Read Can You Hear the Nightbird Call? Online
Authors: Anita Rau Badami
In a stunning conclusion to a case that spanned 20 years, two Canadians were found not guilty on first-degree murder charges in the bombing of Air-India Flight 182 that killed 329 people.
—The Globe and Mail
(Canada), March 16, 2005
—More than two decades later, the Justice Nanavati Commission report has revealed that only one police official … was convicted in the 1984 anti-Sikh riots in which more than 3,000 Sikhs were killed in Delhi alone. … Interestingly, cases against 14 police officials could not be proceeded with as “files were untraced.” Besides these, in cases against two officers “no chargesheet (was) filed” due to lack of evidence. Five others were “acquitted.” Against one “no evidence” was reported.
(India), August 9, 2005
The history of Punjab that forms the background to this novel is a long and complex one. The following note, a brief summary of that history, may assist some readers in entering into the story.
Punjab, situated in northwestern India, is watered by four rivers, making it one of the most fertile and prosperous states in the country. From around the seventh century, however, because of its strategic location as the gateway into India, Punjab was also fated to be a battleground between foreign invaders, who swept in through the mountain passes of Afghanistan, and local kings.
During the fifteenth century, a particularly violent period in Punjab, the Sikh religion was founded by Guru Nanak Dev and further shaped by the nine gurus who succeeded him over the next two politically turbulent centuries. It was the tenth and last guru, Gobind Singh, who gave Sikhism its present form by formally baptizing five men who would be the nucleus of a casteless, egalitarian community of people. This community came to be known as the Khalsa, or the pure. Men who were baptized gave up their names for the single family name of “Singh,” which meant “lion” and symbolized their willingness to bravely fight all injustice. Women took the surname “Kaur,” meaning princess or lioness. Five emblems marked the
baptized men: long hair and unshaven beard, a comb to maintain the hair, knee-length breeches, a steel bracelet on the right wrist and a kirpan or sword at the waist. Together these articles symbolized the soldier-saint who would wield arms only for a righteous cause.
Until the early eighteenth century Punjab was a scattered jigsaw puzzle of small kingdoms constantly at war with each other or with larger powers such as the Marathas, the Rajputs, the Mughals and the British. Then, in 1801, an ambitious young man named Ranjit Singh conquered these fractured kingdoms and forged a unified nation out of them, thus fostering, for the first time, a sense of Punjabi identity that embraced equally the Hindu, Muslim and Sikh people. Over the next three decades or so he continued to expand his kingdom, making it one of the most powerful in Asia. Following his death in 1839, however, the kingdom began to disintegrate, prey once more to warring factions. Enter the British, who were by then deeply entrenched in India both politically and commercially, and who behind their façade of neutrality had long nurtured plans to take over the wealthy, strategically located Punjab.
The following century and a half saw the region in a state of constant turmoil until 1947, when the British finally pulled out of India, arbitrarily drawing a line across the land, creating two new nations—India, with its Hindu majority, and Pakistan, with its largely Muslim population. Punjab was cut into two bits, with the western half going to Pakistan. This division, and the great relocation of people that followed, caused massive loss of life, ancestral land, history and memory; it created wounds and resentments that festered and grew
until the early 1980s when, partly due to differences between the Indian government and the Sikhs over land and water rights, the Punjab was transformed from the granary of the country into a fractured battleground. Between 1983 and 1993, acts of brutality and terrorism—both by the Indian government and by militant groups demanding a separate homeland for the Sikhs—became daily occurrences.
The violence escalated until June 1984, when Indira Gandhi, then prime minister of India, ordered the army into the Golden Temple, the holiest of Sikh shrines, in an attempt to rid it of groups of armed militants who had fortified themselves within the complex of buildings surrounding the shrine. In the ensuing battle the temple was damaged and many of the militants, soldiers and several hundreds of pilgrims (up to two thousand, according to some estimates) were killed.
The anger generated by the invasion of the temple resulted in the assassination of Indira Gandhi by two of her Sikh bodyguards in October 1984. This in turn precipitated the systematic “revenge” killings of innocent Sikhs throughout India; thousands were murdered in Delhi alone. Twenty-two years and nine inquiry commissions later, only one of the perpetrators has been brought to justice, even though many of them were identified.
Less than a year after the invasion of the Golden Temple, in June 1985, Air India Flight 182, en route from Canada to India via London, exploded over the Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of Ireland, killing all 329 people on board. Fifteen years later, in October 2000, two Canadian Sikhs were finally charged with having planted the bomb. Both men were acquitted in March 2005 for lack of sufficient evidence.
The violence in Punjab died down abruptly around 1995, but the chain of tragic events that destroyed many innocent lives continues to scar memories.
