Our October pick for the Canadian Living Book Club is Can You Hear the Nightbird Call? by Indo-Canadian author Anita Rau Badami, which follows the lives of three women through five decades of Indian and Canadian history. (Click here to read an excerpt from the book.) We chatted with Badami about her novel, her writing process and the weight of history and politics.
Canadian Living: What was your motivation in dealing with Sikh issues in India and Canada in your new book?
Anita Rau Badami: The story began for me in 1984; at that point I had no idea I was going to turn it into a book. I was living in India then and I had just gotten married -- it was in October of 1984 -- and I was on my honeymoon in a little town in northern India. The day before we were to come back to Delhi -- we had to get back to Delhi in order to catch a flight back home to Madras, or Chennai, as it's called now -- we heard on the news that Indira Gandhi, the then prime minister of India, had been assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards. Like most people across the country we were in a state of shock. But you also feel sort of -- not really distanced, but it's the prime minister of the country, so how can it affect you?
We were heading down to Delhi by bus the next morning; we didn't cancel our plans because we thought, What's going to happen? On the way, any Sikhs that were on the bus were being asked to get off by the bus driver and told to go home because it was safer for them at home or in a hotel somewhere rather than in the bus -- the bus driver had a sense of what might be happening along the way. And sure enough, all along, in all the little towns along the way, we could see spires of smoke. We could see shops burning -- presumably shops that were owned by Sikhs. There were these elements in society who were taking out their anger over the murder of Indira Gandhi on local Sikhs. We actually saw a Sikh man being tossed over a culvert into a dry riverbed, and he had apparently been burned alive, and he was dead by that point.
There were all these horrible things happening to ordinary people, to people who had had nothing to do with the prime minister's assassination. This had happened to them only because they were Sikh. Now, the assassination happened because Indira Gandhi had sent the Indian Army into the Golden Temple [the most sacred shrine in Sikhism] in Amritsar. So, you see, everything has a context, and it's important to see things in that context rather than completely in isolation, because why would these men just go and shoot Indira Gandhi for no particular reason? Why would Indira Gandhi send the army into the Golden Temple? Because there were Sikh extremists holed up in the temple. There's always a reason.
And then we came back from this honeymoon -- it was a pretty inauspicious beginning to our married life [laughs]. Several months later, in 1985, we heard in the news about this Air India disaster, which had happened continents away, a flight originating in Canada. At that point Canada wasn't even a part of my imaginative world. I had no idea that I was going to end up in Canada. But the disaster touched us very slightly because our neighbour was one of the passengers on that plane. He died and his wife committed suicide because she was so upset.
So that's where it began for me, and the story stayed with me -- it bothered me. We were stuck in Delhi for nearly a week after Indira Gandhi's assassination, and we heard or saw truckloads of burned Sikhs being carried to hospitals -- these ordinary people, who for the most part had had nothing to do with Indira Gandhi's assassination, with what had happened in the Golden Temple, with what was happening in the Punjab. A lot of them didn't even think of the Punjab as their homeland. They thought of Delhi as the place they belonged to.
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One of the places I've lived in in Canada is Vancouver. And there's a huge, vibrant, thriving Indo-Canadian community there. A large part of that community is Sikh. And I started hearing stories about how horribly things had degenerated in terms of relationships among that Indo-Canadian community -- between Sikhs and Hindus -- and I started thinking about how immigrants of all stripes manage to carry this baggage of history, of loss, of anger along with them, even while they're trying to leave behind that place where all this history occurred.
This seems to be a growing phenomenon -- the anger is translated very easily into violence. It's no longer contained within yourselves. It's just something that can be taken out on a whole bunch of people -- blow up a plane, blow up a place, blow up a building. And a lot of the people who cause this violence are not even recent immigrants. They are children of immigrants. So that anger is handed down. And that's something that fascinated me -- why do we do this? How long can we carry this anger? How long do we carry this attachment to that other place? How long does this history stay with an immigrant, before that immigrant starts to learn that okay, I no longer belong to that place, I belong to this place, and if I should be angry about anything it's about what's happening here rather than what's happening there. Why do we go back and meddle with that other place, which is now a foreign country? So I tried to explore that through this book.
