Book review: Can You Hear the Nightbird Call?

Anita Rau Badami’s Can You Hear the Nightbird Call? is an enlightening novel that chronicles the lives of

three strong women over the span of 50 years, linking them through their native ties to India and unique relations to Canada.

Canada is a country known for its multiculturalism, and this novel demonstrates the various struggles many immigrant families experience leaving their native land. Historically, the novel revolves around the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947 and the explosion of Air India Flight 182 in 1985.

The novel is set in both India and Vancouver and focuses on the lives of Bibi-Ji, Leela and Nemmo ― three women that experience intense love and tragedy throughout the span of their lives. Badami shatters the silence around darker periods of Canada’s history. Instead of glossing over these periods, she demonstrates their impact on Indian immigrants and Canadian society as a whole.

The immigrant story is one that varies according to homeland and time period, but it’s also an experience that universally connects the vast majority of Canadian citizens. The struggle to adapt to a new home is central to Badami’s novel.

Readers are first introduced to Bibi-Ji, and the novel begins by demonstrating the devastation experienced by those intending to immigrate to Canada on board the Komagata Maru. This ship carried over 300 Punjab passengers from Hong Kong to Vancouver in 1914, but the majority were denied entry into Canada without reason and forced to return to India with their shattered dreams and hopes of a better life.

Readers witness the long-term effects that the Canadian decision to deny British-Indian immigrants access had on individuals through Bibi-Ji, as her father was one of those aboard the ship. This historical event is one that triggers Bibi-Ji’s desire for a better life, and dictates the decisions she makes regarding her future from a very young age.

Leela is the second character introduced. Born from an Indian father and German mother, her story revolves around the internal struggle to find a sense of belonging in the cultures she’s connected to.

Nemmo is the final character that Badami’s novel focuses upon, and her story is equally beautiful and tragic as Bibi-Ji and Leela’s. Nemmo, unlike Bibi-Ji and Leela, remains in India for the entirety of her life and therefore experiences the partition of India and Pakistan first-hand. The novel tracks the impact of these historical events on those in India and across waters to demonstrate the rippling effects in Canada.

Badami provides great variety in the characters and experiences shared, creating a well-rounded perspective for readers.

She fantastically weaves the timeless story of three vastly different women through a web linked together by tragedy and desire. Bibi-Ji, Leela and Nemmo’s experiences are only fragments of many untold stories of Indian immigrants journeying to Canada for a chance to create a new and better life.

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