Straddling Two Worlds, Two Cultures

Anita Rau Badami: ‘Straddling Two Worlds, Two Cultures’

Indo-Canadian writer Anita Rau Badami’s new novel Can You Hear the Nightbird Call tells the intertwined stories of three women right from the time of Partition of India and Pakistan to the 1984 anti-Sikh riots in Delhi and the devastating Air India flight 182 crash off the coast of Ireland in 1985.

In this probing conversation with IndiaWrites(, Badami says that her third novel has been gestating in her imagination since that fateful day when she saw up close a Sikh man being burnt alive in Delhi in the rush of communal bloodbath following the assassination of the then Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi in 1984.

“This forced me to think why people resort to such violence – what is it that can drive people over the edge to the point where he or she can burn alive another person,” says the author in this interview.

The 44-year-old author, who has been living in Canada for the last 15 years, “straddling two cultures and two worlds” also speaks about the post 9/11 zeitgeist swarming with people driven to blow up planes and trains to vent their rage against the system, bias against Muslims in Western societies, the burgeoning popularity of Indian Writing in English and her ambition to write a “perfectly pitched novel” in which “everything sings together” to create a transcendent work of art.

Badami made her debut with Tamarind Mem – a sensitive portrayal of the changing face of mother-daughter relationship with all its attendant inter-generational conflicts in a modernising world. Her second novel, The Hero’s Walk, has won a slew of awards including the Regional Commonwealth Writers Prize, Italy’s Premio Berto and was also named a Washington Post Best Book of 2001.

Q) Your novel is set in the context of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots in Delhi and all the communal bloodbath and mayhem that occurred around that time. Is there any special reason why chose to revisit this blood-stained period in India’s recent history in your new novel Can You Hear the Nightbird Call?

A) I was in Delhi the day after Indira Gandhi (the then prime minister of India) was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards. I was coming from Dehradun to Delhi. As I was coming to Delhi, I saw there were several Sikh passengers in the bus. They were asked to get off by some rioters and then killed. I remember this very vivid feeling of fear inside me at that time. It was so scary. Near Modi Nagar, a Sikh man was burnt alive. Delhi was like a war zone in those days. There was smoke all around. This story struck with me. It was so tragic. That kind of barbarity I had never seen. Six years later, I was in Canada. In Canada, following the Kanishka crash they did not realise that it was connected in some way with politics.

All this forced me to think why people resort to such violence – what is it that can drive people over the edge to the point where he or she can burn alive another person. I don’t think I could descend into that kind of madness. I don’t know if it could be mob effect. In 1984, I knew it was instigated politically by politicians.

Q) That gory incident revealed that there is that primitive, savage side to human beings….

A) It’s wrong to say that it’s animal-like because an animal doesn’t commit these irrational, totally unnecessary acts of violence. An animal will kill if it’s hurt or it needs food or if it’s lost its mind. But human beings do it again and again all the time all over the world.

Q) Is it the first time you are exploring the theme of violence in fiction? What is your novel about?

A) This is a book about three women and the effect of the politics of Punjab on their lives. Politics crosses over from one continent to another, mainly from India to Canada. The two women are based in Vancouver in Canada. One of them lives in Delhi. This novel started with Nimmo, the one who lives in Delhi. I was in Delhi soon after Indira Gandhi was assassinated. But I saw in the newspapers several weeks later all these photographs of women who were left alive while their men have been killed or brutalised. I saw these pictures of women – totally shattered and completely baffled about why this horrible tragedy should have happened to them – and I carried these pictures into my memory. They will always be there. I wanted to write about one of those women, what happens to these people who suddenly feel disenfranchised and would they in the end feel so angry that they in turn might resort to violence or instigate violence in their own children as an act of revenge. So it all becomes a circle of violence, in a manner of speaking. That is what I wanted to explore in my novel.

Q) This theme has special resonance in the post 9/11 world we live in…

A) Each of these so-called acts of terrorism comes out of a completely different context. It wouldn’t be fair to connect them all. I don’t think any act of violence is to be excused for whatever reason because it’s almost inevitable that innocent lives are lost or destroyed in these acts of terrorism. It seems to be easier now for people to vent their anger or sorrow or frustration on a large group of strangers. When people feel helpless against the government, this is how some of them vent their rage and anger. Again, I must emphasise whatever the reason terrorism is totally inexcusable. Sometimes one is able to understand the context from which it emerges. But sometimes one can’t understand why they might be doing such things. There are lots of young people in the West who are brought up in a totally different society, in a totally comfortable way. And you wonder what’s it is that is driving them to violence.

Q) What’s your understanding of ideology-inspired jehadi terrorism?

A) I don’t think anything, any ideology, can rationalise violence at all. It’s completely wrong – just go ahead and randomly blow up a train or a plane. What purpose is it serving? It it’s ideology or political reason, then it’s completely defeated by this act of madness which turns people against whatever cause they might be espousing.

Q) Post 9/11, was there a lot of racial profiling of Sikhs and Muslims in Canada?

