Can You Hear the Nightbird Call?

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9780676976052: Can You Hear the Nightbird Call?

Set against the tumultuous backdrop of a fragmenting Punjab and moving between Canada and India, Can you Hear the Nightbird Call? charts the interweaving stories of three Indian women – Bibi-ji, Leela and Nimmo – each in search of a resting place amid rapidly changing personal and political landscapes.

The ambitious, defiant Sikh Bibi-ji, born Sharanjeet Kaur in a Punjabi village, steals her sister Kanwar’s destiny, thereby gaining passage to Canada.

Leela Bhat, born to a German mother and a Hindu father, is doomed to walk the earth as a "half-and-half." Leela’s childhood in Bangalore is scarred by her in-between identity and by the great unhappiness of her mother, Rosa, an outcast in their conservative Hindu home. Years after Rosa’s shadowy death, Leela has learned to deal with her in-between status, and she marries Balu Bhat, a man from a family of purebred Hindu Brahmins, thus acquiring status and a tenuous stability. However, when Balu insists on emigrating to Canada, Leela must trade her newfound comfort for yet another beginning. Once in Vancouver with her husband and two children, Leela’s initial reluctance to leave home gradually evolves.

While Bibi-ji gains access to a life of luxury in Canada, her sister Kanwar, left behind to weather the brutal violence of the Partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, is not so fortunate. She disappears, leaving Bibi-ji bereft and guilt-ridden.

Meanwhile, a little girl, who just might be Kanwar’s six-year-old daughter Nimmo, makes her way to Delhi, where she is adopted, marries and goes on to build a life with her loving husband, Satpal. Although this existence is constantly threatened by poverty, Nimmo cherishes it, filled as it is with love and laughter, and she guards it fiercely.

Across the world, Bibi-ji is plagued by unhappiness: she is unable to have a child. She believes that it is her punishment for having stolen her sister’s future, but tries to drown her sorrows by investing all her energies into her increasingly successful restaurant called the Delhi Junction. This restaurant becomes the place where members of the growing Vancouver Indo-Canadian community come to dispute and discuss their pasts, presents and futures.

Over the years, Bibi-ji tries to uncover her sister Kanwar’s fate but is unsuccessful until Leela Bhat – carrying a message from Satpal, Nimmo’s husband – helps Bibi-ji reconnect with the woman she comes to believe is her niece – Nimmo. Used to getting whatever she has wanted from life, Bibi-ji subtly pressures Nimmo into giving up Jasbeer, her oldest child, into her care.

Eight-year old Jasbeer does not settle well in Vancouver. Resentful of his parents’ decision to send him away, he finds a sense of identity only in the stories , of Sikh ancestry, real and imagined, told to him by Bibi-ji’s husband, Pa-ji. Over the years, his childish resentments harden, and when a radical preacher named Dr. Randhawa arrives in Vancouver, preaching the need for a separate Sikh homeland, Jasbeer is easily seduced by his violent rhetoric.

Can You Hear the Nightbird Call? elegantly moves back and forth between the growing desi community in Vancouver and the increasingly conflicted worlds of Punjab and Delhi, where rifts between Sikhs and Hindus are growing. In June 1984, just as political tensions within India begin to spiral out of control, Bibi-ji and Pa-ji decide to make their annual pilgrimage to the Golden Temple in Amritsar, the holiest of Sikh shrines. While they are there, the temple is stormed by Indian government troops attempting to contain Sikh extremists hiding inside the temple compound. The results are devastating.

Then, in October of the same year, Indira Gandhi is murdered by her two Sikh bodyguards, an act of vengeance for the assault on the temple. The assassination sets off a wave of violence against innocent Sikhs.

The tide of anger and violence spills across borders and floods into distant Canada, and into the lives of neighbours Bibi-ji and Leela. Can You Hear the Nightbird Call? weaves together the personal and the political – and beautifully brings the reader into the reality of terrorism and religious intolerance.


Bibi-ji turned to gaze out at the street. They could become far more prosperous, she was sure of that. Opportunities lay around them like pearls on these streets. But they were visible only to people with sharp eyes.

“What are you looking at, Bibi-ji?” Lalloo asked, coming around to the front with a box full of pickle jars. He lowered it carefully on the floor and stared out the window.

“What am I looking for, Lalloo, for,” Bibi-ji corrected. “I am looking for pearls.”

“I don’t see anything there, Bibi-ji,” Lalloo remarked after a few moments.

She laughed. “Neither do I, but I will. I know I will.” The war had left the whole world poorer: why had Pa-ji not thought of opening a used-clothing store instead of this Indian grocery shop? She wondered whether the shop would do better in Abbotsford or in Duncan, where there were more Sikhs than here in Vancouver. But no, she had a feeling that it was a city with a future, one in which she would be wise to invest her money and her hard work.

–from Can You Hear the Nightbird Call?

"synopsis" may belong to another edition of this title.

About the Author:

Anita Rau Badami was born in India in 1961. Although her family’s roots are in southern India, Badami spent most of her life in the north and eastern parts of the country, moving every two to three years because of her father’s job as an officer in the Indian Railway. She earned a degree in English from the University of Madras, studied journalism at Sophia College in Bombay and then spent many years as a copywriter, journalist and children’s writer before emigrating to Canada in 1991, following her husband to Calgary, where he had gone to pursue his master’s degree in Environmental Science. Raising a young son and grappling with Canadian winters, Badami took creative writing courses, which eventually led to her own master’s degree in English Literature. Her thesis at the University of Calgary went on to become her hugely successful first novel, Tamarind Mem, published in 1996. The novel landed her firmly on the map as a talented new Canadian writer to watch.