CL: In the beginning of the book we see that Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims are living in one village in the Punjab, and even that Bibi-ji is told by her mother to be open to all religions. To what degree was this typical at the time?
ARB: In village India, even now, for the most part -- it's not just at that time. In India generally, now, there's a sense of harmony. People live as neighbours with Muslims -- especially in the big cities. You cannot help but live in close proximity to people of different religions. But suddenly something happened -- it was a conflagration, all of a sudden, and it's usually something to do with religion. It was really tragic. But for the most part, people did live together -- they'd live in different parts of the village. In a city now you can't live in a separate building -- it's impossible, it's so crowded. But in villages they did have separate areas -- the Muslims would live in one part of the village, the Hindus in another part and the Sikhs in a different part. So I suppose that helped maintain peaceful relations.
CL: Several of the female characters idolize Indira Gandhi. Was this common in India at the time?
ARB: In India, yes, she was very popular among women.
CL: And would you say she still is?
ARB: Well, toward the latter part of her tenure as prime minister she lost a lot of her popularity, especially after 1974 and 1975, when she imposed a state of emergency on India and on the Indian population, which in effect meant a suspension of all rights. You could just be thrown into jail, and you wouldn't know what you were accused of doing. And this, in a democratic country, is unpardonable. To most people -- almost everybody, I think -- she was very unpopular then. The government messed up with the whole Punjab situation, I think. Her popularity was going down slowly. But women still admired her for the fact that she had managed to stay afloat in a world where power was usually held by men.
CL: Throughout the book, it is primarily the men who make war and the women who suffer and want peace. Do you think this reflects reality?
ARB: Well, look around the world. It's usually the women and children who are left as widows and orphans and putting the pieces together, collecting what's left after the wars and holding it all together. I'm not saying that women keep out of wars -- they might be the players in the back, they might be the ones encouraging their sons and being proud of their sons and husbands for going out there and being revolutionaries. They wouldn't call them terrorists -- it depends on which side of the fence you're standing on. So yes, if you look around the world now, explosions happening all over the place, the people who seem to be taking part in the wars seem to be men, for the most part.
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CL: Are any of the characters from the book particularly close to your heart?
ARB: I love Nimmo. I really love her. She came most easily to me. She's such a fearful woman, and just when she thinks that she has conquered fear, that she might have left her traumas behind, everything just comes back to haunt her, and I really felt for her.
CL: The book is very much tied up in history. How did this affect your writing process? Did you find it stifling?
ARB: Yes, it was. I had to keep reminding myself that I wasn't writing a history book, that it was fiction with a historical backdrop, that the characters were the most important things in the book, more so than the history. And sometimes I'd get really stuck because a historical date wouldn't allow me to do something or write something that I wanted to write, because it couldn't possibly have happened at that particular point in time. Bibi-ji couldn't have gone from here to there because at that time there weren't any planes, for instance...all kinds of little details, historical details, started bogging me down.
And the research threatened to overwhelm me -- because it wasn't just research on the Punjab that I had to do. I'm not Punjabi -- for me, Punjab is as much of a foreign country as it is to somebody who has grown up in Canada. I lived in southern India, but I didn't know that much about Punjab except schoolbook history. I had to find out about Vancouver, right from the 1930s to the 1990s. I came to Canada only in 1991, so I had no idea what kinds of shows were happening on TV, what people wore, I didn't know whether they chewed gum in 1932 -- I didn't know anything, so there was a lot of research that I needed to do, a lot of books to wade through and just keep in my mind, even if I didn't use it.
CL: Did you ever have to go back and change things?
ARB: Yes, many times. I rewrote the whole book about four times, I think. The whole book.
