Saturday, August 28, 2010

Gender and Imagination in Bapsi Sidhwa’s Fiction

It was only after the Second World War that women novelists tran­scended gender-related limitations in their thematic concerns and started writing about a range of experiences, including the squalid and the terrifying. In Sidhwa's work, the themes diverge from tra­ditional to contemporary.

The feminine imagination in her novels is presented with an incongruous humour to discuss serious socio­political issues even though Sidhwa is not gender conscious in writing about any issue. She analyzes how Ice-Candy-Man, despite possessing stylistic charm, vivacity and com­pelling themes, fails to achieve artistic synthesis. Though her lan­guage and narrative are refined, Sidhwa is unable to delve deep into the psyche of her female characters, consequently the sensa­tions it generates are discordant and dishevelled.
In the last thirty years there is a vigorous development in thinking about women and their role in society. For majority of women their gender has had some effect on their experi­ences, and their perceptions of the world, and this is reflected in the nature of the work they, produce.
Feminism has become a lighly important issue in contemporary thought and has resulted in challenging the patriarchal assumption. The application of new ideas about women to their conceptions has produced exten­sive discussion of both how women have been represented in lit­erature and their trend of writing,
The 'gynocritics' theorize about women's literary production and women writers have re­sponded in terms of'colonization of the mind.' In the contempo­rary literary scenario in the Indian subcontinent, gender con­sciousness is not palpable in the phraseology of Western criticism. Women are not lagging behind in their input of literature—we have women writers writing in English from the nineteenth century onwards, not to mention regional writers. These writers with their distinctive talents, particular age of interests and indi­vidual style have proved that they are imaginative and are at par with women writers of the West.
It was thought before the First World War that a woman writer is at her best when she deals with the known domain of her womanliness, immediate surroundings and cognition of var­ied relationships that she creates for herself. But it was after the second World War that women novelists of quality have begun enriching literature, specially fiction, on the Indian subcontinent.
Women writers are not always preoccupied with their personal lives; many of them are interested in large-scale social or intel­lectual questions. Novelists have started using a combination in varying proportions of what they have experienced, what they have discovered and what they have imagined. Their gender has not debarred women from writing about a range of experiences that include the squalid and the terrifying.
India and Pakistan have enjoyed a common literary and cul­tural heritage till 1947 and have parted ways in trends and achievements after Partition. In spite of Pakistani fragmentation and Sri Lanka's autonomy, India dominates the subcontinent due to its size and literature. The shared thought and heritage has produced in India many women writers whose work is copious and multifarious in its amplitude. But in Pakistan there is virtu­ally only one established woman writer, Bapsi Sidhwa, and in Sri Lanka probably Yasmine Gooneratne.
Bapsi Sidhwa, born in Karachi and brought up in Lahore, is acclaimed by the Times as 'a powerful and dramatic novelist' and the New Statesman has described her as 'An affectionate and shrewd observer ... a born storyteller.' In addition to writing and teaching in the United States, she is an active social worker and has represented Pakistan at the 1975 Asian Women's Con­gress. All her novels, The Crow-Eaters (1980), The Pakistani Bride (1983) and Ice-Candy-Man (1988), are experimentations in imagination with an aim to achieve artistic synthesis.
In Sidhwa's work themes diverge from traditional to con­temporaneity. Her concern ranges from a pre-Independence so­cial scene to Partition and its aftermath, and her time frame is fifty years. In this narrow canvas Sidhwa who experiences the pleasures of exile is in a more advantageous position than most of the writers. Her exile has given her an opportunity to laugh at the slogan 'Anatomy is destiny.' She could shed many inhibi­tions under this influence, but it is doubtful whether she has achieved artistic synthesis or not.
Being a writer who is not gen­der-conscious, she relies more on her imagination than on val­ues. As Pap Gems says:
"Writing is individual. When you write you bring the whole of yourself to the meristem, to the growing point of your thought. You are an explorer. You try to push on, to find out. Writing is science, and like science, not entirely cog­nitive. In fact often hardly so at all."
Therefore, in most cases writing is a personal fantasy.
Sidhwa's first novel The Crow-Eaters is about Faredoon Junglewalla, a man of distinction and listed in the Zarathustra calendar of great men and women and whose motto in life is 'The sweetest thing In the world is your need. Through this nar­cissistic personality, in about forty-six chapters, Sidhwa takes us into the heart of the Parsi community, portraying its varied cus­toms and traits. It is a straight narration without any twists in the plot and we travel through the book without much mental strain.
At the age of twenty-three along with his wife Putli, mother-in-law Jerbanoo and an infant daughter Faredoon settles in Lahore, never to look back. In Lahore he continues to live till the end of the novel that is 1940. His family expands and with his prag­matic intelligence and fraud and arson in insurance he becomes a man of great consequence among the Parsis. People travelled thousands of miles to see him in Lahore, especially as they wished to escape the tight spots they had got themselves into. This successful worldly man encounters disappointment and per­sonal loss in the death of his eldest son and a self-exiled second son.
