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The Ever After of Ashwin Rao

by Padma Viswanathan

When Air India Flight 182 exploded over the Atlantic Ocean in 1985,  Prime Minister Brian Mulroney phoned his counterpart in India to offer his condolences, even though the vast majority of passengers were Canadian. The families of the victims then had to wait almost 20 years for the accused bombers to come to trial.

Padma Viswanathan chronicles the impact of the crash on the lives of survivors in her ambitious second novel. The book opens in New Delhi just as the 2004 trial begins in Vancouver. Ashwin Rao’s sister and her children were on the plane when it went down. Ashwin, a psychologist, plans to travel to Canada to prepare a comparative study of grief. His method is to interview surviving families and record their experiences as stories that they can then read. In the course of his travels, Ashwin is drawn into the dramas of two families in a fictional university town in B.C.’s Kootenay region.

Venkat lost his wife and son in the crash. S.P. “Seth” Sethuratnam, a physics lecturer, and his family feel responsible for Venkat, having been close with the grieving man’s wife. Both Seth and Venkat are searching for solace; as Venkat slowly comes to discover a dark meaning in his life, Seth seeks hope among the followers of an Indian guru.

Viswanathan shuffles voices, narrative styles, and time periods as Ashwin retells his subjects’ stories, as well as his own. His recollections of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots in New Delhi cascade into memories of the bombing and beyond. We are told about Venkat and Seth’s trip to Ireland to recover the bodies of Venkat’s family, and about Seth’s daughter Brinda, who is stuck in a sexless marriage. Viswanathan’s writing is most vivid in relating these stories.

It becomes less so when she turns to an overt examination of some big ideas: the meaning of time and faith, the parsing of the history leading up to the crash, and the Canadian perception of the plane’s passengers. A lack of immediacy in these areas notwithstanding, The Ever After of Ashwin Rao does surprise, especially with an ending that finds redemption for the works-in-progress that constitute our lives.