Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Crow Eaters: A Representation of Parsi Culture and History

Though poetry in Pakistan has been a thriving art form, novels in English are few and far between. In fact, fiction and imaginative prose as a whole have suffered acute disfavour over the years; and while acknowledging resplendent instances of exception, such as the works of Ahmed Ali and Zulfikar Ghose, one is naturally inclined to welcome the appearance of yet another noteworthy work in the sparsely dotted landscape of prose art in our country.

The Crow Eaters, Bapsi Sidhwa's first published novel, purports to be a succinct and satirical account of the success story told to the youngsters in his later years by the Parsi Seth Faredoon Junglewalla himself, the central figure whose rise to fortune and social stardom we follow in the three hundred-odd pages strewn with matters “local” and much good-natured humour and drollery. The speech is laconic, yet winsome, as the Junglewalla relates how he managed it:
Yes, I've been all things to all people in my time. There was that bumptious son-of-a-bitch in Peshawar called Colonel Williams. I cooed to him—salaamed so low I got a crick in my balls—buttered and marmaladed him until he was eating out of my hand. Within a year I was handling all traffic of goods between Peshawar and Afghanistan!
The Parsi background and focus give additional significance to this narrative, as very little is known generally of this isolationist sort of community in the subcontinent, particularly at a personal or imaginative level. As such, a recognition of the novel's particular landscape is to register time through a consciousness with which perhaps not many outsiders would be familiar. Here is how the story finds its beginning, from the anonymous forests of central India to Lahore, where the Junglewallas settle down, within the first twenty pages:
Faredoon Junglewalla, Freddy for short, embarked on his travels towards the end of the nineteenth century. Twenty-three years old, strong and pioneering, he saw no future for himself in his ancestral village, tucked away in the forests of Central India, and resolved to seek his fortune in the hallowed pastures of Punjab. Of the sixteen lands created by Ahura Mazda and mentioned in the 4,000-year-old Vendidad, one is the “Septa Sindhu”; the Sind and Punjab of today.
Loading his belongings, which included a widowed mother-in-law eleven years older than himself, a pregnant wife six years younger, and his infant daughter Hutoxi, onto a bullock-cart, he set off for the North.
We know fairly well by now the various characterizations of time through the ethnic consciousness of many of the major communities in the subcontinent, for example, the Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, and so on, but the present work seems to be quite unique inasmuch as it permits a view of the Parsi code of feeling and behaviour. This must be the reason the author has continually to halt the actual narrative to incorporate passages that in an academic paper would be consigned to footnotes, such as the information on Parsi customs (although some of these and a few local phrases remain unexplained) and the mode of their migration to India; or a parenthetical aside like “(Lahore can be as cold in winter as it is hot in summer)” to substantiate the fact of a “chilly afternoon” mentioned earlier in the same sentence. This, doubtless, results a considerable authorial presence—and perhaps comfort in the fact that the reader's response can only be right.
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 Towers of Silence (Parsi burial grounds) provide some of the most solemn moments in the story, particularly when, contrary to Parsi tradition, at his son Soli's burial Freddy declares the place open to outsiders (just for then) in a moving speech.
Regardless of the dark depths to which Freddy could stoop to stay on top, he knows how to manage himself as a godfather of his community, to dispense favour and command obedience and gratitude. His wife Putli (Urdu for “puppet”), is an ideal of Indian wifely submission, love and responsibility. She is equally understanding towards her children, even when one of them turns out to be a poet, and progressively a shaven-headed saint rebelling against the family tradition. The other son, Billy, comfortable “in the proper tradition,” is betrothed to lissome Tanya Easymoney, and her betrothal is “executed with the acumen of a new American cigarette being launched on the market.”
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.
That last twist belongs to the ironical tones in which the burden of tradition is made light and bearable. Billy again: “His frugality he might have inherited from an undiluted line of Parsi forbears.”
The “undiluted line” plays back on Faredoon Junglewalla's paternal lecture to Yazdi, the poet-son, who in violation of the family's tradition wants to marry Rosy Watson, an Anglo-Indian classmate of doubtful respectability:
I believe in some kind of a tiny spark that is carried from parent to child, on through generations … a kind of inherited memory of wisdom and righteousness, reaching back to the times of Zarathustra, the Magi, the Mazdiasnians. It is a tenderly nurtured conscience evolving towards perfection.
Bapsi Sidhwa writes from a deep historical consciousness. Her evocation of a part of Lahore life as lived in the first half of this century is convincing—and charming to me as a Lahorite myself. She herself grew up in Lahore and makes her home there; the first-hand knowledge of it certainly lends credence to the irony, as it arises out of a deep understanding of the place and people and their ways. She is looking 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.

What a wonderful relief from the quantities of underbelly, feline fiction that our magazines usually put out. The vigorous style of the book is a riding crop for any one who used to blushing at mild innuendo. To the small body of fiction written in this country, Bapsi Sidhwa has added her witty and piquant voice, and a loquaciousness that is endearing. The title of the book refers to the Parsis' “notorious ability to talk ceaselessly at the top of their voices like an assembly of crows.” If this fiction is any evidence, it pleases.

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