Winner, 2019 IPPY Silver Medal for
Kavita Gupta is a woman in transition. When her troubled older brother, Sunil, disappears, she does everything in her power to find him, convinced that she can save him. Ten days later, the police arrive at her door to inform her that Sunil’s body has been found. Her world is devastated. She finds herself in crisis mode, trying to keep the pieces of her life from falling apart even more. As she tries to cope with her loss, the support system around her begins to unravel. Her parents’ uneasy marriage seems more precarious. Her health is failing as her unprocessed trauma develops into more sinister conditions. Her marriage suffers as her husband is unable to relate to her loss. She bears her burden alone, but after hitting her lowest point, she knows she needs to find a better way of coping. Desperate for connection, she reaches out to a bereavement group, where she meets Hawthorn, a free-spirited young man with whom she discovers a deep connection through pain. After being blindsided by a devastating marital betrayal, she wonders if a fresh start is possible in the wake of tragedy. Will she escape her problems and start over? Or will she face the challenges of rebuilding the life she already has? Side by Side is a story about loss, growth and the search for meaning in the wake of tragedy, illuminated through one woman’s journey from harm to care.
“Anita Kushwaha’s book Side by Side is a compelling and beautifully written novel that draws you from page to page with lyrical, brave and heart-wrenching prose. Vivid and powerful imagery make it feel as though you are alongside the characters sipping ginger tea, savouring curry and samosas, strolling the foggy streets of London and hiking the autumnal trails of Gatineau Park. The novel also explores the intense relationship between siblings and the aching and longing for that brother or sister after they are gone. How does one go on after a tragedy? With humanity and empathy, Kushwaha dares us to reach into the deepest recesses of the mind as we stand ‘side by side’ with Kavita who shares her grief with us. Throughout the novel, Kushwaha shows herself to be a writer with incredible storytelling gifts. A must-read for anyone going through or wanting to understand the process of bereavement. ”
— Sonia Saikaley, author of A Samurai’s Pink House and The Lebanese Dishwasher
“If a family member is killed in a car accident, is shot or stabbed or poisoned, or succumbs to cancer, we can blame the other driver, the murderer, carcinogens or whatever we wish to blame. But whom do we blame when our brother kills himself? Side by Side takes us on a journey into the soul of an immigrant Indian family through the dead man’s sister, Kavita, as she struggles with not only her own grief but that of her parents. Her marriage teeters on the edge of its own death, too, as she attempts to work her way through the stages of grief ten times over. Anita Kushwaha has the enviable ability to bring characters to life, to invite the reader to become part of Kavita’s family, to grieve, to hope and cry and smile along with them while any cultural veil that might hang between the reader and the family dissolves into butterflies.”
—Sherrill Wark, author of Graven Images and The Kesk8a Series
One day, the police inspector rang their doorbell. He was holding a white plastic bag. Her thoughts shot to the white plastic bag Sunil had given her, the one full of sleeping pills, the one she had gotten rid of. While rationally she knew that the white plastic bag in the inspector’s hand was a different white plastic bag, knowing this didn’t stop her insides from reacting with panic. “The rest of your brother’s belongings,” he told her. What he said after that, she couldn’t remember.
Back in her room, she knelt by her bed and laid out his things with the care of an archivist handling lost treasures.
His wallet—curved, worn brown leather, a graduation present. Car and house keys held together on the plastic Taurus keychain she got him from a Hallmark store years ago. And his cell phone.
His cell phone. The repository of their pleas. She picked it up. It was off. Had it been off the whole time? Was the battery dead? Before turning it on, she hesitated. It doesn’t matter, she thought. It doesn’t change anything. Stop torturing yourself. But reasonable thoughts were easily overruled by her beastly need to know. She pressed the power button. It flickered to life. Which probably meant it had been off the whole time.
25 missed calls, she read, heart sinking.
5 new messages.
The glare of knowing began to sting her eyes.
This meant that while they were reaching out to him, Sunil had remained fixed on his plan. She had an answer now, and it proved her earlier assertion to be correct. The answer didn’t matter, it didn’t change anything, and it certainly didn’t make her feel any closer to closure. All Kavita felt was torture at the hands of a past she couldn’t alter.
