Anita Rau Badami
In Can You Hear the Nightbird Call? Anita Rau Badami starts off gently – a rivalry between sisters. Sharanjeet wins the suitor. To her surprise he whisks her off to Canada, land of cold and of strange customs. Still, as a resourceful woman, she transforms herself into Bibi-ji, proprietor and den mother to the many Sikhs who look for better lives in Vancouver.
Nimmo is a child survivor of the dreadful partition of the Indian sub-continent. Always poor, she eventually creates a family of her own with the loving Satpal and three well-loved children. As the outward sign of her dedication to home and family, she keeps her tiny rooms in Delhi scrupulously clean.
Tension builds ever so gradually, almost unnoticeable except in the gut. Humourous interludes disguise the turmoil of social interactions amongst disparate immigrants and with those in faraway homelands. Inevitably the new Canadians paint a veneer of prosperity to impress their families back home, yielding unforeseen consequences. And where is home? Where you live or where you once lived? Who is owed loyalty? Your neighbours or your “kind”?
Can You Hear the Nightbird Call? is a history lesson for Canadians of all origins. It lulls the reader into empathy with characters who drift into or who choose undesirable actions to protect their personal identities, even while they struggle to know who they really are. Coincidentally, I was reading a biography of the Gandhi family at the same time as Badami’s novel. The story and the history converged at the point of the siege at Amritsar and the assassination of Indira Gandhi. The novel carries us on to the dreadful Air India disaster, a Canadian disgrace because of the government’s very slow recognition of the passengers as not Indian but Canadians who adhered to the Sikh faith.