Often when a book sets out to explore the aftermath of historical events or acts of terror it tries to answer the “why.” Why did they do it? Why then? Why this way? But in exploring the 1984 Air India bombing in her new novel, All Inclusive , Farzana Doctor takes a different approach.
At the heart of Doctor’s novel are the stories of Ameera and her father Azeez who are separated the day Azeez boards Air India flight 182 on his way home to India. The chapters switch back and forth between Ameera and Azeez’s perspective; two storylines which themselves are on a crash course.
Azeez’s first few chapters trace his last days with the living.Two days before the bombing he meets Nora and engages in his first and last sexual encounter, which results in Nora's conception. The next day Azeez is too nervous to call Nora before he gets on his plan and he leaves without giving her any way to reach him.
As Azeez settles into the plane and makes friends with other passengers there is fleeting moment of hope that this might not be that Air India plane, but there is no escaping history here. Instead of the flight ending Azeez’s story however, it is only the beginning. As Azeez’s body sinks into the sea, never to be found, his spirit remains tied to earth.
"It was liberating to write about the afterlife," says Doctor. "This is an arena which allows the imagination to roam because none of us have any idea what happens next. I blended Islamic ideas (we believe in angels and some of us believe that spirits of ancestors are with us long after they pass) but I found myself 'making up' the rest and enjoying the process."
The imagination of the afterlife is one of the highlights of the novel. Azeez is granted carte blanche and is able to see and hear everything as he tries to help his family overcome his death and carry on with their lives. Azeez, as a human, was still a boy. In spiritual limbo he grows wiser, more compassionate and supportive. Azeez’s living-self pales in comparison to the ghost he becomes.
Ameera contrasts her father in this perspective. Her character is so alive that she feels like a best friend. While her father takes a spiritual journey towards self-discovery, she engages in a sexual one.
Ameera has escaped from her life in Hamilton to work as a tour operator at a resort in Huatulco, Mexico. Here she finds her true sexual identity. Deciding that it is safer to sleep with resort guest who are couples, (they are more discreet) Ameera embraces the freedom that comes with being a unicorn. The only problem: she has to keep it secret or risk putting her job and a promotion in jeopardy.
Throughout the novel, two strong stories evolve: Azeez’s driven by spiritual fulfillment and Ameera’s by sexual desire. "These are two aspects of ourselves that humans find baffling," says Doctor. "With both, we might deny, undervalue, suppress, or not question our beliefs and values. The two characters are contrasting figures with these aspects; Ameera lacks spiritual development, but allows her sexuality to be expansive, while Azeez’s process requires him to grow spiritually, while remaining an (almost) virgin."
Slowly, Azeez and Ameera find each other, Azeez with the help of his spirit guides and Ameera with the help of a lesbian couple she meets at the resort. The spiritual and the sexual journeys of the two characters complement each other, and Ameera and Azeez help the other move on to the next stage of their (after) life.
Through the relationship of the ghost and the living, Doctor emphasises the importance of looking back on our history and listening to the stories it has to tell. Instead of querying the causes of the Air India bombing, Doctors explores how we learn from the past.
The Air India bombing doesn’t feature prominently in the canon of Canadian literature, and in many ways is a ghost itself. In All Inclusive, Doctor crafts a modern ghost story that emphasises an open mind when it comes to history and a focus on its outcomes rather than its cause.
Farzana Doctor will be part of our spring festival on Friday, April 15 with Nadia Bozak and Christine Dwyer Hickey.