She deleted the messages. They served no purpose anymore. She didn’t need to hear their pleas, veiled with false cheer and calm, as they gently tried to ease Sunil home. She relived the futility of that helpless time enough as it is. She would never forget it.
Once the voicemail was empty, she dialled his number. The voicemail message was the only place the sound of his voice existed anymore. They weren’t like other families who videotaped every event, momentous and mundane. The idea of spending money on a camcorder seemed like a frivolous waste to her frugal immigrant parents, who sacrificed everything—including trips back to India for births, wedding, and even funerals—to save for Sunil and Kavita’s educations. Pushing down a violent surf of grief, she dilated her eardrums and listened, her heartbeat a slow throb in her throat. “This is Sunil,” he said. “Leave me a message and have a good one.”
His voice—easygoing, healthy, alive—vacuumed to her hollow centre, where spun against her insides, like a cold wind twisting against the walls of a cave, with nothing to break it, nowhere for it to escape.
Next came the beep and she hung up.
On Thanksgiving she drove up to Gatineau Park to see the hawks, one of their Thanksgiving traditions, a favourite of Sunil’s. She followed the road that sliced through the hills surrounded by mixed forest on either side, so dense and lush it was almost possible to forget the fetters of urban life in the deep green of pine needles and the rose tone of cliffs. Every now and then, the trees would clear, revealing a small dark pond or cattail-hemmed marshland. At one point, she thought she spotted a beaver, but then again it might have been a deadhead bobbing in the water.
She parked in the grass alongside the road a few minutes away from Champlain Lookout. The trails were always frenzied during the holiday. Everywhere she looked there were families; small ones, big ones, some with dogs, others with strollers, others still with coolers and cameras, although considerably more with camera phones.
She wanted to hate them. Their togetherness and full bellies and smiles and laughter and posing for group photos and the fact that they had things to be thankful for. Since Anchor and Blaze and Black Gloom had colonized her insides, she could remember only distantly what gratitude felt like. Something like a long breath of relief exhaled skyward, the gentle sag into a loved one’s arms, the happy idiot feeling of luck. She wanted to hate the other families for showing off.
But she couldn’t. She knew they weren’t to blame.
“You should be here watching the hawks,” she said to Sunil.
But you were too slow, said Anchor as it pulled. You let him down. The sinking feeling spread.
Black Gloom slowly crushed her from crown to toe and she wondered how it was possible that she could be simultaneously sitting and flattened on the car mats.
Then she felt them all mixing together. Anchor and Blaze and Black Gloom, all at once, like a maelstrom—heavy, feverish, thick—churning under her skin. She couldn’t hold them. She wanted them out.
She lit a cigarette, sucked in a long drag, and butted it out on her palm, pressing its molten tip into the place along her lifeline where everything had gone wrong. A yowl spurted up her throat like bile, sharp and scathing as her wound, but she stoppered it in her throat, where it shook. Guilty people didn’t deserve to scream. They hadn’t earned the right. With a pulsing stare, she focused on the pain—hot, deep, sharp. That pain she could manage. That pain she knew she deserved.
Then she gagged the yowling welt with tissues and climbed
out of the car. Hiked up to the crowded lookout point. Slipped into an opening along the curved stone wall and let the panoramic view calm her breath. To the right were the rolling hills of the Eardley Escarpment, which from a distance, resembled sleeping Vishnu covered in mosses. She admired the pines and cedars, as verdant as coriander chutney, and leafy trees, vibrant with shades of turmeric and saffron and paprika. Below, a steep drop gave way to farmland that marked the landscape like earth-toned Hippie patchwork cloth. Straight ahead in the distance, the Ottawa River trenched through the land, gleaming.
And above, the soaring hawks, like kites, only freer because they had no cords to bind them to the ground.
“That’s why you loved them,” she said to Sunil. He envied them. Maybe he even wanted to be one of them.
A dark-haired woman with a green Tilley hat beside her said, “Pardonnez-moi?”
Kavita glanced at her and left.