Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Crow Eaters: Introduction, History and Context

The Parsi are an ethno-religious minority in India, living mostly on the west coast of the subcontinent, especially in Bombay. In Pakistan, most Parsis reside in Karachi and Lahore. As their name implies, the Parsis are of Persian descent. The word Parsi means a native of “Pars” or “Fars,” an ancient Persian province, now in Southern Iran. They left their homeland over 1,200 years ago to save their religion, the teachings of Zoroaster, from being Islamized by the Arabians. They are followers of Prophet Zarathustra; their religion known as Zoroastrianism was founded around 2000 B.C. Its essence is to be found in the five Gathas or Divine songs of Zarathustra (there may have been more Gathas, but they are not traceable).

In the last census, conducted by the Government of India, the Parsis were only about 95,000 in number, 0.016 percent of the total population of India. Yet their feeling of group identity and active participation in the social, cultural and economic life of both India and Pakistan is immense. As a community they are comparatively well-off, with few living below the appalling poverty-line of the subcontinent. What are the motivating factors which make this smallest religious minority in the world strive for excellence, instead of being wrapped in the throes of survival? Are the answers to be found in the social code and value systems of the religion (like the Protestant work ethic, which encouraged thrift and hard work and led to the rise of capitalism in eighteenth century England) or the socio-economic conditions in India or the status of a limited minority being strictly loyal to every ruling authority or a mixture of all these factors? In her novel The Crow Eaters, Bapsi Sidhwa attempts an answer to these 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.
The Crow Eaters, first published in Pakistan in 1978, describes the social mobility of a Parsi family, the Junglewallas, during the British Raj in the early twentieth century. In just one generation they increased their business from a single general merchant store in Lahore to a chain of stores, in several North Indian cities and licence for “handling all traffic of goods between Peshawar and Afghanistan.” 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. 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.

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