In 2000, Badami published her second novel, The Hero’s Walk. By then she was living in Vancouver, where the family had moved so that her husband could complete a PhD in Planning. The Hero’s Walk was met with great critical acclaim; it won the Regional Commonwealth Writers Prize, Italy’s Premio Berto and was named a Washington Post Best Book of 2001. It was also longlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Prize and the Orange Prize for Fiction, and was shortlisted for the Kiriyama Prize. Both Tamarind Mem and The Hero’s Walk have been published in many countries throughout the world.

Shortly after the publication of her second novel, Anita Rau Badami won the Marian Engel Award. She is the youngest woman ever to receive this award, which is given to a Canadian woman author in mid-career for outstanding prose writing.
From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

One

Childhood

Panjaur

1928

Years before she stole her sister Kanwar’s fate and sailed across the world from India to Canada, before she became ­Bibi-­ji, she was Sharanjeet Kaur. Her memories began from the time she was a ­six-­year-­old living in a village called Panjaur, a dot in that landscape of villages scattered across the fertile plains of West Punjab, alike in their annual yearning for the monsoon rains and a bountiful harvest. The house in which ­Bibi-­ji, or Sharan as her family called her then, lived with her parents and Kanwar was as unassuming as its surroundings. One of a small cluster of Sikh and Hindu houses, it was separated from the Muslim homes by fields of swaying sugar cane. Built of mud and thatch, it was much smaller than the one made of brick and mortar farther down the dusty gulley. That house belonged to Sharan’s best friend, Jeeti, and never failed to create a tumultuous envy in her childish heart. Though she was fond of Jeeti, Sharan resented her for having so much–a brick house, servants who did the housework, fine clothes and a father who did not lie inert on a cot all day while his wife and daughters slaved away. But the thing she envied most of all was Jeeti’s supply of lavender soap, sent by Sher Singh, her father, all the way from ­Canada.

Years later, when she possessed enough money to build a house out of soap if she so desired, Sharan could barely recall Jeeti’s face or her elaborate home. And since, after Partition, Panjaur itself disappeared into that grey zone between India and Pakistan where floodlights threw every detail into stark contrast, barbed wire bristled and soldiers kept watch year-round, she could not even return to the place of her origins, a necessary thing if memory is to be kept fully alive. Yet some of those days remained in her mind, sharp and clear as shards of ­glass.

The first of these was the day her father, Harjot Singh, disappeared. It was only the second time in his life that he had left his family, but this time he did not ­return.

That day Sharan had been woken at five o’clock in the morning by her mother, Gurpreet Kaur. The late September sun was just rising, wreathed in mist. She lay on a mat in the courtyard of the house, her dark eyes squeezed shut, hands pressed tight against her ears to block the sound of her mother’s voice cutting through her comfortable blanket of ­sleep.

“Do I have to do everything in this house?” Gurpreet shouted from the kitchen, where she was already cooking the morning meal though it was barely past dawn. “Look at this princess! Servants she has! Maids and chaprasis! Sharanjeet. Wake up this minute, or you will get a bucket of water on your face.”

How unfair, Sharan thought. Would she ever have the chance to sleep until the sun climbed into the sky? A tear worked its way down her cheek. Another tear joined the first, and soon a storm of weeping shook her small body. “Why do I have to get up?” she sobbed. “I don’t want to!

“There is no place in this house for wants, memsahib!” Gurpreet called sharply, smacking a ladle hard against the edge of a pot. Her daughter knew how effectively she used her kitchen utensils to indicate various degrees of annoyance, from mild indignation to rage. “Needs, yes, those I can take care of,” she continued, “but wants are for rich people! Understand?” Another ­tap-­tap of metal on metal. Sharper, more insistent this ­time.

A warm hand descended on Sharan’s heaving shoulder and shook it ­gently.

“Wake up, child,” said her father. “Amma is calling you.”

Sharan sniffed a little louder, removed her hands from her ears and turned over so that her father could see she had been weeping. She opened her eyes dolefully and, pushing out her lower lip, allowed it to tremble, hoping that she looked tragic, that he would take her side, as he so often did. Was she not his favourite daughter? Was she not the only person who listened to his endless stories of a ship called the Komagata Maru and a voyage that ended in ­nothing?

But there was no help. Wake up, wake up. This was her fate, written on her forehead by the gods, she thought unhappily, rolling to a sitting position and wiping her wet face with the end of her faded kameez–it was her wretched fate to have to wake up and dip her hands in piles of excrement. Every morning since she was four years old, she had had to start the day by picking up the hot, stinking shit that the family’s two cows dropped in the courtyard. Then she had to make balls of the disgusting mess and pat them into circular cakes against the walls of their house. And the smell – how the smell corrupted her waking hours and infected her dreams and ruined even her meals. This was what Sharan resented most of all, for she loved eating. Her joy at the sight of food turned even the simplest combination of rice and dal into a feast, but when she raised a morsel of food to her mouth she could only smell the overpowering odour that had written itself into her skin, instead of the fragrances of turmeric, fresh rice, butter melting on hot phulkas, green chillies frying. She wished then, with all her heart, that she, like the Arabian princess in a tale the wandering storyteller had told her, might wake up and find herself in a different home altogether, carried there by the jinns in the service of a handsome ­prince.

Later, in Vancouver, when she had lost her past, she would feel shame at her thoughtless girl’s wish. She yearned for the return of that time when her family was entire – her mother squatting by the clay stove, the harsh angles and hollows of her exhausted face exaggerated by the glow from the fire, her father with his distant eyes, and most of all Kanwar, her sturdy, loving, lost sister. Lost, because she, Sharanjeet Kaur, had been greedy for something much larger than the world she ­inhabited.

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