Within this straight conventional theme Sidhwa flings her feminine imagination with an incongruous humour to talk about serious issues like national politics, fraud, death-dealing of mother-in-law, Parsi superstitions, faiths, marriages, rites of death, romance, birth, multifaceted activities and forays to Lon­don. Not so much of action but so many incidents take place that one gets a feeling of contradiction. On the one hand the reader finds no link between the words on the page, and on the other the vision or experience is missing in the narrative.
The Pakistani -Bride is about Qasim and his foster daughter Zaitoon. Qasim is a man who in the hands of fate had known no childhood. From infancy, responsibility was forced upon him and at ten he was a man conscious of rigorous code of honour by which his tribe lived. By the time he is ten, he is married to a fifteen-year-old'girl, at sixteen he becomes a father and a wid­ower at thirty-four. In the year 1947 he migrates to Jullundur which is in India after Partition and from there to Lahore, com­mitting a murder at a slight provocation in Jullundur.
If Freddy of The Crow-Eaters contemplates murder, Qasim executes it. On his way to Lahore he is impelled to adopt a little girl who is a riot victim like him and calls her Zaitoon. He also makes friend­ship with Nikkaa 'Pahilwan' and his wife Miriam in the refugee camp. Out of the thirty chapters in the novel, seven (from 4th to 11th) deal with Nikkaa's political connections and Zaitoon flow­ering into a young girl of sixteen, and as the years slip by Qasim gets nostalgic for the mountains and his memories become Zai-toon's fantasies. When a proposal comes from the mountains of Kohistani, Qasim decides to return to his tribe to settle his daughter. On their way to Kohistan they cross the Army Camp and encounter Major Mushtaq, his cousin Farukh and his Ameri­can wife Carol. From here seven chapters explain the triangle in­volvement of Mushtaq, Farukh and Carol. The chapters dealing with this relationship are more authentic than the previous ones. Chapter 18 and 19 are about Zaitoon's incompatible marriage with Sakhi. In the next pan shot we come to know of the infatua­tion of Carol for Mushtaq and also her desire to understand Zai­toon: "Her life is different from mine, and yet I feel a real bond, an understanding on some deep level."
The American and the Pakistani brides become subjects of their husbands' suspicion and both take pragmatic decisions to overcome their crises. Carol decides to make it up to Farukh and contemplates to have a child to bring anchorage to her loveless marriage. Zaitoon decides to take a visionary course of action and runs away, knowing fully well that the punishment for such an act is death. There is a world of difference between these two women and Mushtaq ex­plains to Carol:
It wouldn't be easy for you really to understand her. You'd find her life in the Zenanna with the other women pitifully limited and claustrophobic—she'd probably find yours—if she could ever glimpse it—terrifyingly insecure and needlessly competitive.
Though their paths are divergent, both Zaitoon and Carol take the same path to Lahore.
The title of the novel is to some extent misleading and cryp­tic. The novel is a combination of Qasim's personal difficulties and a diluted study of ideals and feelings about love and mar­riage. The area Sidhwa takes for her subject is a significant hu­man experience, and in her treatment of it she does her best to make it a contemporary issue concerning the extent to which women are psychologically free to change their lives. No doubt Sidhwa has passionate interest in the depth and richness of hu­man experience but to a certain extent her enterprise has become too much for her to cope with.
The third novel Ice-Candy-Man and its author have been ac­claimed by Anita Desai: "There is no other writer I know on the subcontinent who combines laughter and ribaldry, a passion for history and for truth telling as Bapsi Sidhwa does in Ice-Candy-Man."
Sidhwa acknowledges that she is indebted to Rana Khan for sharing his childhood experiences at the time of Partition. Maybe the author's knowledge of Partition and the historical experi­ences in the novel is not all that authentic and could be only a borrowed experience. The book was written with the financial assistance of Bunting Institute and the National Endowment for the Arts. No doubt there is novelty and freshness in the book but how far it is artistic is the question.
Ice-Candy-Man comprises thirty-two chapters and gives us a glimpse into events of turmoil on the Indian subcontinent during Partition. Historic truth is only a backdrop of the novel and per­sonal fate of the Ice-Candy-Man the focus. Ice-Candy-Man is a close associate and admirer of an eighteen-year-old ayah work­ing in a Parsi household to look after Lenny, a polio child of four.
As in other novels so also in this novel Sidhwa is meticu­lous immentioning the age of her characters. It is through Lenny that we come to know of the action of the novel and the serious­ness of the narration is marred because of this. It is an adult that speaks through the child's memory and keeps the reader on guard and creates a sense of impressions that the child is capable of reminiscing. The parallel theme in the novel is the slow awak­ening of the child heroine to sexuality and pains and pleasures of the grown-up and to the particular historical disaster that over­whelms her world. There is an element of exaggeration in all in­stances with regard to characterization and imagination.
