The end of the school year in Canada had brought the promise of visiting places and people in India, the country from which their families had immigrated.
Deep in the bowels of the plane, hidden among the checked-in luggage, were two suitcase bombs that would detonate in midair off the coast of Ireland. Those children along with all their fellow passengers were lost forever.
The children — dearly loved daughters, sons, nieces, nephews, cousins and friends — were innocents whose lives ended by an act of terror. But their tragic fate did not embed itself deeply in the consciousness of their fellow Canadians.
The Air India bombing has been described as the largest mass murder in Canadian history and an act of aviation terror without precedent. But the catastrophe remains unknown, or at most little-known to most Canadians.
Ashwin Rao, a character in Padma Vishwanathan’s Giller short-listed novel The Ever After of Ashwin Rao, says this about the children killed in the bombing:
“They deserved to be acknowledged as Canadians. Those children weren’t deserving of investigative attention because of their virtues. They deserved to live, because they were alive.”
It is from novels like Vishwanathan’s as well as poems, films and other creative works that many of my undergraduate and graduate Canadian students first learn about the Air India bombing.
In the absence of broad Canadian validation of the bombing as being worthy of public grief and mourning, creative artists have tried to illuminate the ongoing grief of families forced to live with this profound and unrecognized loss.
But what explains this ignorance of “a Canadian tragedy?”
Why do Canadians not remember the tragic loss of so many children on Air India Flight 182?
Canada’s absence of remembering
Blame for the public absence of knowledge and remembering rests with the Canadian government, which promptly dismissed the mass murder as a foreign tragedy. It was characterized as an act of terror committed by Indian immigrants who had imported their “blood feuds” from India to Canada.
The plane had crashed far away from Canada, in Irish airspace, and it was an Air India flight. These made it easier to diminish the tragedy as a Canadian story.
Following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in New York 16 years later, the Air India bombing was retroactively declared “the single worst terrorist attack in Canada’s history.” A public inquiry and a federal government apology acknowledged Canada’s failures to prevent the bombing and the mistreatment of the families in the aftermath of the bombing.
However, the tragedy re-entered public consciousness as a terrorist act, not as a story of loss and suffering.
The ongoing grief of those who lost loved ones did not claim a prominent place in Canadian history and public memory.
Creative artists have tried to fill this gap in public memory. Often they have focused on the death of children or the plight of children who lost a parent in the crash to give voice to unacknowledged, invisible grief.
In The Ever After of Ashwin Rao, Ashwin Rao, a Canadian-trained psychologist, loses his sister and her two children who were aboard AI Flight 182. Ashwin begins to interview others who have lost family members in the crash, with the intent of writing a book about how families have “coped” with their loss. A middle-aged, grieving bachelor, he keeps his personal loss a secret. And throughout the novel we see him struggling with this grief, especially memories of his niece, who was a surrogate daughter to him.
Ashwin’s hidden, unexpressed grief is a reminder of many such silenced and forgotten histories of grief that haunt the nation.
In her poetry collection, children of air india (2013), Renée Sarojini Saklikar questions Canada’s lack of grief for the dead children. She imagines the children lost in the bombing in tragic, human dimensions. The collection is, she says, “a sequence of elegies,” “a lament for children, dead and dead again in representations.”
The poems reject the impersonal, detached and clinical tone of police and coroner reports. They recreate fictional lives of lost loved ones filled with intimate details that turn dead bodies into living, breathing children. Sometimes a poem offers a glimpse of the child’s night before boarding the flight or record the child’s conversation with a friend. Other poems offer fleeting images of a child walking in the airport or sitting inside the airplane.
It is impossible for official versions of the tragedy to capture the complexity of the loss or bring to surface the ongoing grief, pain and resilience of those living with this difficult history.
Farzana Doctor’s novel All Inclusive (2015) points to one such difficult legacy. The story is about Ameera, who has grown up with the pain of not knowing the identity of her father and why he abandoned her. She does not know that her father had boarded AI Flight 182, ignorant that he had birthed a daughter the night before. It is a poignant story of the ghost of the dead father searching for the daughter he had never met, and the daughter finding out why her father disappeared.
Different legacies of loss
The fictional lives imagined in these creative works and others bring us closer to the Air India tragedy’s otherwise untold stories. They offer testimony to unacknowledged grief.
They depict how loss changes one’s identity and the different legacies of loss one inherits.
Creative works broaden the frame for understanding the victims of the tragedy to include those who died in the bombing, those who lived to mourn the loss, and successor generations who inherit these legacies of loss.
While the Canadian government views the Air India bombing as an act of terror, requiring improved border protection and surveillance of racial minorities, creative works produce collective witnesses, a community of listeners who inherit this tragedy. Informed of this tragic history, they cannot forget that on June 23, 1985, 329 people, of which 82 were children under the age of 13, were lost forever on Air India Flight 182.