Book review: ‘Can You Hear the Nightbird Call?’
Vail CO, Colorado
On Oct. 31, 1984, Canadian Anita Rau Badami had the bad luck to be in India when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards. India erupted into riots and its citizens took brutal revenge on the country’s Sikhs.
The next morning, from a bus window, she saw a Sikh man, who had already been burned to death, being tossed off a bridge and into a river by his murderers.
Months later, Badami’s neighbor was killed on Air India Flight 182. In a suspected act of Sikh retaliation, the plane was blown up over the Atlantic Ocean near Ireland.
Badami’s two personal experiences of history form the ending of her novel, “Can You Hear the Nightbird Call?” Set in India and Canada, the tale follows the everyday lives of three families whose worlds are torn apart by the Indian-Sikh conflict.
But the majority of the book is not about terrorism, but about ordinary life in Vancouver at the end of the 20th century. Examining the lives of three Indian families, two of whom emigrate to Canada, Badami, who will appear at the June 22-26 Summer Words conference in Aspen, describes dung-collecting, jealous New Delhi neighbors and buying lychee fruit at a Chinese market with the same vividness.
Badami’s descriptions of food are particularly juicy, and you should be well-fed before you pick the book up, lest you find yourself craving curry in the middle of the night.
“Can You Hear the Nightbird Call?” is about immigration and everyday life. But most important, it is a story of a world presided over by the unresponsive or perhaps uncaring Ooper-Wallah god, a world where hard work and good intentions are repaid in tragedy, loss and sadness. It is a world in which people like Badami’s neighbor work all their lives only to meet an end at the malicious hands of someone unknown to them.
Only briefly does Badami examine where this malicious spirit comes from. In a conversation midway through the novel, a character suggests that each one of us carries “uyir” with us. “Uyir,” she explains, is something a person’s soul has brought with it from a distant place in the universe ” the part of ourselves that is not inherited from parents, nor acquired from our present environment.
“Uyir is the mystery in every one of us,” says the character. “Sometimes this uyir is good and sometimes it is made bad. It all depends on the circumstances and the position of the stars at birth. Maybe.”
Be prepared, as you read, for foreshadowing. In Indian lore, the nightbird’s call is a vague portent of bad luck. So the title suggests that the book may be as much about foreshadowing ” or at least about powerless knowing ” as anything.
Throughout the novel, an intrusive and godlike narrator hints about the characters’ future. And by the end, the reader is practically complicit with the nightbird, the god Ooper-Wallah and the narrator ” all four standing at the edge of the story, knowing what will happen but powerless to do anything about it.
Just as all of us are, in the age of television, haplessly watching international tragedy after tragedy unfold before us.
Just as the writer must have felt, watching from a speeding bus as a man was lifted and thrown into a river.
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