Saturday, August 28, 2010

Bapsi Sidhwa's Passion for History and for Truth Telling

With the publication of her third novel, Ice-Candy-Man, Bapsi Sidhwa established herself as Pakistan’s leading English-language novelist, a position she confirmed with the publication of her most recent novel, An American Brat which also heralds a new direction in her fiction. In that book Sidhwa shifts the predominant locale of her work from Lahore in Pakistan to various cities across America as she explores the Parsi/Pakistani Diaspora. Her first three novels, however, are all set in Pakistan, and in each there is a strong sense of place and community which she uses to examine particular aspects of Pakistan’s postcolonial identity.

Sidhwa’s early novels, while very different from one another share in common what Anita Desai has accurately described as ‘a passion for history and for truth telling.’ And in each her desire to understand the terrible events of the Partition of the Indian sub-continent in 1947 and the subsequent birth of Pakistan as a nation is evident.
Sidhwa’s first novel, The Crow Eaters is a ribald comedy in which Faredoon Junglewalla (Freddy for short) narrates the story of his life. The action of the novel commences at the turn of the century and continues through to the eve of Independence and Partition. Historically, The Bride  begins more or less where The Crow Eaters left off. It tells the story of Zaitoon, a young Punjabi girl who is adopted by a Kohistani tribesman after her parents are slaughtered in the riots which accompanied the partition of the subcontinent. Sidhwa’s passion for history is evident in both these novels; through the stories of Faredoon Junglewalla and Zaitoon, one pre-Independence, the other post-Independence, she attempts to present a true picture of Pakistan. But without meeting head-on the bloody events which gave birth to her country Sidhwa cannot be true to her passion for history.
In her third novel, Ice-Candy-Man, she turns her attention to that terrible period of her country’s history as she dramatically recreates Lahore (the predominant setting of all three of these novels) during the tumultuous months of Partition.
To understand Pakistan, Bapsi Sidhwa appears to suggest, it is necessary to understand the events which led to its emergence as a new nation in 1947. With this always in mind, her wonderfully irreverent first novel begins a lifetime earlier—towards the end of the nineteenth century. It is an unusual passage to India which transports the reader to the heart of the Parsi community, and, as the story progresses, prepares him or her for the end of a significant chapter of history—the birth of Pakistan.
There is always a strong sense of place in this novel, Lahore is vividly brought to life through the wealth of local detail Sidhwa includes, and there is a strong sense, too, of community. Like the author herself, the hero of the novel is a Parsi, and through Freddy, his family, and their Parsi friend, the culture of this minority community is imaginatively recreated.
Though the focus on Parsi customs and beliefs is interesting in itself, the decision to set her story within the Parsi community is made on solid literary grounds too. Her choice of a Parsi hero enables Sidhwa to marginalize her narrator, to make him a slightly detached observer of the events played out by the Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs as history moves inexorably, step by step towards 1947. She also appears to be suggesting that to understand the whole one must understand all the constituent parts (the various ethnic/religious groups). Her lens in this novel focuses primarily on the Parses, but through their contact with other groups the whole is gradually glimpsed bit by bit.
Along the way there are many clear historical signposts. The date, for example, is introduced on a number of occasions, and references to Partition or Independence recur throughout the novel. The presence of the British Raj, which had such a significant, if illegitimate role in the birth of Pakistan, is evident, for example, in the character of Colonel Williams. It is also brought to mind by Freddy’s friend Mr. Charles P. Allen, whose name reminds the reader, particularly the western reader, of Plain Tales from the Raj (1975), which in turn evokes Kipling’s Plain Tales from the Hills (1888), and the whole history of the British Raj in India.
Subtly, through these minor figures, Sidhwa is writing back against the traditional pictures of the Raj—by implying that colonel Williams accepted bribes, and by showing Freddy arranging visits to dancing girls in the Hira Mandi for Charles P. Allen. The British Raj is thus transformed from the proud father of so many British versions of history to the somewhat seedy progenitor of Sidhwa’s version of Pakistan’s history.