Although these well-known historical events form the backdrop for my novel, I would like to emphasize that this story is fiction and that all the characters and their actions, thoughts and feelings are entirely fictional and not intended to represent or portray any actual people.
I owe an enormous debt of gratitude to the following people:
Dr. Harinder Singh Marjara and Eisha Marjara for sharing their lives, their family photographs, their feelings with me.
Sushma Datt of Rimjhim Radio Vancouver for long conversations, Hindi music and loans of cassette tapes of programs recorded soon after Indira Gandhi’s assassination.
Nsibe Puri for graciously giving me stories of her life as a Punjabi girl growing up in British Columbia.
Veena Das for her thoughts on the anti-Sikh riots in Delhi.
Louise Dennys for her patience while this book went through several avatars, her perceptive comments on all aspects of story and character, and above all, for the “eh?” question.
Denise Bukowski for her faith in me even when I was beginning to lose it.
Kendall Anderson for her editorial honesty, and John Eerkes-Medrano for his sharp eye for dates and details.
Mini Menon and Yasmin Ladha for being such good friends and hearing me out every time I came up with a new version of this story.
Madhav and Aditya for their constant love.
Thanks are also due to the Canada Council for the Arts for financial support in the earliest stages of this book.
In addition, these books were particularly important and useful to me in my research:
A History of the Sikhs, Volumes I and II,
by Khushwant Singh;
by Patwant Singh;
The Sorrow and the Terror: The Haunting Legacy of the Air India Tragedy,
by Clark Blaise and Bharati Mukherjee;
The Death of Air India Flight 182,
by Salim Jiwa;
Fighting for Faith and Nation: Dialogues with Sikh Militants,
by Cynthia Keppley Mahmood;
Who Are the Guilty? Report of a Joint Inquiry into the Causes and Impacts of the Riots in Delhi from 31 October to 10 November,
by People’s Union for Democratic Rights/People’s Union for Civil Liberties,
1984; The Delhi Riots: Three Days in the Life of a Nation,
by Uma Chakravarti and Nandita Haksar;
The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India,
by Urvashi Butalia;
The Voyage of the Komagata Maru: The Sikh Challenge to Canada’s Colour Bar,
by Hugh Johnston.
The following articles from
Communities, Riots and Survivors in South Asia,
edited by Veena Das, were also helpful: “The Survivor in the Study of Violence” by Amrit Srinivasan; “Our Work to Cry: Your Work to Listen” by Veena Das.
The poem “Farewell” by Agha Shahid Ali, from which I have quoted a line as an epigraph to the novel, can be found in his collection
The Country Without a Post Office: Poems.
Anita Rau Badami was born in 1961 in India. Although her family’s roots are in the south, she spent most of her life in cities throughout the northern and eastern parts of the country, moving every two to three years because of her father’s job as an officer in the Indian Railway.
Badami always loved writing and sold her first short story when she was eighteen. Inspired to pursue a career in writing, she earned a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Madras and went on to study social communications media at Sophia College in Bombay. After graduation, Badami worked as a copywriter for advertising agencies in Bombay, Bangalore and Madras and as a freelancer for major Indian newspapers for several years. She also published stories in children’s magazines.
Emigrating to Canada in 1991 with her husband, Badami enrolled in creative writing classes and by 1995 was awarded a master’s degree in English literature from the University of Calgary. Her graduate thesis became her first novel,
which was published worldwide in 1996 and landed her firmly on the map as a talented new Canadian writer to watch.
In 2000, Badami published her bestselling second novel,
The Hero’s Walk,
which was also met with great critical acclaim. It won the Regional Commonwealth Writers Prize, Italy’s Premio Berto and was named a
Best Book of 2001. It was also longlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Prize and the Orange Prize for Fiction and shortlisted for the Kiriyama Prize.
A recipient of the Marian Engel Award for a woman writer in mid-career, Anita Rau Badami currently resides in Montreal. Please visit her website at
This is a work of fiction. All situations, incidents, dialogue and characters, with the exception of some well-known historical and public figures mentioned in this novel, are products of the author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real. They are not intended to depict actual events or people or to change the entirely fictional nature of the work. In all other respects, any resemblance to persons living or dead is entirely coincidental.
VINTAGE CANADA EDITION, 2007
Copyright © 2006 Anita Rau Badami
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Published in Canada by Vintage Canada, a division
of Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto, in
Originally published in hardcover in Canada by Alfred A. Knopf
Canada, a division of Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto,
. Distributed by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto.
Vintage Canada and colophon are registered trademarks of Random
House of Canada Limited.
Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication
Badami, Anita Rau, 1961–
Can you hear the nightbird call? / Anita Rau Badami.
PS8553.A2845C36 2007 C813