Excerpt: Padma Viswanathan’s The Ever After of Ashwin Rao
Set 20 years after the 1985 Air India bombing, Padma Viswanathan’s Giller-nominated novel borrows from real life in following Indian psychologist Ashwin Rao, who returns to Canada to interview others who lost family members during the terrorist attack. Read Quill & Quire’s review.
9 June, 2004
AT THREE IN THE MORNING,
New Delhi’s air is mostly remnants. This is its quietest hour, though the city is not still. The sounds of night business concluding, morning business being prepared, all sorts of shrouded transactions: these carry. But the air itself is nostalgic with acrid exhaust, cookstove smoke, the dying breaths of jasmine and bougainvillea breaking down into each other, night exhaling the prior day.
Please excuse: poetic lapse. I orient by smell. The night-scent excited me as I locked my door and ascended, then stopped, descended and re-entered the flat to check again: taps off, windows locked, no food anywhere. I don’t normally second-guess this way—I have many neuroses, just not this one—but I would be away in Canada for a year. I would leave my key with a fellow resident but didn’t want to leave her a reason to use it.
I locked the door again, and went upstairs to lay the key in its envelope on Vijaya’s threshold. She was a widow I barely considered a friend, particularly since she wanted to be more than that. Fetching my bag from the landing, I trotted briskly down the stairs, across the courtyard and into the carport, clicking my tongue for the cat. Dirty-orange fur, three rickety legs, strangely swollen jowls; it slunk around as though hoping to be hit.
I put out last night’s take-away, lamb biryani, at the usual spot. I had never wanted to keep a pet, but was overcome by the urge to feed the patchy creature. A memory knocked. My nephew, Anand, at six months maybe. When do they start with the pabulum? My sister, Kritika, was feeding him. She called me over—“Watch, Ashwin!”—as she lifted the little spoon toward his face and he opened his mouth, SO wide, his head bobbing a little, the eyes so serious, as though this were a contract he had agreed to fulfill: survival. My sister and I laughed until our sides hurt.
And two years after Anand came my niece, Asha.
Asha, my Asha. The child of my life. Sometimes I thought I recalled a whisper of her smell—green grapes and the pages of books; perhaps a hint of nutmeg?—but even the motion of my mind turning toward it fanned it away.
The cat still hadn’t appeared and my auto-rickshaw was waiting. “Airport,” I told the driver, no good morning necessary. He had been, for fifteen years, my favourite among those at the corner rank—almost surly, always prompt. He tossed his beedi and unthrottled his engine.
Two weeks from today, June 23, would be the nineteenth anniversary of a jet bombing that killed 326 people I didn’t know, and three I did: Kritika, Anand, Asha. It had taken nearly eighteen years to drag two perpetrators into court. Last spring, April 2003, I had gone to Vancouver to witness the trial’s start. My first time back in Canada since 1985. A Screaming Reluctance to See It had battled in me with a Driving Compulsion to See It. Guess which won?
Victims’ families, along with various other concerned parties and/or gawkers, came from all over. They milled in the grand atrium at the provincial courthouse in Vancouver, their hot, thick optimism mingling with a slight steam from the bloodthirsty and giving me … what is it? When one’s skin crawls. The heebie-jeebies.
The atrium’s high, glass walls gave the all-too-obvious image of transparency. Kafka’s trial could never happen here. Glass houses: Canadians don’t throw stones. On the government side, the excitement was both more stately and more tawdry: press releases, security expenditures, and a bullet- and bomb-proof courtroom custom-built several circles of hell underground, down where the sun don’t shine.
Only two of the many hot-air buffoons allegedly involved in the bombing were standing trial. I would name them, but what’s in a name? I try to block their faces, but they rise in my mind’s eye. Specimens. Bad examples of their community, their race, their species. Bad men.
I felt the trial to be a sham and yet I had gone to see it. Why? And furthermore, Why?
Why a sham? Because it came so very late—and after so much had changed, from the political situations that fed the bomb plot to the security situations that permitted it—that it would do nothing to prevent future terrorist acts. The accused did not regret what they had done, but neither would they plant any other bombs.
But what of punishment? you might ask. I hated those men. I might gladly have punished them with my own hands, not that I have ever done such a thing. But for the government to mete out, what—justice? Hardly. No government in the world possessed a moral scepter weighty enough to flog these puny fellows.
Excerpted from THE EVER AFTER OF ASHWIN RAO by Padma Viswanathan. Copyright © Padma Viswanathan 2014. Published by Random House Canada, a division of Random House of Canada Limited, a Penguin Random House Company. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.