Can You Hear the Nightbird Call?

Dedicated to “The man on the bridge in Modinagar and the victims of Air India Flight 182,” Can You Hear the Nightbird Call?, is said to be one of the recommended reads for Sikhs everywhere. While there are numerous historical accounts of the Partition, Operation Bluestar, and the Delhi riots – this is one of the few fictional accounts I have come across where the same feeling and emotions rise to the surface as they do when we think back to those events.

The author, Anita Rau Badami recalls,

[It was] just after Indira Gandhi was assassinated by two of her Sikh bodyguards. I’d been married two weeks. My husband and I were traveling back to Delhi after our honeymoon. In Modingar, a town close to Delhi, we saw a Sikh man standing on a bridge… his turban removed, his long hair unbound, his arms pinned to his sides by a car tire, surrounded by a group of hoodlums. Somebody tossed something at him and the next moment the man was on fire. [Link]

nightbird.jpgThis event is the seed for the novel. The story spans over half a century, from the Partition in 1947 to the Delhi riots following the events of 1984 and finally to the explosion of the Air India flight in 1985. It’s the story of the intersection between personal concerns and larger ethical and political ones. Bibiji, Nimmo, and Leela are the three main characters of the novel – three women whose lives merge and diverge by chance yet are linked through the political turmoil and destruction in Panjab, first during the 1947 partition and then again during the events of 1984. Bibiji grows up in Panjab and as a teenager manages to steal her sister’s husband-to-be and moves with him to Vancouver. Leela, a half-German woman from Banglore, also follows her husband to Vancouver and befriends Bibiji. Nimmo, my favorite character, remains in Delhi and is a direct witness to the partition. She is also Bibiji’s niece and in a twist of fate, she reluctantly agrees to send her oldest son, Jasbeer, to live with Bibiji in Canada. It’s a heartbreaking decision that Nimmo will come to regret. Interestingly, Badami’s three heroines were partly inspired by a collection of survivors’ testimonies published by People’s Union for Democratic Rights in 1984 about the impact of the Delhi riots.

The epigraph to the novel quite poignantly reads, “My memory keeps getting in the way of your history,” and the story is somewhat of a response to the events of the Air India Flight 182 bombing. Badami notes that, “all acts of terrorism are rooted in real reasons.” The author says she found herself looking for those reasons in the lives of people in both India and Canada. She was especially fascinated by young Canadian-born Sikhs, “some of whom had never spent much time outside the interior of B.C., who in the 1980s suddenly wanted a free Punjab, and independent Sikh state.”

I’m curious to hear if anyone else read this novel, and their thoughts on Badami’s use of these events as a backdrop to the story. For those of you who haven’t read it, I would definitely recommend it.


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22 Responses to “Can You Hear the Nightbird Call?”

  1. Maestro says:

    Nice review, Sundari. I haven't even heard of this novel (shocking to me because i work for a library!) but your post has stirred my interest in this work and contemplate the events you mentioned. I'm actually interested to see how well Badami writes as i've rarely come across strong Sikh fiction.

  2. Maestro says:

    Nice review, Sundari. I haven’t even heard of this novel (shocking to me because i work for a library!) but your post has stirred my interest in this work and contemplate the events you mentioned. I’m actually interested to see how well Badami writes as i’ve rarely come across strong Sikh fiction.

  3. Sundari says:

    I agree, Maestro, that strong Sikh/Punjabi fiction is hard to come by. While I liked Badami’s story, it doesn’t necessarily mean her writing was overly sophisticated, or her characters were well developed… but nevertheless, the story was meaningful to me. Other authors to note are Shauna Singh Baldwin and also Vikram Chandra who wrote Sacred Games, which was very well done…

  4. Sundari says:

    I agree, Maestro, that strong Sikh/Punjabi fiction is hard to come by. While I liked Badami’s story, it doesn’t necessarily mean her writing was overly sophisticated, or her characters were well developed… but nevertheless, the story was meaningful to me. Other authors to note are Shauna Singh Baldwin and also Vikram Chandra who wrote Sacred Games, which was very well done…

  5. I am a survivor of the Delhi Pogrom (1984). I have been trying to write a semifictional account of what happened to us: two fathers, two sons, two pregnant mothers, two brothers and three unborn children. We have told the nonfiction story on the blog in various posts. It's hard to write.

    I would like to make the point that it has never been proven that we Sikhs were behind the bombing of AI 182. That belief has been fostered primarily by the reporter Kim Bolan of the Vancouver Sun, who seems to have an antipathy toward the Sikh community. There are other viable theories.

  6. I am a survivor of the Delhi Pogrom (1984). I have been trying to write a semifictional account of what happened to us: two fathers, two sons, two pregnant mothers, two brothers and three unborn children. We have told the nonfiction story on the blog in various posts. It’s hard to write.

    I would like to make the point that it has never been proven that we Sikhs were behind the bombing of AI 182. That belief has been fostered primarily by the reporter Kim Bolan of the Vancouver Sun, who seems to have an antipathy toward the Sikh community. There are other viable theories.

  7. Sundari says:

    Mai Harinder Kaur, Thank you for your comments. I cannot imagine what you went through but believe these are the types of stories that need to be told. I wish you luck with your writing!

