Trauma, Memory and Testimony:
Badami’s Can You Hear the Nightbird Call?
and the Air India Inquiry
On June 23, 1985, 329 people were killed in an act of aviation terrorism when Air India Flight 182 exploded over the Atlantic Ocean; 280 of the victims were Canadian. In the 23 years since the bombing of Air India Flight 182, a number of narratives of the event, its aftermath, and the events leading up to it have been written – Clarke Blais and Bharati Mukherjee’s The Sorrow and the Terror: The Haunting Legacy of the Air India Tragedy (1987), Bharati Mukherjee’s short story “The Management of Grief” (1988), Zuhair Kashmeri and Brian McAndrew’s Soft Target: How the Indian Intelligence Service Penetrated Canada (1989, rpt. 2005), Salim Jiwa’s The Death of Air India Flight 182 (1986) and his more recent book Margin of Terror: a reporter's twenty-year odyssey covering the tragedies of the Air India bombing (2006), Ian Mulgrew’s Unholy Terror: The Sikhs and International Terrorism (1988), and Kim Bolan’s Loss of Faith: How the Air India bombers got away with murder (2005). In the 20 years following the bombing there have also been three trials, two acquittals, one conviction, and numerous calls for a public inquiry.
In 2005 the Canadian government responded to those calls, and the result was a preliminary report titled: Lessons to be Learned: The report of the Honourable Bob Rae, Independent Advisor to the Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness, on outstanding questions with respect to the bombing of Air India Flight 182. Rae’s report determined that several questions remained to be answered:
1. Was the assessment by Canadian government officials of the potential threat of Sikh terrorism in the period prior to 1985 adequate in light of the information reasonably available at the time, and was there sufficient co-ordination of a response by Canadian government agencies? If there were deficiencies in the assessment, and in the response, have systemic issues been effectively resolved, such that similar errors would not be committed today?
2. In the periods before and after June 23, 1985, were there problems in the relationship between CSIS and the RCMP and any other government departments or agencies that detrimentally affected the surveillance of terrorist suspects and the investigation of the Air India bombings, and have these problems now been resolved? If not, what further changes in practice and/or legislation are required to ensure an effective co-operation?
3. The investigation and prosecutions in the Air India matter point to the difficulty of establishing a reliable and workable relationship between security intelligence and evidence that can be used in a criminal trial. The intelligence/evidence/enforcement conundrum is not unique to Canada. Drawing on our own and other closely related experiences, how can we deal with these relationships in an effective way today?
4. There were grievous breaches of aviation security in the Air India bombing. Has Canada learned enough from the Air India bombing in terms of its public policy in this area, and what further changes in legislation, regulation, and practice are required? (Rae 22)
Rae’s report concluded with the recommendation that a public inquiry was necessary to address these outstanding questions. In May 2006, Prime Minister Stephen Harper acted upon Rae’s recommendations, announced the Commission of Inquiry into the Investigation of the Bombing of Air India Flight 182, and appointed retired Supreme Court Judge John Major as Commissioner. The Air India Inquiry opened on June 21, 2006; the inquiry concluded eighteen months later on Feb. 15, 2008. Commissioner Major’s final report has yet to be released.
The Hon. Bob Rae’s Lessons to be Learned report indicated that families of Air India victims sought three outcomes from a public inquiry: “to find out who committed this crime and to make sure they are brought to justice…. to find which individuals in government and various police and security forces made mistakes and to hold them personally accountable for them …. [and] to establish what went wrong and make sure these mistakes are not repeated” (24). The first and second outcomes are not, and could never be, the objectives of a public inquiry, because “It is a fundamental premise of Canadian law that an inquiry cannot be used to establish criminal or civil responsibility” (Rae 24). However, the Air India Inquiry’s Terms of Reference state that, while “the Commissioner [is] to perform his duties without expressing any conclusion or recommendation regarding the civil or criminal liability of any person or organization,” “the Commissioner [is] authorized to grant to the families of the victims of the Air India Flight 182 bombing an opportunity for appropriate participation in the Inquiry” (Terms of Reference).
During the first three weeks of the Inquiry, Commissioner John Major heard the testimony of over 75 family members, and his first report, The Families Remember, based on that testimony, was released in December 2007, before the Inquiry concluded, “because the families of the victims of the Air India tragedy have already waited much too long for their stories to be told” (Major, The Families Remember 5).
