Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Crow Eaters: A Critical Survey of the Novel

In her novel The Crow Eaters, Bapsi Sidhwa attempts an answer to some queries, by recreating a fictional yet typical saga of a Parsi family and the corresponding social milieu. It is the only novel of its kind, as it is the first account of the workings of the Parsi mind, social behaviour, value systems and customs. Creditably Bapsi Sidhwa never lets the novel degenerate into a mere sociological treatise. The satirical fiction, mock-epic tone and the lampoon of major characters like the successful businessman Faredoon Junglewalla, his equally successful son Billy and mother-in-law Jerbanoo, make the novel an entertaining piece of literature.

It also traces the attempts of Parsis, migrating from the west coast and settling in the more salubrious climate of North Indian cities, in the late nineteenth and the turn of this century.
An Autobiographical Novel:

This is the hallmark of Bapsi Sidhwa's work, deceptively perceptive, she accurately depicts historical facts interwoven with satirical fiction and lampoon which aptly recreates the Parsi milieu and yet makes for delightful reading. The authenticity of Bapsi Sidhwa's work is evident as she was born in Karachi in 1936, was brought up in Lahore and continues to live there. Her family, the Bhandaras, a leading business family of Lahore for generations, had migrated there in the last century. So Bapsi Sidhwa belongs to the third generation of Parsi settlers in North Indian cities and was reared on tales both fictional and otherwise on the entrepreneurial skill of the elders of her community. Hence her description of the exploits of Faredoon Junglewalla and his family is not just historical fiction, but has a strong autobiographical element also.

Use of Irony

Bapsi Sidhwa has made a clever use of irony. The use of irony also prevents the novel from becoming either laudatory or disparaging, an inherent danger when an author writes about his or her own community, both the shortcomings and achievements. Wealth and status is the ultimate aim for Faredoon Junglewalla. He achieved this ambition but at what cost. Bapsi Sidhwa's mode of perception is ironic. As we appreciate Junglewalla's achievements, doubts are raised about it. The novel commences on a note of praise for Faredoon Junglewalla, Freddy for short, described as a strikingly handsome, dulcet-voiced adventurer.


The novel has memorable characters, individual but not atypical, and of all ages, as the narrative encompasses some forty years. Gormandizing Jerbanoo, Freddy's mother-in-law, whom he considers his mortal foe but who is nowhere near dying despite his dark plans to get rid of her by setting his shop and house on fire, profiting doubly through an insurance fraud (a proud invention for the India of 1901, we are told in confidence)—of course the latter is a success. The heaviest weather is made in a few excremental episodes, however true, during her short visit to England where the English are exposed to Jerbanoo's Indian standards of domestic and social life.
A soothsayer fakir, a Sadhu fortuneteller, a mystic, and numerous English and Indian colonial figures make appearances to relieve the misery of the burpy, dyspeptic passages about Jerbanoo. But the dialogue for the greater part remains sprightly. The story slackens after the arson episode but picks up again as the children grow up one after another to get their chapters in.
The description is always sharp-eyed. Here is Billy:
Billy had grown to manhood—and his ears had grown with him. The lint-like cartilages had hardened and stuck out like teapot handles. His straggling, five-haired moustache now made a substantial smear beneath the bumpy crag of his nose; and above it triumphed the centre-parting in his hair. Oil-glossed, blue-black, the hair waved away to end in a squiggly froth of curls.
This is Jane Austen writing a Dean Swift number—the result being a hilarious social farce. Sidhwa is aware, as in Billy's newspaper advertisement of his matrimonial availability: “If a point was stretched, what did it matter? All is fair in love and advertising.” Which is fine if the language is as concrete as in the above quote, but the following adjectival reportraiture is redundant: Behram Junglewalla, Billy for short, was a taciturn, monosyllabic, parsimonious, and tenacious little man. His tight-lipped, shrewd-eyed countenance instantly aroused mistrust—precisely because he was so trustworthy.
The characterization of Yazdi adds to the richness and variety of the novel, as it shows all Parsis are not types, nor do they have stereotype reactions. However there is a structural flaw in the presentation of Yazdi.
Sidhwa looks at the whole, and the constituent parts, through the diminutive lens of insidious comicality as an outsider who knows better; as a member of the Parsi minority in Pakistan who knows her people's secrets, real strengths, and foibles. Her novel, beyond particular situation and character, aims at a sweep that encompasses a people and may well be better considered in that light.

A Black Comedy:

Black comedy, also known as black humour or dark comedy is a sub-genre of comedy and satire where topics and events that are usually treated seriously (death, mass murder, suicide, domestic violence, disease, insanity, fear, drug abuse, rape, war, terrorism, etc.) are treated in a humorous or satirical manner. Synonyms include dark humour and morbid humour. Although very similar, it is not to be confused with gallows humour and off-colour humour.

The Crow Eaters has been called a black comedy by a number of critics as Sidhwa has been successful in infusing a comic or humorous tone while treating some grave subjects in the novel. For instance one can not keep one’s smile while reading through the chapter where Jerbanoo is crying in a balcony for her life. The house is on fire but the event is narrated in a comic tone. On another occasion, Freddy is sick of his bad luck and goes to the tenement fakir and again the scene is narrated in a satirical mood. Yet on another occasion Freddy talks to Jerbanoo about death in an ironic way. The novel is full of such treatments and the reader can trace dozens of instances of black comedy while reading through the novel. 

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