Sidhwa is also, as a Pakistani writer, writing against Indian views of the past, against predominantly Indian versions of Partition which have increasingly been challenging British interpretations of those events. And as a Parsi she even appears, on occasions, to write against Pakistani interpretations of history—as with Freddy’s foreboding words which bring the novel to a close:
“We will stay where we are… let Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, or whoever rule. What does it matter? The sun will continue to set—in their arses.”
By causing her novel to be seen in the context of the numerous novels of Partition, and through the emphasis placed on Freddy’s words by their position at the close of the novel, Sidhwa is making a strong political statement about the nature of Partition, which will be taken up more fully in her next two novels.
Whereas The Crow Eaters draws to a close with the horrors of Partition imminent, those horrors are the starting point of The Bride (which was actually written earlier than The Crow Eaters). The Bride, then, commences at the beginning of the first chapter of Pakistani history. And as The Crow Eaters was successfully set in the marginalized Parsi community, so Sidhwa chooses to treat another marginalized ethnic group of Pakistan in The Bride.
Qasim’s marginalized position as a Kohistani tribal is made clear at the outset of the novel. The description of the harshness of tribal life in the opening chapter, and the brief description of his life in Jullundur where his tribal customs set him apart from the people of the plains, emphasize this position. And his marginalized position is confirmed, re-enforced when he witnesses the brutal attack on the refugee train early in the book.
Despite the horror of the attack, which he himself only just escapes, “Qasim watches the massacre as in a cinema.” His detachment is objectified: “Although he is horrified by the slaughter he feels no compulsion to sacrifice his own life. These are people from the plains—not his people.” There is no suggestion of fear or cowardice in Qasim’s behavior—quite simply he would be prepared to sacrifice his life for one of his own people, but not for Muslims of the plains.
The attack on the train which is told in the first-person to add the sense of horror, together with the later attack on the refugee camp causes readers of The Bride, like readers of The Crow Eaters, to recall once more the many Partition novels, like Khushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan and Chaman Nahal’s Azadi (1976), in which similar attacks take place; indeed attacks on refugee trains are so common in novels of Partition that they are almost a leitmotif for the period. In The Bride, however, the horror of “the chaotic summer of 1947” is only the starting point of the novel rather than its subject.
When she is fifteen, Zaitoon, the young girl Qasim adopts after the attack on the Lahore-bound train, is taken to her stepfather’s ancestral home in the mountains to be married to one of his kinsmen. This allows Sidhwa to contrast the often brutal ways of Qasim’s people with the gentler life Zaitoon has known in Lahore, and sets the scene for an exploration of the cultural divisions Sidhwa sees within independent Pakistan. At the heart of her examination of the conflicts she perceives between two essentially male-dominated worlds, lies a very strong interest in the position of women in Pakistani society. This Interest in women is skillfully highlighted by the introduction of the young American woman, Carol, who is married to a ‘modern’ western-educated Pakistani husband. Her presence in the novel does not emphasize the cross-cultural differences between East and West so much as the cross-gender differences that exist within Pakistani society. Women, unlike men, are expected to be silenced voices, inhabiting the shadows cast by their fathers, husbands, the family home—silences and shadows which deny an individual her identity, make her anonymous.
Sidhwa uses the burka as the ultimate symbol of shadow and silence: when Zaitoon borrows a baurka (tribal women do not wear the burka, and Qasim will not allow Zaitton to wear one) she can walk past her father unrecognized; similarly, Carol, offended by the stares of a group of tribal men sarcastically comments, “Maybe I should wear a burkha!”, suggesting that this would be a shadow which would hide her and metamorphosis her into an anonymous part of womankind. In this respect the generally negative connotations of shadows and silence in this book have a positive aspect too, which should not be overlooked.
