Ashwin explores the back-history of Sikh extremism as a way of trying to understand for  himself how it comes about.  Unpacking events, he ponders the turbulent history of post-colonial India and how its purportedly democratic government (mainly under Indira Gandhi’s Emergency) performed acts of terror on its own dissidents, thus feeding feelings of alienation, resentment and injustice.   In India Ashwin sees his own father shaken out of complacency by horrific violence in their own street; he notes his mother’s equally vehement denial of events.  While none of this is used to justify terrorism as a response to political grievances, and there is no attempt to humanise the terrorists at all, it places Sikh extremism in context.  (And whether the author intended it or not, the depiction of Indira Gandhi’s ruthless violence against minorities on Indian soil also contextualises contemporary claims of home-grown alienation in Paris, London and Lakemba.  Whatever their manifold shortcomings, contemporary French, British and Australian governments have not, on their own soil, instigated nor sanctioned rape, violent murder and riots targeting religious minorities and destruction of their religious sites as in the Golden Temple atrocity.)

Ashwin is also on a journey of spiritual discovery.  While he travels all over Canada interviewing his subjects, the main focus is on two families of the victims in (fictional) Lohikarma in British Colombia.  The reader notes that Ashwin pays only cursory attention to his bereaved brother-in-law and had avoided contact with him over the years, and has distanced himself from his own family in every way.  He is also not religious at all.  But when he meets Seth, a minor and unambitious academic at the university who has for twenty years cared for his cousin Venkat, who lost his wife and son in the tragedy, Ashwin becomes drawn into the notion of religion as solace.  Venkat, irreparably damaged by the tragedy, is involved with a sect with ominous undertones, while secular Seth finds himself drawn to a guru to provide relief from the incessant strain of supporting Venkat (who once made a suicide attempt).  Since I know very little about Hindu religious observance and the role of gurus, I found this strand of the novel fascinating.

I was also interested in the role of women, as depicted in the novel.  Ashwin (against his better judgement and possibly straying into unethical territory) becomes involved as an informal counsellor to one of Seth’s daughters, and so the reader discovers the contradictions of tradition versus modernity in the Indian diaspora.  For women, this means issues like arranged marriage obviating the emotional costs of divorce; marriage and motherhood subverting expectations about academic success and career; caste and status leaking into the lived experience of living in an egalitarian society;  and in the domestic sphere:  dress codes, gendered housework and hiding behaviour from parents well into adulthood.

Also tackled, especially through the prism of Ashwin’s failed relationship with the Canadian Rosslyn, is the topic of Western complacency:

What is one girl’s love life against terror, mayhem, massive governmental cock-ups?  “First-world problems” – a phrase I heard recently, the sort of assessment I would have agreed with when I left Canada, twenty years ago.  But I thought differently now.

Brinda’s worries, my own worries – that we might never have the chance to truly love, or to love again – these are the ways we best understand the effects of terror: someone’s father killed in a falling Twin Tower, someone’s fiancé blown up at a checkpoint in Afghanistan.  First-world problems? Statistics are well and good, but names, faces, stories make us understand , pay attention.  Who are the victims?  (p.90)

I note that some Goodreads reviews have complained about the credibility of the ending.  I shall say nothing here to spoil what came for me as a complete and well-executed surprise entirely consistent with the themes in the novel, except to say that the likelihood of the event is indeed a well-known phenomenon in any mass-scale disaster.

This is a rich, complex, satisfying novel, with many thought-provoking ideas, and for those of us not familiar with Indian history, culture and religion, also an opportunity to learn more about the Indian communities in our cities.

Kim from Reading Matters reviewed it too.

Author: Padma Viswanathan
Title: The Ever After of Ashwin Rao
Publisher: UWAP (University of Western Australia Press), 2014
ISBN: 9781742586083
Source: review copy courtesy of UWAP (and my apologies for taking so long to get round to reading it)

Available direct from UWAP, from Fishpond: The Ever After of Ashwin Rao and good bookshops such as Readings.