CL: I was looking on Amazon.com at reader reviews of Tamarind Mem [Badami's first novel], and one interesting comment that a few people said was that there were too many Indian words in this book and they didn't know what all these words meant. Also, in the U.S. the book was marketed as Tamarind Woman. I found that interesting. Do you feel like you're excluding people by using that language?
ARB: No, I don't think so. If the book demands that I use that language, I use it, and let people get into the story in any way they can. For the most part, the words that I put in are either words that are unimportant except to give texture to the language, or words that are easily understood from the English context. They're usually explained in the very next sentence, or something that the other person says in the dialogue. So if the reader is reading the book carefully, he or she should not have a problem.
CL: And how did you feel about the publishers wanting to change the title?
ARB: I did not want to change the name. But they informed me that they didn't think readers would be able to understand two foreign words -- tamarind and mem. I pointed out that the book had been published with that name both in Canada and in Britain, and readers didn't seem to have a problem, and that's why the book had been written -- so you read it, and find out why it's called what it's called. And I was given the option of, I think, one of the title options was Sweet and Sour Woman, and I thought, that sounds like Chinese cooking. So I just gave up after that.
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CL: Are there any questions you still have about your new book?
ARB: Would Bibi-ji have told Leela about the possibility of an attack on her flight, if she had sat down to think about it? That's one of the questions that I often ask myself. If I were Bibi-ji, would I have allowed my anger to overwhelm my sense of decency, my sense that this is a friend who's getting on a flight that might not be a safe one? Also -- this is a question that actually triggered one version of the book, that still exists buried in this book -- if I was one of the characters and if I knew that somebody I loved deeply was about to do something terrible, commit some kind of crime that could affect hundreds of lives, would I keep that knowledge to myself, or would I give up that person to the police? It's a question I ask myself often. What would I do if I was in that position? And I don't know.
CL: Who are some authors you consider yourself influenced by?
ARB: It's hard to say who influences me as a writer. I can tell you a few authors from a long list of authors I love reading. There are a few authors I really admire for their style or for the ideas in their books, or the characters. It varies. One of my favourites is Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie. I love Cat's Eye and Surfacing by Margaret Atwood, and I admire A Handmaid's Tale -- I can never imagine myself writing that book, but I truly admire it. I love V. S. Naipaul's A House for Mr. Biswas. I just read a book by a woman named Marilynne Robinson, an American woman. This book was written about 20 years ago -- it's called Housekeeping. I loved that book. So it's quite a range of writers -- there are many more on that list. If I find a book that I love and that I'm willing to read again and again, it goes onto a shelf next to my bed.
CL: How does your writing process work?
ARB: I've started to plan everything. My first book [Tamarind Mem] was completely unplanned -- I didn't know what I was doing. It just kept flowing -- a flood of thought, I suppose. After that I found that it's easier if I have a general idea of where I'm going with the book, where the characters are going. Sometimes the voice just comes automatically. The first page, the first time I sit at my desk to write the new book, I know who's going to be telling the story. But each book demands a different process.
The book that I'm thinking about right now -- I haven't really started writing it -- I find that it's fun to plan each chapter in complete detail, because I need to know what's happening in each chapter in order to reach a particular ending. I know what the ending is, I know what the beginning is, but I need to plan every chapter to make sure that that ending is achieved. And I know that that has to be the ending, that I can't reach a different ending. So it [my writing process] changes from book to book.
CL: Was there anything else that you wanted people to know about the book?
ARB: Well, one of the things that I tried to address in this book is the ways in which very ordinary lives can be affected by larger things like politics and history and destroyed by those same forces. It's a huge tragedy, and something that seems to be happening all over the world, right now, all the time -- every time you open a newspaper, watch the news, there's something similar happening somewhere else in the world.
CL: Do you think those same ordinary people can change any of those things?
ARB: Yes, I think so. They are the ones who vote for our governments and who vote them into power -- they can also vote them out of power.
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