In Lahore the women are at ease, are truly themselves only when they inhabit these shadows together in the absence of men. The zenana, for example, is seen as a refuge from the male world. It is described as: a domain given over to procreation, female odours and the interminable care of children…
Redolent of easy hospitality, the benign squalor in the women’s quarters inexorably drew Zaitoon, as it did all its inmates, into the mindless, velvet vortex of the womb. The positive sisterhood of the zenana, or women's quarter, is offset by the image of the zenana as a prison—the women are described as inmates—while the comfort and safety of the ‘velvet vortex of the womb’ is partially denied by the fact that it is also a ‘domain given over to procreation’ and thus not entirely free from the influence of men. The picture of Pakistan Sidhwa presents in The Bride is not one of harmony, rather she focuses her critical lens on the many conflicts and divisions that she sees as part of life in that country, particularly those which must continually be faced by women in Pakistan.
The important shaping-presence of the now-departed British Raj is also evident in this novel, Sidhwa reminds the reader, as she did in The Crow Eaters, of the role of the British in the division of the sub-continent into two countries, India and Pakistan: “The earth is not easy to carve up. India required a deft and sensitive surgeon, but the British, steeped in domestic preoccupation, hastily and carelessly butchered it. They were not deliberately mischievous - only cruelly negligent! A million Indians died. The earth sealed its clumsy new boundaries in blood as town by town, farm by farm, the border was defined.”
The birth of Pakistan was not a time for rejoicing. Rather, Sidhwa casts the British not in the role of caring surgeon, but as bloody abortionist, the child of whose botched work survives, alive but damaged and literally dripping with the blood of its parent India. But in this novel the ills of Pakistan are by no means laid solely at the feet of the British Raj. Pakistan's continuing maladies are due to corrupt Pakistani politicians and businessmen, like the ‘Leader’ Nikka Pehalwan works for, and to the colonial patronage of the United States which is gradually ousting the legacy of the British Raj.
Similarly, Pakistan’s colonial past, and the English literary heritage out of which novelists like Sidhwa have emerged and now write against is recalled when in their early months in Lahore, “Qasim perched a frightened Zaitoon on the tall, proud snout of the Zam-Zam cannon, known because of Kipling as ‘Kim's gun.” This reference shows too that Sidhwa is aware that many western readers (who will make up the majority of her readership) will read her in the shadow of Anglo-Indian writers like Kipling, and that their first view of India/Pakistan may have been the picture of Kim sitting “in defiance of municipal orders, astride the gun Zam-Zammah.”
In both The Crow Eaters and The Bride, partition has been important, but not the shaping-force of either novel. In her third novel, Ice-Candy-Man, Partition is the shaping-force. And as in her earlier novels, Sidhwa chooses a marginalized narrator—a child, a female, a Parsi, a victim of polio—a narrator who is so marginalized that in less-skilled authorial hands she could easily have vanished off the page altogether.
In a scathing review of the book for the New Statesman, Marianne Wiggins suggests that “Much of Sidhwa’s trouble in telling this tale lies in her choice of narrative voice,” and that “As character fails, so does any sense of the politics of the time—so does any sense of place.” The extent of Wiggins’s miss-reading of the novel is astonishing: there is a strong sense of place, of Lahore, and there is a strong sense of the politics of the time, a strong historical consciousness in this novel, as there is in her two previous novels.
Despite Wiggins’s objections to the young narrator, it may be that the atrocities of 1947 are best seen through the innocent, naïve eyes of a child, who has no Hindu, Muslim, or Sikh axe to grind, and who is thus likely to present a more objective view of what she sees. As a child Lenny is free both from the prejudices of religion, and from the prejudices against women and the constraints imposed on her sex which she will be subject to as she grows older:
“Our shadow glides over a Brahmin pundit… Our shadow has violated his virtue. The Pundit cringes… He looks at his food as it is infected with maggots. Squeamishly picking up the leaf, he tips its contents behind a bush and throws away the leaf…
I am a diseased maggot. I look at Yousaf. His face is drained of joy, bleak, furious. I know he too feels himself composed of shit, crawling with maggots.