The family members’ testimony, some summarized and much quoted at length in the report, reveals the immense trauma and intense grief caused by the sudden loss of husbands, wives, sons, daughters, brothers and sisters in the Air India bombing. The testimony also reveals the severe disappointment of victims’ families over the reaction of the Canadian government and the support provided immediately following the bombing, raising accusations of racism. The testimony reveals the betrayal felt by the acquittals of Malik and Bagri in 2005. Finally, the testimony reveals the influence of the bombing on the educations, career choices, and volunteer activities of victims’ family members, many of whom were children at the time of the bombing, and lost parents and siblings. A dominant and recurring theme in the testimony is that the trauma and grief is on-going.
In an effort to commemorate the 329 victims of the bombing and to honour the memories and grief of the victims’ families, the majority of Commissioner Major’s first report is concerned with the human loss and the aftermath. (The Families Remember is divided into five sections: “The Human Loss,” “Heroic Efforts,” “The Canadian Response,” “The Aftermath,” “Reconciliation and Hope”; there are further subheadings, such as “Continuing Grief,” “Preserving the Memory,” and “Overcoming Grief to Create a Better World”.) The report cautions that “These are not easy stories to read. The pages that follow are permeated with an ineffable sadness” (Major 6). Commissioner Major hopes, however, that “the process of relating such personal grief will bring some healing” (Major 4) to the victims’ families. The Commissioner also hopes “The enormity of this mass murder may be grasped by attempting to know more about the victims and their grieving survivors” (Major 2).
The same year the Air India inquiry was called, Anita Rau Badami published her latest novel, Can You Hear the Nightbird Call?, which culminates in the Air India bombing. Badami’s novel stages another type of inquiry into the Air India bombing. While Commissioner Major’s first report examines the aftermath of the bombing, Badami engages her readers in the long and complex history that precedes it. It is important to note that while Badami’s novel “goes a long way toward putting the air tragedy … into context, it is not an apology for it” (Little C2).
Badami’s novel is organized around the narratives of three women: Bibi-ji, Leela, and Nimmo, all of whom have personal connections with and in Canada, and all of whom also have a personal relationship with Jasbeer Singh. Badami first intended to focus her novel on Jasbeer. Fascinated by young Canadian-born Sikhs, “some of whom had never spent much time outside the interior of B.C., [but] who in the 1980’s suddenly wanted a free Punjab, an independent Sikh state” (Badami qtd in Soderstrom), Badami set out to write a love story about a young, Sikh boy and a Hindu girl. “But,” Badami says, “it didn’t go anywhere…. I couldn’t get inside the characters” (qtd in Soderstom). Nevertheless, Jasbeer remains as the “dark, disquieted soul of the novel” (Little C2).
Can You Hear the Nightbird Call is divided into five parts; the first three sections of the novel are organized around the characters of Bibi-ji, Leela, and Nimmo. Part One introduces us to the young Sharanjeet Kaur (later known as Bibi-ji), envying her best friend and neighbour, Jeeti, whose father is rich, and sends an unending “supply of lavender soap … all the way from Canada” (4). Bibi-ji’s own father, Harjot Singh, spends his days lying “inert on a cot” (4), having never recovered from his journey on the Komagata Maru, and the “voyage that ended in nothing” (5). When Bibi-ji marries a decent Sikh man who lives in Canada, she leaves her Punjabi village for Vancouver, and realizes her father’s dream: “she had overcome time and space and won the country that had turned her father away all those years ago” (36). As Bibi-ji and her husband’s fortunes increase in Vancouver, her sister Kanwar remains in India and contact between the two sisters is eventually lost. The last letter Bibi-ji ever receives from her sister is dated Feb. 11, 1947. The letter contains the news of their mother’s death, announces the pending birth of Kanwar’s third child, warns of the unrest caused by rumours that “Punjab will be broken into two” (44), and worries about where the child will be born.
Badami’s novel is “grounded in historical events” (Badami qtd in Soderstorm), both Indian and Canadian, and intersections between Canadian and Indian history are immediately established in the opening pages of the novels. The book is dedicated to “the man on the bridge in Modinagar and the victims of Air India Flight 182”; Bibi-ji’s first memories are steeped in the disappointment and exhaustion of her father’s “long and fruitless trip” (18) to Canada. The connections between the novel’s characters, their personal histories, and their countries’ histories also establish the loss and longing characteristic of diasporic experience (and writing).
