Diasporic Discontent

  • Padma Viswanathan
    The Ever After of Ashwin Rao. Random House (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Sadhu Binning
    Fauji Banta Singh and Other Stories. TSAR Publications (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Dorothy F. Lane

Both of these works are moving testimonials to what Ranjanna Khann terms “coloniality’s affective dissonance” and “the work of melancholia”—stories of loss, economic and ethnic discrimination, and resilience. The characters created by both authors are compelling snapshots of faces in the illusion of multiculturalism, bringing closer a grasp of the perpetual dislocation and relocation underlying the political fabrication of inclusivity. The primary narrator of Padma Viswanathan’s superb second novel, The Ever After of Ashwin Rao, is a psychologist who takes on the project of interviewing survivors of the 1985 Air India disaster in the context of prolonged investigations and ignorance among mainstream Canadians and officials. Rao, himself a casualty of the bombing, represses his own pain in order to listen to the stories of relatives in a variety of locations and perspectives; the overall result is profoundly haunting. It transgresses generic boundaries, recounting factual information along with these evocative fictional stories. That interweaving is echoed in Viswanathan’s blog responding to the election of Narendra Modi, in which she alludes to one character in her novel who becomes a Hindu nationalist after the bombing; she writes that Westerners “ignore or allow ourselves to be befuddled by the complications of civil conflicts elsewhere.”

Comparably, the narrative therapy practiced by Rao in the novel reflects his bitterness regarding Canada’s convenient labeling of the event as an act of terrorism rooted in India, rather than as an attack on Canadians by Canadians. For many of the individuals, the retaliation against Sikhs following both Indira Gandhi’s assassination and the bombing is another marker of persisting trauma in Canada, even while the mainstream does not recognize distinctions of religion, class, or ethnicity. Ultimately, then, the reader is reminded of the dangers of “globalism” and of the liminal space inhabited by the South Asian diaspora. While substantial in its scope and length, Viswanathan’s novel remarkably brings us into the private spaces of diasporic homes and families. The image of the phoenix—of death and rebirth—emphasizes the way these nesting stories reflect nesting lives, relationships, families, and communities. Moreover, the emphasis not on recovery from such tragedies, but on erosion or shape-shifting is profoundly noted by the narrator: “Statistics are well and good, but names, faces, stories make us understand, pay attention.” This book, in its rare synthesis of intimacy and critical reflection, is truly one of the most powerful, intricate, and timely Canadian novels published this year.

Similarly, Sadhu Binning’s collection, Fauji Banta Singh and Other Stories, presents the reader with a kaleidoscope of characters drawn from the Sikh community in British Columbia. Written first in Punjabi and translated into English—as are many works by this multilingual author—most stories touch on dilemmas of the South Asian diaspora, although through a narrower lens. Binning’s inclusion of a glossary of untranslated terms at the back of the collection reminds the mainstream reader than she or he is a voyeur, only marginally admitted into these lives and homes. In the stories, the economic hardship and multiple challenges of both young and old reflects a tug-of-war between “home” and “away.” From the elderly soldier Banta Singh, who recalls that he began as the only Punjabi mailman in his assigned neighbourhood, to the high-school student Sito, who is used and betrayed by Kelly, a Punjabi boy, Binning gives us multiple perspectives and responses to the dislocation and relocation of diaspora. Some stories are almost disappointing in their brevity, leaving little impact on the reader; some, such as “Off Track” and “The Accident,” relate disturbing stories of domestic and racially-motivated violence that resound beyond the book’s covers.

What stands out in this collection, however, as in Viswanathan’s novel, is the resilience of these characters and the connections they forge both within and outside their homes and neighbourhoods. In Binning’s “Father and Son,” the link (ironically) is economic exploitation and homelessness, as on the street Indigenous, mainstream, and immigrant develop an intense loyalty and mutual respect. Similarly, in “Eyes in the Dark,” we encounter Punjabi men working in northern BC who marry Indigenous women in order to gain official status. In many of these narratives, the leveler is socio-economic class and the racist views of the mainstream; while divisions exist between older and more recent Punjabi immigrants, inter-ethnic connections are made in the logging communities. Again, the stories are not as compelling or intricate as Viswanathan’s novel, but both works are significant glimpses of the complex and intangible character of the South Asian diaspora. Both demonstrate the power of narrative as vital and powerful therapy, not only for the casualties, but also for the often-complacent cultural mainstream in Canada.

This review “Diasporic Discontent” originally appeared in Queer Frontiers. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 224 (Spring 2015): 111-12.

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