Pain, at a remove
A psychologist attempts to tackle the pain of loss through chronicling others` cope strategies
In Canada, almost two decades after the bombing of Air India Flight 182, the trial of the suspects have finally started. Ashwin Rao, a psychologist who trained in Canada, has come back, to attend the trials, to write an account of how the families of the survivors are coping, to attempt to deal with his own loss; his sister and her two young children perished in the crash. He meets and is drawn into the circle of Seth Sethuratnam, his wife Lakshmi, their daughters Brinda and Rajani. Seth`s family have co-opted their friend Dr Venkataraman who lost his wife and son in the crash, into their family circle.
Comparative narratives of grief is what Ashwin Rao is seeking and that is exactly what he gets here. Venkat is coping in his own way, coating his grief with pedantry and becoming a man who harangues people about terrorism. Seth himself has withdrawn, started to seek spiritual guidance, turning to the popular Indian guru Shivashakti. Brinda is struggling to bring closure to an extremely unsatisfying marriage of ten years, Lakshmi is watching and absorbing the different kinds of pain as evidenced by the different members of her family. The management of grief, redemption, coping, recovery, moving on, these are what Padma Vishwanathan tackles in the book, with uneven success.
Of the 329 people who died in the air crash, 268 were Canadians. However, they were Canadians of brown skin and maybe that was the reason the Canadian government did not see the need for any urgency of response.
The underlying sentiment of the novel is laudable; it is in the execution that it fails. The pace of the story is so measured, it starts to sag, then drag. None of the characters are entirely likeable, least of the all the narrator Ashwin Rao. The politics of the immigrant and the desi are sharply etched with mention of the 1984 riots, of Godhra, of racism overt and covert in foreign lands, but all at one remove from the reader. Everyone is hurting, and hurting badly, that much we see. But does the writer get us involved enough to care? I`m not at all sure about that. The author tends to pick up and follows thinly connected threads, and that does the central story no good. And after a brief hiatus, when Ashwin Rao re-enters the story, it takes a minute before we remember that he is the actual vehicle for the story to move to any kind of conclusion.
I keep a low profile, someone tells Rao early in the tale. Unfortunately, Rao himself is kept so low profile, he tends to fall off the radar.
Also, the reader sees the Joseph Heller-like twist at the end of the tale well before it comes.