Ayah has thirteen admirers and Sidhwa says: "Only the group around Ayah remains unchanged. Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Parsee are, as always, unified around her." Of this group Ice-Candy-Man is a man of varied interests. On bitterly cold days when ice sales plummet, Ice-Candy-Man transforms him­self into a bird man: "News and gossip flow off his glib tongue like a torrent"; sometimes he quotes national leaders and does political analysis and finally he is a metamorphosed character adopting a poetic mould, confessing that he belongs to 'Kotha'—the royal misbegottens located in Hira Mandi. When Ayah be­comes a riot victim it is Ice-Candy-Man that saves her and reha­bilitates her in Hira Mandi and finally we come to know that she has left for Amritsar to be-with her parents, leaving lovelorn Ice-Candy-Man to his fate. The vulnerable Ayah becomes virtuous gaining dignity' and Ice-Candy-Man complimenting her says: "She has the voice of angel and the grace and rhythm of a god­dess. You should see her dance. How she moves!" and goes into a poetic outburst "Princes pledge their lives to cele­brate her celebrated face!" Hitherto unknown talent of the Ayah is divulged.
There are a number of characters in the novel but Godmother alias Rodabai the social worker is the most mundane. She must have .emerged from the depths of Sidhwa's personal experiences as a social worker. Some of the incidents in the novel, instead of being blended into the texture of the novel, are superimposed making the creativity of the author prosaic. After all, the novel is a statement about a thousand different objects and these elements are to be held in place by the force of the writer's vision, if the vision falters, the novel collapses.
A writer's imagination involves his creativity, enterprise, in­sight, inspiration and originality. To achieve artistic unity the writer has to realize that "Artistic creation is a process of synthe­sis; by effecting harmony in diffused elements, the artist creates a unity in diversity and imparts 'form' to the formless and the deformed." No doubt Sidhwa is quite enterprising and she has dealt with hitherto untouched themes with a straight narration and her creativity is original but she has failed to achieve artistic synthesis. It is not enough for a writer to create sensation he has seen that there is a grain of truth even in malicious pleasure. "Experience is composed of sensations and it is never one soli­tary sensation but a system or pattern of sensations. When the sensations are co-ordinated and harmonized our experience is pleasant and when they are discordant and dishevelled the expe­rience is unpleasant.
Some incidents in Sidhwa's fiction are quite incongruous and inconsequential. While reading her works one feels that it is a deliberate attempt of hers to give novelty to her writing. This deliberate attempt of hers in The Crow-Eaters to explore the erotic world and sentiments of the Parsi commu­nity is quite refreshing, In her narration in the first part of the novel, she explains her point of view and excels in the technique of description which is graphic and realistic.
Sidhwa's men have distinct personality traits but her women are not extravagant—they are ordinary, devoid of feelings. In their limited orbits they are socially active and lead only a super­ficial existence. Even though they are active, they are flat char­acters. In a novel like The Pakistani Bride where there is ample scope for the writer to explore, Sidhwa could not go deep into the psyche of her female protagonist, allowing methodical narra-tion of events in sequential order. Jerbanoo, Rodabai and Carol are lively characters with natural instincts and imagination. They are more familiar to Sidhwa and are within her range of experi­ence.
Sidhwa's language becomes quite refined, and her analytical faculties become sharp when she has to give insights into her statements.
Talking about Parsi community, which is her own commu­nity, Sidhwa makes appropriate statements:
The endearing feature of this microscopic merchant community was its compelling sense of duty and obligation towards other Par-sis. . . . There were no Parsi beggars in a country abounding in beggars. . . . Notorious misers, they are paradoxically generous to a cause.
The characters in The Crow-Eaters are true to this statement. Her historic observation on the Parsi community's plight during Par­tition is also authentic. When Billy asks Freddy "Where will we go?" Freddy says softly, "We will stay where we are ... let Hin­dus, Muslims, Sikhs or whoever rule. What does it matter?" Likewise Lenny's family and Rodabai's family were not affected by the Partition. It is only the neighbours and close as­sociates of these Parsis that got affected. She has given roots to her characters in Lahore and made Lahore the enchantress.
The Pakistani Bride is about Muslim community and one realizes that Parsis are more stabilized and privileged and organized than the Muslims. Sidhwa made an honest attempt to explain Islamic sanctity about marriage: "We take marriage and divorce very se­riously. It involves more than just emotions. It's a social respon­sibility.  The vision of the writer definitely creeps in the novel however much the author tries to maintain a distance from the subject. The third novel Ice-Candy-Man is about cosmopoli­tan context where there is no scope to think about a particular community. The problem in the novel concerns all the citizens of Lahore and its surroundings. There is no graphic description of Lahore in her works but for the mention of "Tower of Silence." In the first two novels she gave us a detailed account of the noc-turnal activities that took place in Hira Mandi. It is only in the last novel that she has traced the original and historical signifi­cance of this leitmotif.

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