Author applies humour to study of grief
Locally-raised author returns to high form with sophomore effort
Saturday, Apr 05, 2014 06:00 am
By Padma Viswanathan
St. Albert-raised author Padma Viswanathan has returned from a five-year absence from the book scene, and she has returned in a big way.
After releasing the international bestseller The Toss of a Lemon in 2008, she just released her followup effort last week. The Ever After of Ashwin Rao is a very human drama set in the decades-long emotional wake of the Air India bombing in 1985. It’s an extended fiction that works effectively in the realm of what Viswanathan calls “a study in comparative grief.”
This is a story whose time has come to be told, especially for the many families who were directly affected by the act of terrorism. Only now does Viswanathan realize that is so long overdue.
“I guess so. I’m just starting to get that from people coming to the readings,” she said.
She elaborated that Lata Pada, one of Canada’s premier choreographers of Indian classical dance, came to the book launch on March 23. Pada lost her husband and daughters in the bombing. She had previously created a theatrical performance piece based on her own personal tragedy.
She was impressed that Viswanathan wrote the book to keep the memory of those 329 people alive.
“She said to me, ‘I’m so glad you’ve written the book. This incident is disappearing from public memory.’ I felt so moved,” Viswanathan said.
The plane was flying from Montreal to Delhi and was blown up near Ireland, making it the largest mass murder in Canadian history.
The name in Viswanathan’s title refers to Ashwin Rao, an Indian psychologist who has come to Canada to undertake a study of how people deal with a common tragedy in their own individual ways. While interacting with 12 families, he finds himself struggling with his own grief over a loss in his life.
With such charged subject matter, readers might prefer sympathetic characters to make the story easier to read. That’s not how the real world is, Viswanathan says. After all, she didn’t become a finalist for the Commonwealth (Regional) First Book Prize, the Amazon.ca First Novel Prize and the Pen Center USA Fiction Prize by taking the easy way out.
For one thing, Rao is kind of a jerk. He’s not a very easy person to like, the author admits.
“He’s cranky, sarcastic, sort of irascible and judgmental in certain ways,” she says.
Another one of the main characters, Venkat, might be more problematic, however. He lost a wife and son and has not been able to recover emotionally in the most productive or positive way.
“He’s not somebody who has dealt with the bombing in a generous and gracious way, unlike many families who have channelled their grief into wonderful humanitarian gestures.”
Viswanathan noted that bad things don’t only happen to good people, but also to people who are unlikeable, ungenerous or with different political views.
“This is part of what I wanted to explore. I took some objection to the way that, as soon as people are killed in acts of terror, they suddenly become saints. I feel like that is dehumanizing,” she says.
“You still have to recognize that his grief is real, as real as that of somebody who you might consider to be a better person. It’s dangerous for us not to acknowledge that grief.”
It took several years for Viswanathan to write the book, some of which was very difficult going for her. It was so difficult, in fact, that she herself became physically ill.
“I was having to inhabit this very grim space at a deep level of identification.”
Still, she has come to be very satisfied with the end result, much moreso than with The Toss of a Lemon.
“I feel this comes closer to the quality of the books that I most admire,” she said.
With all of the challenges that she faced in the process of creating this introspective, human story, she said that she was most surprised by how easily she was able to inhabit the protagonist.
“He’s a 60s-ish Indian man who has virtually no friends. He couldn’t be more different from me and yet his voice came very naturally to me.”
She learned that grief and trauma also often leads people to develop unique senses of humour. For her, finding the right tone for that humour was not difficult, likely because she comes at most things in her life with humorous disposition.
“Maybe it should have been harder. I tend to joke all the time. Many people in our family … we all joke a lot. I think that part was, in a way, second nature, of course not around something that is absolutely and profoundly sad but people just don’t stay in that place all the time. Our minds surprise us. It didn’t feel deliberate or difficult.”
For a book based on violence, the amiable author had the most trouble describing the awful things that people do to each other.
“The hardest aspect of tone was trying to find how to describe the violence. This is something that I want to continue to talk about with people. The other thing was the historical context – how to give people a sense of the broader swath of the history around the bombing without being ponderous, without overloading it and distracting from the central story.”
She has already travelled from Toronto to Vancouver to promote the book with more plans to visit Ottawa and Montreal soon. A tour into the Edmonton area is expected in the coming months. Despite all of the troubled – and recent – human history contained within The Ever After of Ashwin Rao, Viswanathan does not find herself any more hesitant about being on planes so much more at the moment.
“I say a prayer every time I get in my car,” she admits.
“Plane crashes are very rare. I fear much more crossing the street than I do getting on a plane, although I am aware that my book is not in airport bookstores. That’s probably just as well,” she laughed.