Bibi-ji never finds her sister again, but she does find her sister’s daughter, Nimmo. Through coincidence and luck, Bibi-ji finds her lost niece at a moment when Nimmo and her husband are struggling to save their business. Nimmo is reluctant to accept Bibi-ji as her aunt. She has no memory of her family, only a postcard, “that she might have picked … up on her journey to India during Partition” (148), a postcard from Canada with “the picture of a looming black bear, fuzzy green trees rising behind it” (153). This postcard, addressed to Kanwar Kaur and Pardeep Singh, and signed “Your younger sister, Sharan” (153) is the only fragment of her past Nimmo possesses, but “There was not a single word in the postcard that proved Nimmo belonged to these two people” (153) to whom it was addressed. Bibi-ji’s arrival in India forces Nimmo to “gather up those shards of her memory” (161), as she accepts Bibi-ji into her life and family. After gaining Nimmo’s trust, and paying Nimmo and her husband’s debts, Bibi-ji asks a “favour” (181). Having never had children of her own, Bibi-ji asks Nimmo to send one of her children back to Canada with Bibi-ji – “for his own good” (188). Despite her growing misgivings, Nimmo sends her oldest son, Jasbeer.
In Vancouver, the impetuous Jasbeer becomes “an angry child and a destructive one” (192). Bibi-ji is inundated with “complaining letters” from school: “Jasbeer Singh has been indulging in inappropriate behaviour” (197). In her attempts to understand the cause of Jasbeer’s behaviour, Bibi-ji’s fear that Jasbeer does “not have enough of a sense of his cultural roots” (198) vacillates with her concern that “the boy had too much of a sense of history…. Too much of ancient stories of wars and warriors” (198) told to him by Pa-ji, who is writing The Popular and True History of the Sikh Diaspora. Bibi-ji contemplates cutting Jasbeer’s hair – “the marker of his Sikh identity - … so that [he] could blend in” (197), while remembering “the number of times she had, at Pa-ji’s insistence, told Jasbeer of her own father’s aborted journey on the ship called the Komagata Maru, turned away by this very city. And each time Pa-ji would comment at length on the injustice of the whole episode” (198). Bibi-ji wonders: “Had they burdened the boy with an impossible load, a feeling of grievances unresolved?” (198).
Jasbeer does bear the weight of the diasporic experience of “moving from one cultural state of existence to another” as described by Victor Ramraj: “In this state of transition, some respond ambivalently to their dual, often antithetical, cultures or societies. Some attempt to assimilate and integrate. For others the liminal or transitional state is too prolonged or too excruciating to cope with and they may withdraw to their ancestral identity or homeland” (Ramraj 216-17). Jasbeer’s transition is both excruciating and prolonged; he is “sent away” by his parents, but is then to be brought back to India each year to visit them. Jasbeer’s “inappropriate behaviours” include taking a kitchen knife to school because he wanted a kirpan, an action that expresses his “pride in his Sikh roots” (206). When Dr. Raghubir Randhawa visits Vancouver in 1971, demanding “Khalistan, a land for the Sikhs, the pure and the brave” (253), the young Jasbeer is captivated. When Randhawa returns to Vancouver nine years later (in 1980), he has already recruited Jasbeer to the organization “Young Sikhs for a Free Punjab” (285), and Jasbeer plans to go home to India to join the Damdami Taksal (a Sikh religious school). He will not return to Vancouver again until after the attack at the Golden Temple.
Badami brings her novel to a close with the tragedy of the Air India crash. In the “Epilogue” of Nightbird, Jasbeer returns to the narrative through a letter. Dated June 1986, the Epilogue contains three separate, brief narratives that echo the structure of the opening sections of the novel; one year after the Air India bombing, these three narrative fragments provide some resolution to the stories of Bibi-ji, Nimmo and Leela. What part, if any, Jasbeer had in the bombing is never articulated, but his final letter apologizes for his “sins” (397). Recalling childhood Halloweens in Vancouver, when he and Leela’s daughter Preethi, dressed as monsters, Jasbeer reveals: “I became a monster” (397), “fight[ing] for a free country. After a while I didn’t know what that meant anymore, really. Free country….. I was sick of the violence and the killing” (397-8).
