Saturday, August 28, 2010

Ice-Candy-Man: Communal Frenzy and Partition

Throughout history, fanatics as well as ideologues, pushed to the emotional brink of daring their lives, have taken the plunge, which has triggered off a chain reaction of rigid mental fixations and attitudes. Bapsi Sidhwa's novel Ice-Candy-Man examines the inexorable logic of Partition as an off­shoot of fundamentalism sparked by hardening communal atti­tudes.
First published in 1988 in London, this novel is set in pre-Partition India in Lahore. It belongs to the genre of the Partition novel like Manohar Malgonkar's A Bend in the Ganges (1964), Chaman Nahal's Azadi (1975), and Khushwant Singh's Train to Pakistan (1956). However in English fiction it is the sec­ond novel on Partition by a woman author from sub-continent. The other novel is Sunlight on a Broken Column (1961) by Attia Hussain. Both these sensitive women writers share similar perspectives on the ca­lamities of Partition. The denouement of both novels is quite similar. Both stress a similar vulnerability of human under­standing and life, caused by the throes of Partition which relent­lessly divided friends, families, lovers and neighbours.
Ice-Candy-Man is a novel of upheaval which includes a cast of characters from all communities. There are Muslims, Hindus, Christians, Sikhs and Parsis, so a multiple perspective of Parti­tion emerges as viewed by all the affected communities. Bapsi Sidhwa uses a narrator to tell the tale. A precocious Parsi girl, eight years old with a handicapped foot, narrates the story of her changing world with sophistication and wonder. Lenny is like the persona that Chaucer adopts in his Prologue to The Canter­bury Tales, rendering credibility by being almost a part of the reader's consciousness. With the wonder of a child, she observes social change and human behaviour, noting interesting side­lights, seeking and listening to opinions and occasionally making judgements. Her childish innocence is like the seeming naive display of Chaucer's persona, a source of sharp irony. The de­vice of the child narrator enables Bapsi Sidhwa treat a historical moment as horrifying as Partition without morbidity, pedanticism or censure. The highlight of the novel is that the author throughout maintains a masterful balance between laughter and despair. The subtle irony and deft usage of language creates hu­mour which does not shroud but raucously highlights the trau­mas of Partition. Sensitively the author shows the human toll of Partition, when a concerned Lenny asks: "Can one break a country? And what happens if they break it where our house is?"
The Parsi paradox of whether to support "Swaraj" or to maintain their loyalty to the British Raj is also humorously de­lineated. A piquant touch is given to this dilemma. With the im­pending news of Independence, the paranoid feelings of the Parsis, a minuscule minority, get accentuated. The Parsis in Lahore at a special meeting at their temple hall in Warris Road, have an acrimonious debate on the political situation. The meeting is in­teresting as it expresses the insecurity of the Parsis not because of communal antagonism, but the apprehension of their status at the departure of the British. Already the unstinted loyalty to the colonial power is declining. Col. Bharucha and Lenny's father blame the British for bringing polio to India. So at the meeting, India's smallest minority tries to redefine their strategy which Col. Bharucha claims as "We must hunt with the hounds and run with the hare."
The ambivalent attitude of the Parsis towards Partition and Independence emerged at the main-hall meeting at the Fire-Temple. Col. Bharucha, the President of the community in La­hore, advocates status quo. He warns fellow-Parsis to shun the anti-colonial movement and nationalist agitation. His reasoning is based on expediency. If there is "Home Rule," political glory, fame and fortune will be ac­quired by the two major communities, Hindus and Muslims. He considers Home Rule as a power struggle, saying "Hindus, Mus­lims and even the Sikhs are going to jockey for power and if you jokers jump into the middle you'll be mangled into chutney!"
He also advocates caution, because of the Parsis's long­
standing attitudes of loyalty to the British. This attitude stemmed from the Zoroastrian religious belief of loyalty to a ruler and a close relationship between state and community. The other cause for loyalty to the British was purely economic. The Parsis pri­marily traced their secured status as a prosperous minority to British rule, identified as the "good government" of the African prayer. So loyalty was a self-evident precept to the Parsis. Thus Col. Bharucha does not want any Parsi of Lahore to offend Brit­ish sensibilities by espousing nationalist causes. In a tone of ad­monition he says, "I hope no Lahore Parsi will be stupid enough to court trouble—I strongly advise all of you to stay at home and out of trouble."
In her first novel The Crow Eaters (1978), Bapsi Sidhwa por­trayed the dying businessman Faredoon Jnnglewalla vehemently protesting against the nationalist movement and exhorting his offspring to remain loyal to the British Empire. Col. Bharucha has a somewhat similar attitude. However with Independence imminent and Partition inevitable, there is a subtle change in the attitude of the Parsis of Lahore. The patriarchal advice of Col. Bharucha is opposed. Dr. Mody promptly poses a plea for in­volvement in the freedom struggle. He says, "our neighbours will think we are betraying them and siding with the English."