A) Sikhs are fairly well-known in Canada as they have been part of that society for a very long time. Sikhs were not that affected (we heard of a few random cases in the US) as Muslims were. There are a lot of Muslims in Canada who have come from the Middle East, Lebanon. Tensions are still running high. In fact, there has been a lot of racial profiling. A lot of people have been plucked from their homes and thrown into jails for unknown reasons. Then there was this famous case of a Muslim coming to Canada via the US. He was intercepted in the US and sent back to Syria where he was tortured. It’s such a horrible situation. You feel sorry for these blokes.

Q) You mean to say these people have ended up victims of blind prejudice?

A) Yes, blind prejudice. And at the same time there are lunatics running around blowing up buildings and planes. You don’t know which side to support. It’s very confused and confusing time we are in.

Q) Do you think this kind of profiling reflects a schizophrenia in the Western societies against Muslims? Is there a bias against Muslim immigrants in Canada?

A) Look at what’s happening. They are banning veils and burqas. I was having this conversation with this Australian writer about a month ago when she told me “it was so uncomfortable for someone to be speaking to these women whose faces are covered. You can only see their eyes.” I thought there was something wrong about this argument.

Having grown up in India, I don’t remember feeling particularly uncomfortable being face to face with a burqa-clad woman. That’s her business if she is wearing a burqa. And it might or might not be comfortable wearing a burqa. Maybe she feels oppressed underneath that burga. Maybe she does not. How do we know? But the real question is what are my motives in getting rid of that burqa? So I asked this Australian woman: Do you want her to remove the burqa because you feel uncomfortable talking to a person whose eyes are visible and nothing else. Or is there any other reason? Are you trying to rescue here from what you perceive to be an oppressive male-oriented society?

Q) Basically, you are arguing against this business of stereotyping Muslims that has become pronounced with theories like the clash of civilisations in post 9/11 world?

A) Yes, there is a danger in looking at Muslims and saying that they are all the same. It’s like looking at every Indian and saying they are all the same. Foreigners do not make allowances for the fact that there are shades and shades of Muslims.

There are fanatical, super-religious people in every part of society and in every religious group. And then there are more liberal varieties. By saying that they are all the same is doing them a great injustice.

To some extent, a lot of whether it’s Muslims or Indians in Western societies or whether it’s Jewish people, there is a tendency to live in a ghetto in some part of the town. Maybe that gives them a sense of security. It’s an extraordinarily confused and confusing situation. I have no idea what to think of it sometime. On the one hand, I am worried about getting into a plane because for all you know some terrorist may simply blow it up… It seems so easy. If you are mad at somebody, for whatever reason, just go and blow up a train or a plane. On the other hand, if you think of the mess the US has made in the Middle East, you think maybe these blokes are justified. Look at what’s happened to the lives they are leading. They have been living in a state of siege ever since oil was discovered in the Middle East. What kind of life was that?

And if you see what’s happened in Palestine, you think these people have no way to fight the might of the US, Israel or the West other than with their own bodies. And then you think suppose I was one of the victims or one of the exploding bodies, or a relative, child or lover of mine were blown up, am I going to view that cause in sympathetic light? I don’t think so.

Q) How long did you take to write this novel?

A) It’s been twenty years since I thought of it. At that time, I didn’t know how to write it. I didn’t even think of it in terms of fiction. I was thinking of writing an article about it. But somehow I could not bring myself to do it.

I have been living in Canada since 1991. Maybe I was too close to the event. It was all half-baked then. Finally, I started writing it in 1999 after I moved to Vancouver in 1995. I think the problem was hanging on to the historical framework without letting it overwhelm the lives and stories of these three women. I didn’t want to turn it into a history book. Everybody knows that history.

Q) Do you think fiction can tell the truth more effectively than journalism?

A) Maybe the human story. The immediate human element is stronger when it’s turned into fiction. The emotional content. You really get to know these individual people through stories. Obviously, the facts are important. At least for this book, facts are very important. It’s not really history. But it’s immediate history. That made it more difficult.

Q) You thought it would reopen old wounds…

A) Exactly, it was a story I had to write. It took a long time to write.

Q) As an Indian novelist with three published novels, how important do you think it’s necessary to win recognition in the West?

A) I am always worried about how my book is going to be received here in India. I would have been heart-broken if it was not published here. This book is different from my other two books. This book has specific links to India and Canada. For Canadians, this book resonated in all kinds of ways because people remember the Air India crash. Most of them, however, didn’t know the connection between the events in Punjab and that Air India disaster except for the Indo-Canadian community. And for Indians I hope it resonates for different reasons. The chaos in Punjab continued for better part of the 90s. But I am not sure whether success there necessarily translates into resounding success here.Sometimes a book that is perceived as a brilliant work of art and that does very well in the West but is not received in the same manner in India. Because I straddle two cultures, I find myself very cynically looking at books which romanticise the ethnic India. I am wary of it and very cynical too. I have lived in India too long for all that. I would never write a book just to appeal to a romantic idea of India the West might have.