Responses

  1. I was able to hear this young writer at our book festival in 2014. You may be interested to know that the bomb maker who has never shown remorse was just released from prison.

  2. Ah, that’s always a painful time in a democracy. We like to believe in rehabilitation and a second chance, but remorse is part of the contract. And when it’s not there we feel a sense of outrage.

  3. You clearly liked this more than me. I remember thinking the novel was too rambling: it started off as Ashwin’s story and then it got lost/subsumed by another. I admired her aims and I found the background to Sikh unrest/terrorism fascinating but I don’t think the novel, as a whole, was very well executed. And I was one of those readers that didn’t fully believe in the ending.

    • LOL Difficult to talk about the ending without spoiling it. Let’s just say that the first time I heard of that phenomenon, I couldn’t believe it myself. I mean, how could someone do that? But there are always reasons, and it’s well documented.
      You are right in that Ashwin’s story is subsumed by another, but I think it’s meant to be, it’s reproducing his state of mind IMO.
      Am I right in thinking that you didn’t think it was a very good year in general for the Giller?

  4. I’ve not read the book yet but your review is excellent. I am going to purchase now and dive in.

    • Hello, and welcome:) I hope you enjoy it.

  5. An interesting review of what sounds like an interesting book but I think the innocent age has passed when we could say at least our government wouldn’t have permitted rape, murder when it has been made clear to us that rape and murder against the indigenous population were the practice here as much as anywhere else, first world or third world

    • Ah yes indeed, and I thought of that. That’s why I inserted the word ‘contemporary’ before governments, so that it was clear that I was excluding the overt warfare against our indigenous people.
      I thought also of more recent culpable incidents such as the young Brazilian shot in London in the aftermath of the July bombings, and I thought of Nauru, and I thought of the people dying of nuclear poisoning in the Pacific and around Maralinga as a consequence of atomic testing. I thought of the ongoing wars in which British, French and Australian governments have been involved, without clear consent from their own people. These and other outrages that cause what governments today call ‘collateral damage’ were what I was thinking of when I used the wholly inadequate expression ‘manifold shortcomings’.
      But I can think of no instance where contemporary Australian, British or French governments have stood idly by for days while rioters have targeted an ethic-religious group, raping and savagely killing hundreds of people, with no police or military intervention and all within its own borders – and held no enquiry afterwards, washed its hands of it so that no one was ever held accountable. I can’t imagine our government not sending in riot police to quell trouble and then soul-searching afterwards, if only because the people demand it as they did after the Cronulla riots in 2005. And no one died in that event.
      I can think of no instance of one of those governments sending in tanks and hundreds of soldiers on its own soil and deliberately killing hundreds of its own people of a particular religious group. What Indira Gandhi did in 1984 was analogous to what China did in 1989 at Tiananmen Square: I attended vigils for that atrocity including its anniversaries, yet I can remember no comparable outrage about the Golden Temple massacre. I don’t think I knew about it till I read this book.
      And while I can’t be sure of it, the book mentions a government minister called Narendra Modi as complicit in riots… perhaps it’s a common name in India, or perhaps it is the current Prime Minister, welcomed here in Australia on a recent tour without any of the reservations loudly expressed in the media about a comparable visit by the leader of China.

      Perhaps I’m wrong. But it seems to me that whatever grievances people have, they pale into insignificance compared to the government-instigated atrocities inflicted on the Sikhs in India. Because there is something fundamentally different when violence is deliberately perpetrated or tolerated by a government rather than by stupid or extremist elements among the population.

      • Sorry, I dashed off a comment then disappeared into the bush for the day (we’re rushing, in Kalg., to get jobs done ahead of cyclone/days of rain). Thankyou for such a considered reply. I agree with you, I just don’t like letting Western governments off the hook.

        • Yikes, a cyclone! Please, keep safe, and I hope everyone and everything gets through it unscathed.


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