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'The Ever After of Ashwin Rao' explores grief that lingers long after the bombing of an airliner

Almost two decades after his sister and her two children die in a terrorist attack, an academic goes looking for answers.

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    The Ever After of Ashwin Rao
    By Padma Viswanathan
    Soft Skull Press/Counterpoint
    340 pp.
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Two weeks short of the 19th anniversary of the bombing of Air India Flight 182 – which disintegrated off the Irish coast on June 23,1985 – psychologist Ashwin Rao makes the reverse journey from Delhi to Vancouver. He’s on his way to conduct research for his next book, “a study in comparative grief” in which he hopes to explore “how … the [surviving] families coped up? How have their lives progressed?” What he hasn’t revealed to his colleagues nor his interviewees is that of the 329 crash victims, he intimately knew three: his sister and her two young children.

Almost two decades after the tragedy, Rao concedes, “It wasn’t only the need for scholarship that was motivating me. It wasn’t only the desire to give the victims a voice.… It was, as much as anything, my desire to understand what had happened to me. I had not recovered.… I had, in some way, stopped my life.”

Thus begins The Ever After of Ashwin Rao, the 2014 Giller-shortlisted second novel from Canadian-born (now a resident of Arkansas) Padma Viswanathan; her debut, "The Toss of a Lemon" (2008), was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Prize Best Fiction Book Award Canada and Caribbean.

Her protagonist’s quest to understand the bombing’s aftermath – Canada’s “largest mass murder” according to the Canada Broadcasting Corporation – mirrors Viswanathan’s own: Although the majority of the victims were Canadian citizens, “’this tragedy was not owned … by Canadians at large,’” Ashwin comments. “’It wasn’t owned by the government either,’” his (former) brother-in-law adds. That 18 years passed before two suspects were finally brought to trial, and another two years passed before there was a not-guilty verdict, provided justification for those who believed that Canadian lives of Indian descent were not considered equal to that of other, paler Canadians.

In order to somehow reclaim his life – so much of it is now spent alone, without family, without a partner, without the possibility of a next generation – Ashwin attempts to find some comfort in answers. His research requires extensive travel, but he finds himself repeatedly drawn to the Sethuratnam family in Lohikarma, British Columbia, whom he meets in June 2004; they are his seventh family in the fourth city of his research, but they will become much more than mere subjects over the months that follow.

Although the immediate Sethuratnam family remains intact, Seth’s close friend and distant relative, Venkataraman, lost his wife and son; since the bombing, the Sethuratnams have been Venkat’s main support. Venkat, like Ashwin, has never recovered. Working with him proves challenging at best, and Ashwin instead grows closer to Seth, who escapes into his fervent devotion to a faraway guru to make sense of the unknowable, and to the oldest daughter Brinda who initially reminds Ashwin of who his lost niece might have become, who entreats him for advice about her troubled marriage.

The town’s name, an homage to the founder’s mispronunciation of the Finnish word for ‘dragon,’ couldn’t be more prescient: inaccurate phonetics aside, try ‘low-high-karma.’ This is where Ashwin experiences a pivotal epiphany: that he is “a man thrice-struck by lightning” but he is, “more accurately, Thrice-Missed.” Three times, he brushed up closely against near-fatal conflagrations: the anti-Muslim pograms after Indira Ghandhi’s assassination in 1982; the Air India bombing in 1985; the Coach S-6 Ghodra train burning of Hindu pilgrims in 2002 and the ensuing riots. Yet here he returns to Lo-hi-karma to be confronted with a challenge: “You must change your life” … and so marks Ashwin’s own journey towards healing, redemption, and even the possible renewal of neglected love.

Family. Death. Race. Identity. Betrayal. Justice (and lack thereof). Faith. God. All the Really Big Topics are included, spanning both sides of the globe. Between the pages are the types of literary references that certain readers will acknowledge with self-satisfaction, from the chummy interruptions of “Dear Reader”; to arguing with Bharati Mukherjee and husband/co-author Clark Blaise’s post-bombing book, “The Sorrow and the Terror”; to off-handedly quoting from the poem, “The Road Not Taken,” without mention of title or author.

Beyond a well-read community, however, Viswanathan’s narrative suffers from over-layered sprawl as it combines family saga, didactic history, socio-political analysis, terrorism, spiritual pilgrimage, religious exposé, and even more. The novel meanders in too many directions, unable to sustain clear navigation. While Viswanathan’s ambition is to be lauded and her prose admired – she will make you think deeply – be warned: impatient readers may not last through to the unanticipated, bittersweet final pages to fully appreciate her probing explorations.

Terry Hong writes BookDragon , a book blog for the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American.

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