Recipe Fiction and the Undercooked Nightbird
Reading Anita Rau Badami’s Can You Hear the Nightbird Call?
Rajesh Kumar Sharma
“‘The thing is to give them what they want. . . . I am simply using it to make a living.’” (Badami 126)
“As for the authentic ingredients to create the authentic taste? Well, Bibi-ji knew where everything could be found.” (136)
“By the simple act of writing to her, Nimmo realized, she had gathered up those shards of memory and looked straight at them for the first time.” (161)
The first impression that Anita Rau Badami leaves on a reader with her novel Can You Hear the Nightbird Call? is that she is an impressive storyteller. She knows the ways of the word, can spin the yarn back and forth with a seductive elegance, and seems to command an accurate measure of her reader’s sensibilities. She tantalizes, but stops short of inflicting strain. In short, she is a clever and safe player who takes only calculated risk.
But great writing demands more than this modest set of writerly virtues. On the farther end, it demands the dismembering of Orpheus. Short of that, it demands at the very least an authentic, resolutely confronted subject position, for want of which the writer remains vulnerable to any current that might sweep her off her feet (Blanchot 171-76).
Badami’s basic problem in this novel is her inability to confront the constitutive ambivalence of her subject position as a postcolonial-diasporic writer in a specific situation under late capitalism. This inability undermines the potential of her writing, thwarting and compromising it severely. Unable to peer into the abyss of writing, she balks at the edge. And fails writing’s demand.
In fact, she has little to offer to writing’s consuming demand precisely because in her case Orpheus has not yet attained self-consciousness. Hence, sacrifice is not even a possibility yet.
The evasion of a clear-eyed encounter with her subject position sets off a series of lesser evasions, which are lesser only in comparison with the evasion of the abyss of writing that would crack open, in this case, a slit upon the other’s unspeakable suffering and shatter the writer’s designs. But neither can she avoid a deep sense of guilt over the evasions. As a result, she drags herself repeatedly to the edge, but only to retreat yet again. At the same time, her displaced guilt breaks through the surface of the narrative to poison the lives of several of her characters, particularly Bibi-ji and Leela. Indeed, the multilayered conflict of evasion and guilt determines and even constricts the movement of the narrative, leaving under-accomplished a novel of great promise.
The inability to confront the ambivalence of her subject position is most obvious in her ambivalent stance vis-à-vis the intended reader. She tries to write for the white Canadian reader in particular and the Western reader in general. Her transcontinental tale is woven over the timeline of Indian, not Canadian, history; moreover, the greater part of it is located in India. When she mentions the names of Jawaharlal Nehru and Rajiv Gandhi, she scrupulously explains in each case that they have been India’s prime ministers. But not so in Brian Mulroney’s case: the reader is supposed to know her ABC of Canadian political history (66; 396). Similarly, Nanak is explained as “the founder of Sikhism” and Amritsar as “Sikhism’s most holy city” (147; 33). Mangalasutra, in a charitable act of cultural translation, gets defined –with little profit if any– as “the gold and black marriage beads around [Leela’s] neck” (97). There are “munda Sikhs” (by which she probably means sahajadhari Sikhs) and the badly overdone and exclusivist stereotype of “Sikhs chattering in Punjabi” (354; 134). There is a surfeit of jis: Pa-ji, Bibi-ji, Indira-ji and even Helen-ji of Hindi films (Pa-ji is obviously quite a transliterational climb-down from Bha-ji, the correct Punjabi word, for which English has no phonetic equivalent). And there are “mynah birds”, a wretched tautology but probably melodious to the ears of latter-day cultural informants and their target readers (345). Badami is obviously writing a potable and commodifiable India from within Canada (sitting, perhaps, in a Canadian library) for a white Canadian readership. Even the apparent spread of her historical canvas over nearly a century wears rather thin, with events –like her cities of Delhi, Amritsar and Vancouver with their coffee-table book descriptions– never really coming to life. She would bring history and memory face to face (as an epigraph to the novel proclaims), but would not carry the burden of history.