The “ineffable sadness” that permeates the testimony of the victims’ families heard at the Air India Inquiry also pervades Badami’s novel. The nightbird of the novel’s title portends death, and the novel dramatizes “Horror piled on horror” (372) – the violence of Partition, the attack on the Golden Temple, the assassination of Indira Gandhi, the resulting riots and murder of Sikhs, affect . These events in India have repercussions across the Indian diaspora, despite spatial and temporal distance:
tension between the Sikhs and the rest of the Indian community [of Vancouver], already high after the invasion of the Golden Temple, was now close to exploding…. Crowds of Sikhs disrupted traffic … in front of the Indian High Commission on Howe Street…. Mrs. Patel’s car windows were smashed and The Delhi Junction spray-painted in retaliation. A Sikh lawyer’s head was bashed in with an iron rod because he protested Canadian immigration policies that, he claimed, allowed secessionists and extremists from Punjab safe haven in Canada. And the non-Sikhs … murmured that it served the bastards right. (373)
While these manifestations of the tensions in the Indian community in Vancouver in the 1980’s are imagined, and fictional, such tensions did exist, and did escalate into an act of revenge that remains “the worst act of terrorism in Canadian history” (Dorais 214). This reality is the moment at which Can You Hear the Nightbird Call? and the Air India Inquiry intersect.
One of the prominent themes in Badami’s novel is the conflict inherent in diasporic experience. Badami asks: “When do you belong and where do you belong” (Badami qtd in Ubelaker). The principal’s reaction to Jasbeer’s improvised kirpan is indicative of Canadian intolerance of and ignorance about Indo-Canadian identity and experience. He fails to understand that the Singh’s “part of the world” is Vancouver – Main Street to be precise – and not what he calls “the Poonjab” (210). This theme correlates with an outstanding and crucial question haunting the Air India inquiry: “If Air India Flight 182 had been an Air Canada flight with all fair-skinned Canadians, would the government response have been different? As a country, we would hope not. At the conclusion of the Inquiry, a better understanding of the events and actions that took place may help us all to decide” (Major 3-4). Many of the family members of Air India victims have already decided, and are “critical of the treatment of family members by Canadian officials” (Major 26); the few who did respond were unprepared for the magnitude of the tragedy. The testimony of one family member asks:
Perhaps he [former prime minister Brian Mulroney] never thought that it happened in our own backyard. Alas, what a twist of irony. Are we not Canadians? Were not those talented children, including a dear Deepak, the future of Canada?” (qtd in Major 26).
Commissioner Major has indicated that his final report, when it is released, will address these questions based on the Inquiry’s findings.
In its pending final report, the Air India Inquiry is prohibited from assigning responsibility for the tragedy of Air India Flight 182; Can You Hear the Nightbird Call? too refuses this impulse: “there are no easy lines of blame to be traced in this book,… and no clear villains or simple victims” (Little C2). What the “Inquiry will explain [is] not so much what happened, but why it happened and how it can be prevented from happening again” (Major 3). The historical contextualization provided in Badami’s novel can deepen this understanding. According to Commissioner Major: “By speaking before the Commission, family witnesses have become the public conscience. By listening, the audience validates their experiences. Transcription in an official record makes their tragedy a part of our history” (Major 4). Badami’s novel provides further insight into how individual experiences, historical events, and personal and political decisions across two countries culminate in the life a young boy in India, and merge into “our history.”
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Blaise, Clark and Bharati Mukherjee. The Sorrow and the Terror: The Haunting Legacy of the Air India Tragedy. Markham ON: Penguin, 1987.
Bolan, Kim. Loss of Faith: how the Air India bombers got away with murder. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 2005.
Dorais, Veronique. Rev. of Can You Hear the Nightbird Call? Canadian Ethnic Studies 38.2 (2006): 214-15.
Gessell, Paul. “The terrorist bombing of an Air India jet June 23, 1985, is a tragedy novelists have largely left untouched, its greater truths left unexplored, but Anita Rau Badami has changed all that with her upcoming novel, Can You Hear the Nightbird Call?” CanWest News 5 September 2006 1. CBCA Current Events. ProQuest. Athabasca University Library. 10 Mar. 2008 .
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Mulgrew, Ian. Unholy Terror: The Sikhs and Internationl Terrorism. Toronto ON: Key Porter, 1988.
Rae, Bob. Lessons to be Learned: The report of the Honourable Bob Rae, Independent Advisor to the Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness, on outstanding questions with respect to the bombing of Air India Flight 182.” 2006.
Ramraj, Victor. “Diasporas and Multiculturalism.” New National and Post-Colonial Literatures. Ed. Bruce King. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996. 214-229.
Soderstrom, Mary. “The in-between world.” Quill & Quire. Sept. 2006. 07 Sept. 2007.
Ubelacker, Sheryl. “Badami sets story of love and loss against backdrop of Air India disaster.” Canadian Press NewsWire 31 August 2006 CBCA Current Events. ProQuest. Athabasca University Library. 10 Mar. 2008 .