Now I know surely. One man’s religion is another man’s poison. I experience this feeling of utter degradation, of being an untouchable excrescence, an outcast again, years later when I hold out my hand to a Parsee priest at a wedding and he, thinking I am menstruating beneath my facade of diamonds and sequined sari, cringes.”
The authorial voice, in this case the powerful voice of hindsight, clearly compares religious prejudices to the prejudices against women, within the various religious groups themselves as well as in Pakistani society in general. Moreover, by using a child narrator Sidhwa is truer to her own memories than if she wrote through the prejudiced eyes of an older narrator. It may be worth remembering that Sidhwa herself was a young girl in Lahore in the years leading up to Partition, and thus, like Lenny, witnessed the historical events of the time through childhood eyes.
Wiggins’s ill-conceived and unrestrained criticism of the authorial voice is effectively answered in Lenny’s self-condemning question, “How can anyone trust a truth-infected tongue?” This is a wonderful conceit, an elaborate metaphor which contains both paradoxical and ironical elements. The word ‘infected’ loads its partner ‘truth’ with unusually negative connotations and causes us to reflect on the nature of the truth we want to hear. Though we require Lenny to be a reliable witness to the historical events she sees, and to tell an historical truth (within the bounds of Sidhwa’s fictional truth) in her narration, we are made uneasy by the unwise, instinctive truth which causes, her to betray Ayah. Only a child could own such a truth-infected tongue. It is this same childish innocence which causes Lenny to draw a number of wrong conclusions about the petrol which is loaded in and out of her mother’s car, and about the women in the ‘prison’ across the road. But it is testament to Sidhwa’s skill as a novelist that the reader always sees the ‘real’ truth of the situation, while at the same time recognizing the validity of Lenny’s truth.
Again, we are reminded that there is no single truth—there are always many ways of interpreting the events which are being played out in Sidhwa's Lahore of 1947. An unreliable or apparently unreliable narrator is always, one hopes, used for a purpose. In Ice-Candy-Man the fact that Lenny’s unreliable narration proves, after all, to be reliable in its own way, causes us to at least question the British and Indian versions of the truth that have hitherto been accepted.
The decision to make her narrator a child also allows Sidhwa to restrict her world to a very small geographical area of Lahore. This compressed world of a child’s vision is populated by a relatively small group of people, which like the focus on the Parsi community in The Crow Eaters or the focus on the Kohistani tribals in The Bride, provides a useful microcosm through which Sidhwa can convey the wider history of the period; thus Ayah's followers include a Hindu, a Muslim, a Sikh, a Pathan from the mountains, a Jat from the plains, who together are representative of the population mix of Lahore prior to Partition.
The British Raj enters Lenny’s little world, too, when Mr. And Mrs. Roger come for dinner, and her tutor (the aptly named) Mrs. Pen is an Anglo-Indian. The sickening violence of the period (revealed in all its enormity in the great set-piece story that Lenny’s young friend Ranna tells of his own escape from the slaughter that overtook his village) which is difficult for a child (Lenny or Ranna) to understand is paradoxically seen more clearly by the reader through the uncomprehending eyes of a child. It is the innocence and disbelief of the children in this book—Lenny, her brother Adi, Cousin, Ranna—together with the humanity of people like Lenny’s mother, who smuggles rationed petrol at great personal risk to help her Hindu and Sikh friends escape Lahore, and some wonderful, deft comic moments, that save the novel from an all-consuming bleakness, and provide hope for the future. This essential humanity, this innocence, this instinctive understanding of the need for restraint, is apparent too in other Partition novels.
Contrary to Wiggins’s view, Sidhwa’s young narrator is always convincing, and even her faulty memory, always skillfully controlled by Sidhwa, adds authenticity to the novel, as the following passage illustrates:
“Mozang Chawk burns for months… and months… despite its brick and mortar construction: despite its steel girders and the density of its terraces that run in an uneven high-low, broad-narrow continuity for miles on either side: despite the small bathrooms and godowns and corrugated tin shelters for charpoys deployed to sleep on the roof—and its doors and wooden rafters—the building could not have burned for months. Despite all the ruptured dreams, broken lives, buried gold, bricked-in rupees, secreted jewelry, lingering hopes… the fire could not have burned for months and months…
But in my memory it is branded over an inordinate length of time: memory demands poetic license.”