But even as she tries hard to address the white Canadian/Western reader, her attitude remains ambivalent, for her assumed role of the diasporic cultural informant as the other’s other is not unproblematic. She cannot not write for the Indian reader back home too. Her readership is thus fractured and it would require that she position herself as a writer vis-à-vis this fractured readership, a strategic operation contingent upon a lucidly comprehended subject position with all its ambivalence (Sartre 60; 91; 113-114). The fracture is, moreover, multiple: addressing the Indian reader, she happens to be writing as a South Indian straining with a good conscience to pen the tragic (hi)story of Punjab, particularly of the bloody turmoil of the 1980s. The writing with a good conscience, however, conflicts with the temptation of ethnic typecasting for quick consumption through popular media imaginary: the result is easy reduction of the people to caricatures. Notably though, the South Indian characters in the novel do not suffer this reduction; only the Punjabi characters do.
Because she both loves and hates the “white people” who are her principal intended readers, they too, like the Punjabis, get to be refracted through her caricaturing lens (115). The description of Mr. Longbottom, the Principal of Jasbeer’s school, through Bibi-ji’s eyes as “this milk-faced man with his prissy mouth and the chin of a horse” plays on fantasies of infancy and the subliminal associations of stereotyped Punjabi masculinity with lions (211). Similarly, her nativist anger against the xenophobic Colonel Samuel Hunt of the British India is barely concealed:
Her [Bibi-ji’s] eyes fell on Colonel Samuel Hunt, ex-British army, one of the regulars and the only gora in a sea of brown-skinned desis, deliberating over the brief menu before ordering, as always, the same items–mutton curry with naan and a pint of lager to wash it all down. In the six years since the restaurant had opened, Samuel Hunt had become known for his uncomplimentary sentiments towards immigrants who did not share his racial heritage–a fact that used to aggravate Bibi-ji no end, until she came to see him as a sad old man whose eyes and ears were so sealed by his skin that he could neither witness nor understand the changing world. But whatever his feelings towards the desis who gathered at The Delhi Junction, Sam Hunt could not resist their food. After twenty-five years in India, the old man had developed a taste for curries. (57)
The double-edged irony of “the only gora in a sea of brown-skinned desis” and the attempt to reach out and understand him as a helpless “sad old man” vanquished by his intractable taste buds clearly point to a deeper ambivalence which can be traced to Badami’s own uncertain subject position.
It is also arguably this uncertainty which explains her vulnerability to the temptations and imperatives of the postcolonial global marketplace in which literary business process back-sourcing is a favourite diasporic strategy for niche marketing. The postcolonial-diasporic writer’s urge to profitably position her work in this unequal marketplace has to be seen in the light of colonial relations of literary production: these relations survive and even flourish in the postcolonial world in the form of relations essentially of neocolonial-global literary production. The predictable product of these relations is recipe fiction which reins in both authorial agency and writing’s demand in the interest of ‘global’ marketability. And it has certain identifiable ingredients, such as stereotype and caricature, sex, sentimentalism, intellectualist jargon and a lavish garnishing of culturalist images and symbols. The wish to “give them what they want” by throwing in “the authentic ingredients to create the authentic taste” appears to be a really smart move but it remains an evasion for all that. An evasion of writing’s demand, of history and memory, of truth when it must be spoken to power, of ethical responsibility to the other.
It is significant that most of the major characters in the novel are stereotyped or caricatured, or both: that saves them from being seen as they are. Pa-ji, or Khushwant Singh, is a doting husband who drinks in order to be a “lion in bed” (204). He has put together a fake personal ancestry and claims to be penning The Popular and True History of the Sikh Diaspora (200). We never get to look at the pages of that book but it is ironic that this reasonable and kind man of moderate political opinions has no idea of the harm that such quirky and imaginary notions of history as his can wreak on impressionable young minds, like that of his adopted son Jasbeer. Bibi-ji, who speaks with “a posh BBC accent” in Vancouver but in “ripe Punjabi” in Delhi, is described, through Leela’s eyes, as a “woman with the loud voice and louder clothes” (116; 168; 134). Lalloo, with his un-Punjabi name, appears to Leela “like an exotic insect” (132). And Leela is “a small, sparrow-shaped Southie” in Bibi-ji’s eyes (135). The writer’s ostensibly comic insight conceals a relentless process of complex calibanisation in which her gaze jumps across races and ethnicities to take contradictory adversarial positions. Traversing through Pa-ji and Samuel Hunt, Bibi-ji and Mr. Longbottom, Lalloo and Leela, it sets up multiple identifications and objectifications. The only character with whom absolutely no identification is established is Dr. Raghubir Randhawa from Southall, the man who preaches a separate Sikh homeland. Could it be because his representation evokes, beyond the comforting though bewildering ambiguities of the diasporic subjectivity, the self-assurance, clarity and naiveté of a nationalistic subjectivity in the writer’s mind?