The banker Mr. Toddywalla says that the Parsis should support the Indian community which appears to be in a dominant position or will acquire political power after Independence. So he asks the assembled congregation to formulate attitudes and actions on Independence based on self-interest. Finally the as­sembled Parsis resolve to remain in Lahore and abide by the rules of the land. Wafting in self-esteem they agree to Col. Bha-rucha's suggestion, '"Let whoever wishes rule! Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Christian. We will abide by the rules of the land."
Some Parsis in the congregation express apprehension about remaining in Lahore after Independence and wish to migrate ei­ther to London or Bombay (where majority of their co­religionists lives). However such fears get over-ruled and the herd mentality desire of staying only in Bombay is also rejected. The final resolution is one of adaptability and compromise. The President of the Lahore Parsis Col. Bharucha says, "As long as we conduct our lives quietly; as long as we present no threat to anybody; we will prosper right here." Through this ani­mated conversation, Bapsi Sidhwa reveals the implicit, lurking fear of the Parsis, a vulnerable minority losing their identity and getting swamped by the majority communities—either Hindus in India or Muslims in Pakistan. So even amongst the Parsis the smallest minority in undivided India, the Partition sparked off an impulse for migration from their homelands. Bombay was opted for, primarily due to safety in numbers rather than the safeguards of democratic India. Historically however the movement to Bombay, as the novelist also indicates, was minimal. The Parsis remained in urban areas of India and Pakistan, trying to preserve their identity by not meddling in political matters. The advice of Mr. Toddywalla is followed, "But don't try to prosper immoder­ately. And remember don't ever try to exercise real power."
Amidst banter, repartee and humour Bapsi Sidhwa subtly portrays the underlying fears of the Parsis about Partition and In­dependence. The depiction of their mental turmoil can be com­pared to John Masters's depiction of the plight of the Eurasians commonly called Anglo-Indians before the British left the sub­continent. Bapsi Sidhwa shows how the Parsis are similar captives of circumstances in the upheaval of Partition.
Adaptability being part of their social code, the Parsis of La­hore adjust to the changing circumstances after Partition. In The Crow Eaters, Bapsi Sidhwa had only hinted at the necessity of changing allegiances after Independence but in Ice-Candy-Man, the change in attitudes is depicted. Col. Bharucha and Lenny's father curse the British for bringing polio to India. Lenny suffers from polio and the disease is considered as another example of British treachery. There is already a sense of involvement, with the new reality as Lenny's parents, godmother and Parsi friends try to bring some semblance of sanity in Lahore.
With witty remarks and subtle usage of language, Bapsi Sid­hwa presents the impact of Independence and Partition in vivid images. The altered social reality becomes even more striking, as narrated by the innocent eight-year-old Lenny. Independence be­comes evident to Lenny when she visits the Queen's Garden: "I cannot believe my eyes. The queen has gone! The space between the marble canopy and the marble platform is empty. A group of children playing knuckles, squat where the gunmetal queen sat enthroned." So within her restricted space, Lenny aptly re­veals the fading away of an Empire and its value systems. The theme of separation caused by Partition is also revealed in a sim­ple but vividly poignant observation by Lenny. During her romp at the Queen's Garden, she notices the absence of the cosmo­politan gathering.
Through the wondering eves of the precocious Lenny, the nov­elist shows the disruption of a settled order and traumatic sepa­rations of friends, the legacy of Partition.
The impact of Partition is psychologically understood and narrated through the feelings of a child, who is a member of a minuscule minority. The sense of loss is aptly demonstrated as Lenny and her brother Adi wandering through the garden ob­serve. "Adi and I wander from group to group peering into faces beneath white skull-caps and above ascetic beards. I feel uneasy. Like Hamida I do not fit. I know we will not find familiar faces here." The uprootedness of Partition is revealed as Lenny drifts through the Queen's Garden searching in vain for familiar faces and acquaintances. Even in the child there is a feeling of insecurity. She clings to the hands of her Ayah and cajoles her not to marry the Masseur. A Muslim, the Masseur is one of Ayah's numerous admirers and promises to marry and protect her during the throes of Partition. Overhearing this, Lenny des­perately urges Ayah not to get married, as it would mean separa­tion. Later when Ayah is abducted it is Lenny who urges her family to search for her. Lenny's responses show the dislocation of life during Partition. The Partition novels focus on Punjab and the dislocation of life and human feelings in that region. So Bapsi Siclhwa's novel is similar to the novels in this genre. The only difference is that the pointless brutality of communal frenzy is parodied as it is unfurled and narrated by the child-narrator Lenny. She and her younger brother Adi watch "the skyline of the old walled city ablaze and people spattering each other with blood." Fire destroys Hindu, Muslim and Sikh houses and shops at Shalmi. "The entire Shalmi, an area covering about four square miles, flashes in explosions." Fire knows no relig­ion. The shrieks and shouts of the Sikh mobs when listening to Master Tara Singh at Queen's Garden give Lenny as many nightmares as when she recollects the roaring of the lions in the zoo. With such sub­tle comparisons and ironic exposures, Bapsi Sidhwa shows the brutalization which communal frenzy causes. Even lovers turn hostile. Ice-Candy-Man, the Muslim lover of the Hindu Ayah, watches Shalmi and Mozang Chowk burn with "the muscles in his face tight with a strange exhilaration I never want to see." The transformation of a fun-loving man who frolicked and acted the buffoon in the park into an ogre due to communal frenzy is aptly revealed by Lenny's honor at the sadism in his face. A vivid image which is a stark reminder of the brutality of the times. This is the way Bapsi Sidhwa handles the delicate theme of Partition, through subtle insinuations, images and gestures. So the stark horror, of loss, bloodshed and separation is portrayed without verbosity, sensationalism, lurid details and maudlin sen­timentality. The sensitive portrayal of the horrors of Partition en­hances the poignancy and cruelty of the event without the author ever appearing pedantic or pretentious.