That comment on memory reveals an authorial presence which subtly lends power to the narrator’s voice, and a sense of hindsight which strengthens, adds authority to the immediacy of the intimate first-person narration, and draws together past and present. The dinner-party at Lenny’s parent’s house, during which Lenny and her brother hide under the large table and eavesdrop on the conversation overhead, allows Sidhwa to introduce a discussion of the major political issues of the day—Swaraj, the demand for Pakistan—and the major political players—Gandhi, Jinnah, Wavell, Congress, the Muslim League, the Akalis—which would otherwise be outside the world of her young narrator.
Similarly, Lenny overhears much about the current political situation (much of which she doesn’t understand at the time) as she sits with Ayah and her followers. And it is because of what she overhears, because of the opinions she has been exposed to, that Lenny suddenly becomes aware of the different religions all around her, and understands that in the Lahore of 1947 people are not simply themselves: “It is sudden. One day everybody is themselves—and the next day they are Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Christian. People shrink, dwindling into symbols. Ayah is no longer just my all-encompassing Ayah—she is also a token. A Hindu.” This signals a growth from innocence to experience, which prompts us to place more trust in the rapidly maturing narrator. But despite her growing maturity there are still some things that Lenny can only interpret through childhood experience.
Lenny’s attempt to understand this, to her incomprehensible, attack in her own terms follows shortly afterwards:
“I select a large life-like doll with a china face and blinking blue eyes and coarse black curls. It has a sturdy, well-stuffed cloth body and a substantial feel. I hold it upside down and pull its pink legs apart. The knees and thighs bend unnaturally, but the stitching in the center stays intact.
I hold one leg out to Adi.“Here,” I say, “pull it.”
“Why?” asks Adi looking confused.
“Pull, damn it!” I scream, so close to hysteria that Adi blanches and hastily grabs the proffered leg… Adi and I pull the doll's legs, stretching it in a fierce tug-of-war, until making a wrenching sound it suddenly splits. We stagger off balance. The cloth skin is ripped right up to its armpits spilling chunks of grayish cotton and coiled brown coir and the innards that make its eyes blink and make it squawk “Ma-ma.” I examine the doll’s spilled insides and, holding them in my hands, collapse on the bed sobbing.
Adi couches close to me. I can't bear the disillusioned and contemptuous look in his eyes.
“Why were you so cruel if you couldn’t stand it?” he asks at last, infuriated by the pointless brutality.”
By having Lenny transport the cruelty she witnesses into the once-safe world of dolls, Sidhwa introduces an image which is as haunting as any vivid, bloody description of the Banya’s death could have been, and forces the reader to re-examine the inhumanity behind the atrocious act, the pointless brutality of Partition. Adi is ‘infuriated by the pointless brutality’ shown by Lenny towards her doll because he doesn’t understand it, just as we find ourselves unable to understand the brutality which causes the death of the Banya, and the brutality that underlies all the violence of this terrible period. And because we, as readers, still have the mob's brutality fresh in our minds, Adi’s words echo our fury and emphasize the metaphysical element of Lenny’s action, and the fury which drove her to destroy her doll. Unlike Qasim in The Bride, Lenny cannot maintain an impersonal distance from the violence she witnesses. Indeed, that violence gradually disrupts the very center of her own small world, as first she comes across the gunny-sacked body of Ayah’s preferred admirer, Masseur, and then sees Ayah herself abducted from the family home by an angry mob.
Alamgir Hashmi does not share Marianne Wiggins’s hostility towards Sidhwa’s narrator, but he too has some reservations about the historical content of the novel. He writes that Ice-Candy-Man “concerns the Partition events of 1947, and is more interesting for its characterization, developing narrative techniques and the child’s point of view than what it actually has to tell about the events.” Yet Ice-Candy-Man is deeply political in its retelling of the events of Partition from a Pakistani rather than an Indian perspective, and it is a novel laden with historical references.