Among other ingredients of the recipe, sex finds its place in the amorous encounters of Pa-ji and Bibi-ji and Satpal and Nimmo (206-7; 244-46). While the former encounter is reported with the brevity and carnality of voyeuristic yellow journalism, the latter is woven, through memories of pain and sorrow, into the wider fabric of human existence:
Even later, the time came when she [Nimmo] would sit in the same room, dark and filthy and smelling of death rather than fresh paint, and yet when her eyes landed on those faded handprints, the single large one beside her own two, she would feel a tiny spark of that distant, joyous moment when her husband’s body had lain on hers, warm and so very alive. (245-46)
The two entirely disparate instances of the use of sex exemplify what is at stake in the writing of the novel.
Similarly, sentimentalism often gets the better of Badami’s instinct for economy. Driven by it, she can put her authorial omniscience to an embarrassing use by repeatedly anticipating Leela’s untimely and violent death in the air. Leela wishes, as a young girl, “to die in [her] own bed, under [her] own roof” (101). Later, she is seen musing over death and urging her son to perform “the correct rituals” when she is no more (231-32). To top it all, in the high tradition of sentimental Hindi TV serials, she is visited by Yama in her dream on the night before her last flight (384-85).
The brutally raw pain of the innocent Satpal’s undeserved public execution on a street is bartered away when the writer renounces verbal economy for deadening repetition for the sake of sentimental effect:
The heat burned his eyes and his last thought was that he could not even weep. He could not even weep. (371)
As if to balance sex and sentimentalism, the writer throws in some intellectualist jargon, the trade lingo of the diaspora specialist. Here is Leela, instructing her daughter Preethi on how to make an auspicious first entry into their new home in Vancouver:
“And don’t stop in the doorway,” she called over her shoulder. “Remember, it’s an in-between space. Neither here nor there. It is dangerous.” (110)
When Bibi-ji looks at the maps that Dr. Randhawa is holding up, her thoughts miraculously turn to diasporic theory:
Like me, she thought. A series of tracings, a palimpsest of images, the product of so many histories, some true, some imaginary, all valid, but surely not all necessary? (255)
In fact, Bibi-ji with her innate knowledge of theory understands well Pa-ji’s compulsive need to give himself a fictional history:
Bibi-ji understood his need to possess a piece of history, she knew all about keeping dreams alive. What harm, she thought, could his small private fictions do in a world where larger truths were reshaped to suit those in power? (204)
While such ingredients of the recipe stick out obtrusively like flies in a pot of milk because they do not belong there, there are others that serve the purpose of garnishing. These include an assortment of culturalist images and symbols and several loose ends that brush annoyingly against the reader’s attentive face. The image of falling, which seems to define Leela’s destiny, is overdone. From a falling pot of geraniums in a London street that brings together her parents Rosa and Hari in a doomed wedlock, through Balu Bhat’s tripping over Leela’s extended leg and then his sudden decision to leave Bangalore for Canada which is motivated by a falling arch that spares his life, to the mid-air bombing of Kanishka and its fall into the Atlantic that ends Leela’s story, it all looks too neat, overdesigned and childish (77; 90; 96; 98; 393). Likewise, Yama, Trishanku and Indra’s Net are pinned up on the narrative like exotica on a literary shop window. Even the nightbird of the title, apparently intended to be a powerful symbol, fails to make a song: it does not grow beyond an unfinished image. The only images that stay to haunt the memory are those of the bharoli and the soap with the fragrance of lavender. The reason is that both are intrinsic to the tale: they grow out of it and with it, and in both alike are intertwined the contradictory emotions of security and fear, of caring and violence. One can glimpse here Badami’s immense talent, elsewhere unfortunately constrained and corrupted.
There are, then, quite a few loose ends: Balu’s reported interest in discussing books with prospective brides, the “darkness” inside Jasbeer that his mother intuitively senses and that draws him to Dr. Randhawa and terrorism, his long absence, police custody and eventual return that remain shrouded in mystery, and the insinuations of Lalloo’s and Bibi-ji’s complicity in Leela’s killing. The writer seems not to know what to do with these loose ends. This is really surprising, given her otherwise powerful, economic and level-headed treatment of the issues of racism, ethnic fundamentalism and religious fanaticism.
