Community & Current Events

Excerpt: Can You Hear the Nightbird Call?

By: Canadian Living

Author: Canadian Living

Community & Current Events

Excerpt: Can You Hear the Nightbird Call?

By: Canadian Living

Learn more about the Canadian Living Book Club!

Read our interview with the author, Anita Rau Badami.

One -- Childhood

Panjaur, 1928

Years before she stole her sister Kanwar's fate and sailed across the world from India to Canada, before she became Bibi-ji, she was Sharanjeet Kaur. Her memories began from the time she was a six-year-old living in a village called Panjaur, a dot in that landscape of villages scattered across the fertile plains of West Punjab, alike in their annual yearning for the monsoon rains and a bountiful harvest. The house in which Bibi-ji, or Sharan as her family called her then, lived with her parents and Kanwar was as unassuming as its surroundings. One of a small cluster of Sikh and Hindu houses, it was separated from the Muslim homes by fields of swaying sugar cane. Built of mud and thatch, it was much smaller than the one made of brick and mortar farther down the dusty gulley. That house belonged to Sharan's best friend, Jeeti, and never failed to create a tumultuous envy in her childish heart. Though she was fond of Jeeti, Sharan resented her for having so much -- a brick house, servants who did the housework, fine clothes and a father who did not lie inert on a cot all day while his wife and daughters slaved away. But the thing she envied most of all was Jeeti's supply of lavender soap, sent by Sher Singh, her father, all the way from Canada.

Years later, when she possessed enough money to build a house out of soap if she so desired, Sharan could barely recall Jeeti's face or her elaborate home. And since, after Partition, Panjaur itself disappeared into that grey zone between India and Pakistan where floodlights threw every detail into stark contrast, barbed wire bristled and soldiers kept watch year-round, she could not even return to the place of her origins, a necessary thing if memory is to be kept fully alive. Yet some of those days remained in her mind, sharp and clear as shards of glass.

The first of these was the day her father, Harjot Singh, disappeared. It was only the second time in his life that he had left his family, but this time he did not return.

That day Sharan had been woken at five o'clock in the morning by her mother, Gurpreet Kaur. The late September sun was just rising, wreathed in mist. She lay on a mat in the courtyard of the house, her dark eyes squeezed shut, hands pressed tight against her ears to block the sound of her mother's voice cutting through her comfortable blanket of sleep.

"Do I have to do everything in this house?" Gurpreet shouted from the kitchen, where she was already cooking the morning meal though it was barely past dawn. "Look at this princess! Servants she has! Maids and chaprasis! Sharanjeet. Wake up this minute, or you will get a bucket of water on your face."

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How unfair, Sharan thought. Would she ever have the chance to sleep until the sun climbed into the sky? A tear worked its way down her cheek. Another tear joined the first, and soon a storm of weeping shook her small body. "Why do I have to get up?" she sobbed. "I don't want to!"

"There is no place in this house for wants, memsahib!" Gurpreet called sharply, smacking a ladle hard against the edge of a pot. Her daughter knew how effectively she used her kitchen utensils to indicate various degrees of annoyance, from mild indignation to rage. "Needs, yes, those I can take care of," she continued, "but wants are for rich people! Understand?" Another tap-tap of metal on metal. Sharper, more insistent this time.

A warm hand descended on Sharan's heaving shoulder and shook it gently.

"Wake up, child," said her father. "Amma is calling you."

Sharan sniffed a little louder, removed her hands from her ears and turned over so that her father could see she had been weeping. She opened her eyes dolefully and, pushing out her lower lip, allowed it to tremble, hoping that she looked tragic, that he would take her side, as he so often did. Was she not his favourite daughter? Was she not the only person who listened to his endless stories of a ship called the Komagata Maru and a voyage that ended in nothing?

But there was no help. Wake up, wake up. This was her fate, written on her forehead by the gods, she thought unhappily, rolling to a sitting position and wiping her wet face with the end of her faded kameez -- it was her wretched fate to have to wake up and dip her hands in piles of excrement. Every morning since she was four years old, she had had to start the day by picking up the hot, stinking shit that the family's two cows dropped in the courtyard. Then she had to make balls of the disgusting mess and pat them into circular cakes against the walls of their house. And the smell -- how the smell corrupted her waking hours and infected her dreams and ruined even her meals. This was what Sharan resented most of all, for she loved eating. Her joy at the sight of food turned even the simplest combination of rice and dal into a feast, but when she raised a morsel of food to her mouth she could only smell the overpowering odour that had written itself into her skin, instead of the fragrances of turmeric, fresh rice, butter melting on hot phulkas, green chillies frying. She wished then, with all her heart, that she, like the Arabian princess in a tale the wandering storyteller had told her, might wake up and find herself in a different home altogether, carried there by the jinns in the service of a handsome prince.

Later, in Vancouver, when she had lost her past, she would feel shame at her thoughtless girl's wish. She yearned for the return of that time when her family was entire -- her mother squatting by the clay stove, the harsh angles and hollows of her exhausted face exaggerated by the glow from the fire, her father with his distant eyes, and most of all Kanwar, her sturdy, loving, lost sister. Lost, because she, Sharanjeet Kaur, had been greedy for something much larger than the world she inhabited.

Excerpted from Can You Hear the Nightbird Call? by Anita Rau Badami. Copyright 2006 by Anita Rau Badami. Excerpted by permission of Knopf Canada, a division of Random House of Canada Limited. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Excerpt: Can You Hear the Nightbird Call?