I would feel very fraudulent somehow if I were to do that. That makes me think: Am I writing just to sell a book or am I writing in order to write a good book? Who am I trying to please? Or am I trying to please anyone at all?

Q) Who are you trying to please?

A) When I start a new book I have to keep telling myself that this book has to be better than the last one for myself alone. And this is the book I have to write at this point in time. And never mind who’s going to read it. That’s how I start off. Afterwards, I start worrying about who’s going to read it or whether anybody is going to read it at all. That’s because I have been writing for a very long time. It’s just that I am writing against myself all the time.

Q) Some immigrant writers have a rubric of themes – exile, cultural dislocation, alienation, cultural hybridity..

A) We are all cultural hybrids. Indians living in India are also cultural hybrids. I see my cousins here are in different parts of the world. I was in Japan for some time while writing this book. At that time, one of my cousins was in Montreal. Another one was in the US and yet another one was in Pakistan. My entire family was criss-crossing the world. We talk about Canada being multi-cultural. Indians are multi-cultural by travelling all over the world.

I keep trying to explain to my Western friends that multi-culturalism is not a new concept for me. Because when I was living in India I ended up speaking four languages- English, Hindi, Bangla, Kannada. I can also get by in Tamil.

Q) Is this cultural hybridity a source of anxiety or it’s something to rejoice in?

A) For a writer like me there are advantages. Writing comes out of a sense of being unsettled, sense of unease. I am always going to be conflicted because I straddle two cultures and two worlds. Maybe that’s why I write.

I don’t know where to set my novels. I could write novels about Indians in Canada or the West but there is some kind of screen between me and the place, which I can’t penetrate. Characters are easy to handle, but it’s the setting, the landscape that’s difficult.

The next book I am working on, I am torn between setting it in a snow-bound landscape or a dusty noisy market in India that is full of sunshine and warmth. Fiction is all about imagination. Fiction should be allowed to roam free.

Q) There is a big buzz about the Indian Writing in English these days. How much of it is for real? And why do you think it’s creating this kind of interest?

A) It’s real. When I give reading at these festivals and at other places, there are a huge number of people who always show up. I always wonder what is it they find in these books. Is it the colour, exoticism… I am curious myself. It’s a mix of the unfamiliar with the familiar. It’s a combination of the colourful, exotic, unfamiliar India with familiar characters, the universality of those characters. Because the characters in these books are real, whether it’s my book or any other book by an writer of Indian origin, these characters are real. They are like anybody else, regardless of which culture you belong to.

That’s what appeals.

I know there is so much good writing coming from the subcontinent because there are so many stories.

Q) What do you think are defining characteristics of the Indian Writing in English? Are there any unique strengths to the way Indian writers express themselves in English?

A) I think each one of us is completely different from the other. There are so many different kinds of writing coming from a single country. That in itself is fascinating. Language is beautiful in these books. That’s because we use English in a very interesting way. That comes out of the fact that we have turned English into an Indian language. And there are many interesting versions. (Laughs). I love it.

Q) What Samlan Rushdie calls the “chutnification” of English….

A) Yes, there is this beautiful, living language. And then there are stories themselves. What a huge variety of stories and they range from stories set in small villages and towns to big bustling cities. Within India, stories set in Punjab are so different from the stories set in Kalimpong or Kolkata are different because they are culturally specific to that part of India. That itself adds a kind of uniqueness to these books. And then, there is eccentricity of characters. We Indians seem to specialise in eccentricity. I have a family full of them. (laughs)

Q) Was that also one of your inspirations for becoming a writer?

A) Most likely, in my father’s family all of them are big spinners of yarns.

Q) Is there some theme you have not attempted so far and which you would like to explore in your future novel?

A) When I started this book I asked myself this question (although I didn’t address it in this book): If I happened to be the mother, the sister, daughter or the lover of somebody I knew was going to commit a really, really horrible act of violence that will destroy, goodness knows, how many lives. Would I in order to preserve my family or my love keep quiet about it or would I go and tell the police or somebody about it. I want to write about these choices. That’s a theme I am still interested in.

Q) What’s your idea of good writing? How does the act of writing transform one?

A) For me, it’s a constant desire to create an absolutely perfect work in which everything sings together: the language, the characters, the emotions, the tone, the beginning and the end – in short, the perfect novel like Michael Cunningham’s The Hours. For me every book is a journey towards that perfection. I never feel completely satisfied at the end of any book. My ambition is to create a perfectly-pitched novel. It could use heightened language like that Oondatje or it can be a differently charged language like Rushdie or it could be plain writing the total effect of which is poetry.

Author Profile

Manish Chand
Manish Chand
Manish Chand is Founder-CEO and Editor-in-Chief of India Writes Network ( and India and World, a pioneering magazine focused on international affairs. He is CEO/Director of TGII Media Private Limited, an India-based media, publishing, research and consultancy company.