Badami’s real, and self-appointed, test however lies in her response to the challenge posed by memory and history. “My memory keeps getting in the way of your history” – the first of the three epigraphs of the novel, taken from Agha Shahid Ali’s poem “Farewell” – carries a tremendous promise: that the novel will challenge official history with the resources of personal memory. And the promise seems to be all the more tremendous when you see that here is a history spanning eight decades, beginning with Sher Singh’s departure to Canada in 1906 and ending with Jasbeer’s return to home in Delhi in June 1986. The sweep of the narrative carries three generations and two continents, World War II, India’s Partition, the Chinese invasion of 1962, the India-Pakistan conflicts of 1965 and 1971, the imposition of national emergency in India in 1975, Operation Bluestar in 1984, Indira Gandhi’s assassination and the subsequent massacre of innocent Sikhs, and the bombing of Kanishka in 1985. But this is history reduced, more often, to a theatre backdrop and a calendar of events, intended to lend – at best – only an illusion of temporal depth to the narrative and an effect of historicity to characters and incidents. The opening of Chapter Four, “The Delhi Junction”, illustrates this cosmetic use of history rather well:
Nineteen sixty-one was a momentous year for the world: the handsome young John F. Kennedy became the first Roman Catholic president of the United States, and a few months later a Russian named Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space. It was also a banner year for Pa-ji and Bibi-ji, who formally opened their restaurant, The Delhi Junction Café–realizing yet another of Bibi-ji’s ambitions. (56)
Badami’s use of history is not very much unlike Pa-ji’s whose restaurant displays quite a variety of pictures and clocks. There are pictures of the Sikh Gurus, Bhagat Singh, Gandhi, Meena Kumari, Marilyn Monroe, Clark Gable and Dev Anand. And the various clocks show the time in different countries in which the Punjabi diaspora can be found.
Guided by the signpost of the epigraph, one would expect to see the narrative encounters of personal memory with the blind spots of official history. But with history turned into an idiosyncratic display on the walls of Pa-ji’s restaurant, memory has nothing to engage and overwrite. The events in Punjab’s post-independence history, for example, hang like plastic skeletons without an ounce of flesh. One would be tempted to infer that the vast canvas of eight decades requires a pace and a compression that rule out dwelling over certain moments and persons, but the narrative does slow down at many places (in Chapters “Half-and-Half”, “The Small Joys” and “The Safest Place”, for instance). However, those are precisely the places where official history is not under scrutiny or interrogation.
Indeed, it is precisely before the profound and unsettling implications of the encounters of memory with history that Badami flinches in hesitation. Harjot’s Komagata Maru tale remains untold. His abrupt departure from the village and into oblivion never seems to trouble the lonely nights of his wife Gurpreet. The catastrophe of the Partition literally gets a short shrift: Nimmo’s fragmentary and unsure memories, instead of bringing it out, help to repress the pain of the Partition. Kanwar’s rape in the seventh month of her pregnancy and her disappearance quietly fade out of the narrative. Pa-ji’s death in the holy premises of Harmandir Sahib during Operation Bluestar is told, at best, like a well-drafted news report. And the little Kamal’s fate, and that of her corpse, after she is baked to death in the steel almirah by Indira Gandhi’s self-ordained revengers, is just not looked straight in the eye.
These are so many –and so perturbing– hours of darkness that brood in the shadows of Badami’s narrative. Each is an abyss caught from the corner of the eye like a vague glimpse, but not confronted in its terrifying lucidity. None, hence, sees the light of day.
Because here is writing done after a recipe. Like the Kentucky Fried Chicken.
Badami, Anita Rau. Can You Hear the Nightbird Call? Canada: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006.
Blanchot, Maurice. The Space of Literature. Trans. Ann Smock. 1982. London: University of Nebraska Press, 1989.
Sartre, Jean Paul. What is Literature? Trans. Bernard Frechtman. UK: Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1950. 1993. London and New York: Routledge, 2003. Of course, Sartre invokes the concept of a fractured or split (reading) public in a historically and ideologically very different context: he broods over the missed opportunities for creative inner tension that the fracture offered to the writers in the nineteenth century Europe but which the writers, in his opinion, squandered. My appropriation of the concept in the context of contemporary Indian diasporic writing is intended to point, not without irony, to the resulting tension that is often anything but creative.
© 2009 Rajesh Kumar Sharma
Department of English
Punjabi University, Patiala