Saturday, August 28, 2010

Bapsi Sidhwa: A Biographical Sketch

Sidhwa is widely recognized as one of the most prominent Pakistani-Anglophone novelists writing today. She was raised in the Parsi community, a religious and ethnic minority in Pakistan.

Critics regard Sidhwa as a feminist postcolonial Asian author whose novels—including The Crow Eaters (1978), The Bride (1981), and Ice-Candy-Man (1988; republished as Cracking India 1991)—provide a unique perspective on Indian and Pakistani history, politics, and culture. Her characters, often women, are caught up in the historical events surrounding the geographical and social division—or “Partition”—of India and Pakistan in 1947, and the subsequent development of Pakistan as an independent nation. Her recurring themes include human relationships and betrayals, the coming of age and its attendant disillusionments, immigration, and cultural hybridity, as well as social and political upheavals.
Sidhwa skillfully links gender to community, nationality, religion, and class, demonstrating the ways in which these various aspects of cultural identity and social structure do not merely affect or reflect one another, but instead are inextricably intertwined. Since moving to the United States and becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen, Sidhwa has written An American Brat (1993), which describes the Americanization of a young Parsi woman.
Biographical Information
Sidhwa was born on August 11, 1938, in Karachi, Pakistan, then part of India. Her family belongs to the Parsi ethnic community which practices the Zoroastrian religion. Sidhwa received a bachelor's degree from Kinnaird College for Women in 1956.
After her first husband died, she married Noshir R. businessman, in 1963, with whom she has three children. In 1975 Sidhwa served as Pakistan's delegate to the Asian Women's Congress. She immigrated to the United States in 1983, and became a naturalized American citizen in 1993.
Since moving to the United States, Sidhwa has taught, lectured, and presented workshops in creative writing at several colleges and universities, including Columbia University, St. Thomas University, the University of Houston, and Mount Holyoke College in Amherst, Massachusetts. She held a Bunting fellowship at Radcliffe/Harvard in 1986 and was a visiting scholar at the Rockefeller Foundation Center in Bellagio, Italy, in 1991.
Sidhwa also served on the advisory committee on women's development for former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. In 1991 she was awarded the Sitara-i-Imtiaz, Pakistan's highest national honor in the arts. She has also received a variety of grants and awards for her fiction, including a National Endowment for the Arts grant in 1987, a New York Times Book Review Notable Book of the Year award for Cracking India in 1991, and a Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest award in 1993.
Major Works
Sidhwa's first three novels focus on Parsi families and the Parsi community in the city of Lahore and outlying areas that were incorporated into the newly formed nation of Pakistan.
The Crow Eaters—written after The Bride, but published first—draws its title from a proverb which refers to those who talk too much as people who have eaten crows. The story takes place over the first half of the twentieth century, and concerns the fortunes of a Parsi man, Faredoon “Freddy” Junglewalla.
After moving from a small village in central India to the city of Lahore, Freddy gains financial success through a variety of questionable money-making schemes, such as arson and insurance fraud. Meanwhile, his strong-willed mother-in-law, Jerbanoo, makes his life increasingly difficult.
The Crow Eaters, while addressing serious cultural and historical issues, is written in a humorous, farcical style that lampoons elements of Parsi culture. The Bride details the events of the Partition through the story of Qasim, a Kohistani tribesman, and Zaitoon, a young girl he adopts after witnessing the massacre in which her family was killed. The plot chronicles the events leading up to and following the ill-arranged marriage between Zaitoon and a man from Qasim's tribe in the mountains. When her new husband becomes abusive, Zaitoon decides to run away.
The Bride interweaves Zaitoon's narrative with the story of Carol, an American woman unhappily married to a Pakistani engineer. Sidhwa's third novel, Ice-Candy-Man, recounts events surrounding the Partition through the eyes of Lenny, a precocious Parsi girl who has been disabled by polio.
Throughout the novel, Lenny relates the effects of the Partition on her family and community. During the course of these events, Lenny's beautiful young Hindu nanny, Ayah, is kidnapped and raped by a group of men who had previously courted her.
The Ice-candy-man, a local popsicle vendor, is among this group of suitors-turned-kidnappers. The novel is both the story of Lenny's coming of age and a complex history of the growing divisions among Hindu, Muslim, and Sikh communities of India at the time, as well as a scathing social commentary about the British colonization of India.
An American Brat, written after Sidhwa immigrated to America, follows a sixteen-year-old Parsi girl named Feroza Ginwalla. Alarmed by the rising fundamentalism of Pakistan in the 1970s, Feroza's mother, Zareen, decides to send Feroza to the United States to stay with her uncle. After an initial culture shock, however, Feroza decides to remain in America as a college student, where she falls in love with a young Jewish man. Feroza also becomes increasingly politicized about such issues as gender, imperialism, and global relations. Zareen, alarmed by Feroza's newly Americanized attitudes, travels to the United States to retrieve her daughter, who Zareen believes has become an “American brat.”
Critical Reception
Sidhwa's work has garnered positive critical attention for providing a unique Parsi perspective on the culture and politics of the Partition of India. The Crow Eaters has received acclaim as an entertaining social farce, with critics lauding Sidhwa's charming characters and unabashed use of “barnyard” humor.
Reviewers have additionally praised her portrayal of an ethically questionable protagonist in The Crow Eaters without subjecting him to moralizing judgments. Ice-Candy-Man has received a decidedly mixed critical reception.
While some commentators have favoured Sidhwa's narrative device of relating major political events through the eyes of a child, other critics have found the device to be an ineffective and clumsy means of describing the events of the Partition.
Several scholars have also criticized Ice-Candy-Man for oversimplifying the history and politics of the Partition, and faulted Sidhwa's portrayal of Mahatma Gandhi, asserting that her view of the religious and political leader is unrealistic and unbalanced. Tariq Rahman has disputed this assertion, arguing that Ice-Candy-Man, “shows the human personality under stress as a result of that cataclysmic event and depicts a society responding to it in the way societies do react: through sheer indifference, gossip, trivial and malicious activities, making love, and also killing, raping, and going insane.”
Sidhwa has also been highly regarded as a feminist postcolonial author who effectively addresses issues of cultural difference and the place of women in Indian and Pakistani society. Critics have noted both The Bride and An American Brat for their examinations of cultural conflict and their strong characterizations. Kamala Edwards has observed, “Sidhwa is a feminist and realist. One sees in her women characters the strength of passion, the tenderness of love, and the courage of one's convictions.
They struggle to overcome the hurts of time and escape the grip of a fate in whose hands they are often mere puppets.” An American Brat has been extolled by many reviewers as a compelling delineation of both the coming of age process and the immigrant experience in the United States. However, several critics have noted Sidhwa's use of stock social and cultural stereotypes in all of her novels, particularly in An American Brat.
The plotting of An American Brat has additionally been judged by several reviewers to be weak and predictable, but a majority of critics have found Sidhwa's representation of American culture to be insightful and unique.
Principal Works
The Crow Eaters (novel) 1978
The Bride (novel) 1981
Ice-Candy-Man (novel) 1988;
An American Brat (novel) 1993
*The Bapsi Sidhwa Omnibus (novels) 2001 Includes The Crow Eaters, The Bride, Ice-Candy-Man, and An American Brat. 

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