Interview with author Anita Rau Badami

Get to know the author of Can You Hear the Nightbird Call?, our Book Club pick for October.

The book's inspiration

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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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