Format: Hardcover, 432 pages
Publisher: Knopf Canada
Sharan, or Bibi-ji as she is now called, can remember spending hours as a little girl on her father's charpoy being regaled by the story of how he and many other Sikh men boarded the ship" Komagata Maru" to Canada and how upon arrival in Canada, the authorities refused to allow the poor, tired men to disembark; not just that, they wouldn't allow them to restock food or water either. They insisted the ship turn around with its human cargo and return to India. Sharan's father never got over the insult...he had spent all his earnings to pay for this journey to Canada. He returned to Punjab, India a broken man and never left his charpuoy except for one time when he wandered off, never to be seen or heard from again. Losing her father made Sharan determined to follow her father's dream and when her older sister received a proposal of marriage from a Sardar in Vancouver, Canada, 16-year old Sharan used her youth,beauty and charm to manipulate the groom's family and became the bride instead of her sister. Later, as maturity set in, she realized she had stolen her sister,Kanwar's fate and spent the rest of her life trying to make it up to Kanwar...but was it too late?
This is Anita Rau Badami's third book and with every every book she just seems to get better and better. This particular novel is ambitious, both in scope and subject matter - it follows the lives of three women and their families for 50 years across two continents and encompasses many of the notable political events that affected both the people from the subcontinent and the Indo-Canadian population, like the Partition of India in 1947; Indira Gandhi’s assassination by her own Sikh bodyguards in 1984; the book culminates with the Air India flight that left Vancouver (23June 1985)and exploded off the coast of Ireland, killing 329 people,mostly Indo-Canadians.
According to a Canadian Press report, the impetus for the book came after the author witnessed the sickening sight of a man’s body being dumped from a bridge in the course of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots sparked off by Indira Gandhi’s killing, while she (the author) was in Northern India on her honeymoon.
(pic. courtesy Hongkong Book Festival)
Badami's writing is just delightful and guaranteed to stir up palpable images of Indian life both in Indian and in Vancouver . She is a wiz, both at making your mouth water with her descriptions of hot,hot syrupy jelabis and mutton curry with naan and also at capturing the mania that the assassination of Indira Gandhi inspired and the revenge killings that followed. It is easy to love her characters because she infuses a lot of warmth, humanity, flaws and compassion into them, but, and this is her strongest point as a writer, she also gets you to think how very ordinary lives can be altered, sometimes to the point of being damaged, by sentiments inspired by politics, history and religion. It is happening all around the world, Dafur, Palestine, Iraq,North Korea, even as I type this! She also makes you question what it means to be an immigrant - do you ever truly shed the history of your birth country to embrace that of your adopted country or do you carry it with you for the rest of your life even handing it down to your children?
I bought this book after hearing Anita Rau Badami read from it at the IFOA and I'm so glad I did. I was just a kid during the Emergency and I wasn't that much older when the cries for a Khalistan began to echo through the country(India). I think this book is more than just a story- with the author's impeccable research it will serve to inform a whole generation of people, especially kids of the Indian diaspora as to the political happenings of those years, using the powerful medium of fiction.
Further Reading: My kindred spirit's (anocturne of booklogging) review.