    You are correct that it has never been proven that Sikhs were behind the AI 182 bombing, and I hope my post did not come across as suggesting that. However, it was interesting to me that an association was made in the media and it stuck… and I was reminded of it when i read Badami's novel. Personally, i don't think she did a good job at making the connection, but from what i have read of the author it is clear that she believes the AI 182 bombing was a sort of reaction to the events of 1984.

    Nevertheless, this was a work of fiction…

  8. Sundari says:

    Mai Harinder Kaur, Thank you for your comments. I cannot imagine what you went through but believe these are the types of stories that need to be told. I wish you luck with your writing!

    You are correct that it has never been proven that Sikhs were behind the AI 182 bombing, and I hope my post did not come across as suggesting that. However, it was interesting to me that an association was made in the media and it stuck… and I was reminded of it when i read Badami’s novel. Personally, i don’t think she did a good job at making the connection, but from what i have read of the author it is clear that she believes the AI 182 bombing was a sort of reaction to the events of 1984.

    Nevertheless, this was a work of fiction…

  9. Your post neither states nor implies that we Sikhs had anything to do with that horrible bombing. I just wanted to state explicitly what I said.

    The nonfiction version of our 1984 stories are on our blog The Road To Khalistan. The title refers to the way we three women became convinced that we cannot be safe without our nation. The links to the stories can all be found at

    http://roadtokhalistan.blogspot.com/2007/08/our-s

    Our stories lack some features I have read in others. No one of us was burned alive or raped. We do tell our stories in a very personal way and in some detail.

    BTW, I love your website.

  10. Your post neither states nor implies that we Sikhs had anything to do with that horrible bombing. I just wanted to state explicitly what I said.

    The nonfiction version of our 1984 stories are on our blog The Road To Khalistan. The title refers to the way we three women became convinced that we cannot be safe without our nation. The links to the stories can all be found at

    http://roadtokhalistan.blogspot.com/2007/08/our-stories-from-1984.html

    Our stories lack some features I have read in others. No one of us was burned alive or raped. We do tell our stories in a very personal way and in some detail.

    BTW, I love your website.

  11. Sundari says:

    Mai Harinder Kaur, I appreciate you sharing your experiences. After reading through some of your posts, I wonder what coping mechanisms you have used over the years to deal with what you went through. On this blog we have previously discussed the psychological impact of torture and the effect is has on the health and well-being of victims. So, i wonder how you dealt with the experiences (I'm sure your writing is therapeutic) or whether there were any services offered in the community you live in now.

  12. Sundari says:

    Mai Harinder Kaur, I appreciate you sharing your experiences. After reading through some of your posts, I wonder what coping mechanisms you have used over the years to deal with what you went through. On this blog we have previously discussed the psychological impact of torture and the effect is has on the health and well-being of victims. So, i wonder how you dealt with the experiences (I’m sure your writing is therapeutic) or whether there were any services offered in the community you live in now.

  13. Sundari Ji,

    I decided to post my reply on my blog/s. You can read it at:

    http://roadtokhalistan.blogspot.com/2008/02/copin

    Thank you for helping me to write this. It took a lot of thought. The pictures tell a lot of the story, too.

  14. Sundari Ji,

    I decided to post my reply on my blog/s. You can read it at:

    http://roadtokhalistan.blogspot.com/2008/02/coping-reply-to-sundari.html

    Thank you for helping me to write this. It took a lot of thought. The pictures tell a lot of the story, too.

  15. Maestro says:

    I would like to make the point that it has never been proven that we Sikhs were behind the bombing of AI 182. That belief has been fostered primarily by the reporter Kim Bolan of the Vancouver Sun, who seems to have an antipathy toward the Sikh community. There are other viable theories.

    I am not convinced that this connection between Sikhs and the AI 182 bombing came about simply because a journalist did not like the Sikh community. I would like to dialogue more about it, and hear what the other viable theories are, if any, as i have always been under the impression that a definite link was made.

    Sundari, I picked up this novel and am looking forward to reading it. Thanks for the recommendatioN.

  16. Maestro says:

    I would like to make the point that it has never been proven that we Sikhs were behind the bombing of AI 182. That belief has been fostered primarily by the reporter Kim Bolan of the Vancouver Sun, who seems to have an antipathy toward the Sikh community. There are other viable theories.

    I am not convinced that this connection between Sikhs and the AI 182 bombing came about simply because a journalist did not like the Sikh community. I would like to dialogue more about it, and hear what the other viable theories are, if any, as i have always been under the impression that a definite link was made.

    Sundari, I picked up this novel and am looking forward to reading it. Thanks for the recommendatioN.

  17. Amanda says:

    What do you think were some of the major cultural and social aspects that challenged life in India?

  18. Amanda says:

    What do you think were some of the major cultural and social aspects that challenged life in India?

  19. Sundari says:

    Amanda, I think a response to your question could be quite complex. In relation to the events that were discussed in this novel, some of the issues that challenged life included the treatment of minorities (Sikhs) vs. the government, divisions between religious lines, and even the prosperity of land in the Panjab. The impact of the 1947 partition was still being felt and because of this, issues of identity, "home", and strained relations between communities also challenged life.

  20. Sundari says:

    Amanda, I think a response to your question could be quite complex. In relation to the events that were discussed in this novel, some of the issues that challenged life included the treatment of minorities (Sikhs) vs. the government, divisions between religious lines, and even the prosperity of land in the Panjab. The impact of the 1947 partition was still being felt and because of this, issues of identity, “home”, and strained relations between communities also challenged life.