Admittedly, at times the historical signposts in this novel do appear misleading. The early reference to Gandhi’s intention “to walk a hundred miles to the ocean to make salt,” for example, is wholly out of its time-scale. Gandhi’s salt march to Dandi Beach took place in the early months of 1930, not in the early months of 1947.
However, this is far from being a case of inaccurate historical detail; rather memory is playing a part here—what Lenny is told and what she remembers hearing first-hand merge at times, as is common with our childhood memories, and this reference to Gandhi is for Lenny a received truth even if it is historically out of its time. It has become part of the ethos of the age. Similarly, she confuses the burning of Lahore with the celebration of Holi—a Spring Festival which would have taken place some months earlier. The introduction of such tricks of memory shows how thoroughly Sidhwa understands her young narrator, and makes her a more rather than less reliable witness. The historical signposts or references in this novel are necessarily limited because Lenny doesn’t understand much of what she hears.
As Lenny herself says: “Obviously (Ice-Candy-Man’s) quoting Bose (Sometimes he quotes Gandhi, or Nehru or Jinnah, but I’m fed up of hearing about them. Mother, Father and their friends are always saying: Gandhi said this, Nehru said that. Gandhi did this, Jinnah did that. What’s the point of talking so much about people we don’t know?)” But a number of significant historical events do occur in the novel.
And in her attempt to write against Indian versions of history, to present instead a Pakistani version, she complains, too, about the way Jinnah has been treated in Indian and in British histories: “And, today, forty years later, in films of Gandhi’s and Mountbattens lives, in books by British and Indian scholars, Jinnah, who for a decade was known as ‘Ambassador of Hindu-Muslim Unity,’ is caricatured.” In re-imagining Jinnah, Sidhwa again displays the important presence of hindsight in her fiction (‘today, forty years later’) and draws on a quotation from the Indian poet and freedom fighter, Sarojini Naidu, to support the validity of her portrayal of Jinnah.
Sarojini Naidu is not the only literary figure Sidhwa introduces into her story. Her references to such figures as Iqbal and Longfellow show her own dual literary heritage, out of which Pakistani writing in English has also grown. The most interesting literary reference, though, which occurs early in the novel links Sidhwa’s title to Eugene O’Neill’s play The Iceman Cometh: “Ice-Candy-Man is selling his popsicles to the other groups lounging on the grass. My mouth waters. I have confidence in Ayah’s chocolate chemistry… lank and loping the Ice-Candy-Man cometh.”
In O’Neill’s play, published in 1946, Sidhwa has found a framework for her dramatic re-creation of Lahore during the months leading up to Partition. Through this intertextual referencing, and by responding to a particular literary text, Sidhwa is re-confirming the role of fiction as a shaping-force in history, while at the same time exposing the influences that are working on her as a writer who divides her time between Pakistan and the United States. By referring to the influences of British and American Literary texts, Sidhwa is once again reflecting on the influence of Britain, and, more recently, America on the history of her own country.
Bapsi Sidhwa’s voice is an important voice in Pakistani writing in English. Her treatment of the Parsi community in The Crow Eaters and Ice-Candy-Man provides the reader with an intimate view of a minor ethnic group in Pakistan  that has hitherto not been in fiction, just as The Bride provides significant glimpses of the lives of Pathans and Kohistanis of the Tribal Territories. India has produced a number of Partition novels which have contributed to the strong body of fiction which treats the history of India. But Partition is as much a part of Pakistani history as it is a part of Indian history, and it is important to have a Pakistani version of that shared horror. Ice-Candy-Man is both Pakistani version of Partition and a major contribution to the growing list of Partition novels which continue to emerge from the sub-continent. Through her various marginalized narrators and through the experiences of the many marginalized characters in her first three novels, Sidhwa gives voice to hitherto silenced groups of Pakistan and in so doing tells other versions of her country’s history.

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