Allegory is another literary device used by Bapsi Sidhwa to depict the trauma of Partition. The child-narrator Lenny is also affected by the violence at Lahore: "The whole world is burning. The air on my face is so hot I think my flesh and clothes will catch fire. I start screaming: hysterically sobbing." The scenes of violence and arson and above all the venomous hatred of friends who had months earlier rationalized about the impossibility of violence, have a frightening impact on the young Parsi girl Lenny. Violence breeds violence and Lenny is also a victim. Her rage is directed at her collection of dolls. In a frenzy she acts: "I pick out a big, bloated celluloid doll. I turn it upside down and pull its legs apart. The elastic that holds them together stretches easily. I let one leg go and it snaps back, attaching itself to the brittle torso." The destructive urge overcomes Lenny and she is not satisfied till assisted by her brother Adi she wrenches out the legs of the doll and examines the spilled in-sides. This violent act by Lenny is an apt allegory on the mind­less violence of Partition. With a morbid sense of humour, Bapsi Sidhwa reveals how the violence of Partition has serrated the roots of people of different communities, irrespective of ideol­ogy, friendship and rational ideas. In such a depiction, Bapsi Sidhwa resembles the horror portrayed by William Golding in The Lord of the Files (1954). Golding indicated that there is a thin line between good and evil in human beings and it is only the structures of civilizations which prevent the lurking evil from being rampant. At the end of The Lord of the Flies, boys of Jack's tribe like barbarians got a sadistic delight in hunting Ralph. The situation is saved as a Naval officer reaches the is­land and by his presence curbs the pointless brutality of the abandoned boys. Golding had written this novel after World War II and the allegorical meaning was evident. In the world of fic­tion, a grown-up stepped in to curb the atrocities and brutality of the boys, but when countries commit atrocities there is no re­straining power. Lenny's destruction of the doll also has alle­gorical significance. It shows how even a young girl is powerless to stem the tide of surging violence within, thereby implying that grown up fanatics enmeshed in communal frenzy are similarly trapped into brutal violence. Lenny breaks down and cries at her pointless brutality, a sombre message by the novelist that unless there is re-thinking, brutality and insensitivity becomes a way of life, such is the conditioning of communalism.
Another Partition novel, Attia Hosain's Sunlight on a Broken Column (1961), also uses a narrator-heroine to similar effect. Attia Hosain's narrator-heroine Laila reveals the trauma of Par­tition through her memories and insights of her Taluqdar family disintegrating. Like in the Ice-Candy-Man, the enigma of Parti­tion is sensitively shown. When Zebra, her cousin married in Pakistan, returns to Hasanpur, she quarrels with Laila about protection of Muslim culture and language. The disagreements were no longer youthful verbal quarrels but echoed bigger divi­sions. Laila surmises the cruelest aspect of Partition when she says, "In the end, inevitably we quarrelled, and though we made up before we parted I realized that the ties which had kept fami­lies together for centuries had been loosened beyond repair." Like Lenny, the grown-up Laila is also both nostalgic and restless. Laila ruminates and wanders in her disbanded ancestral home Ashiana after Partition. Memories come flooding back. However her nostalgia is controlled. Whilst walking through the rooms of Ashiana. she remembers the past, but does not wish for the old order to return. Her new-found identity and struggle to be Ameer's lover and wife, curbs any desire for a return to the cloistered feudal order. Instead it broadens her horizons of life. She comes to detest dogmatism, either in the name of religion or radicalism. Her views and perspective of life developed after in­tense personal struggle enable Laila to tackle the loss of her hus­band Ameer and the trauma of Partition. So both narrator-heroines, Lenny and Laila, react against communal responses and the horrors of violence. The mature Laila rationalizes against communal tension whereas the young Lenny instinctively reacts against the horrors of communal violence.
There are other similarities between the two novelists, Bapsi Sidhwa and Attia llosain. Both realize there are no easy solu­tions to communal holocausts except intense struggle against dogmatism. Laila's concerted attempts at breaking from tradi­tional customs, the negation of despair and recognition of strug­gle are upheld by Attia Hosain. Her narrator-heroine does not lapse into a glorification of the past or take refuge in mysticism, epicureanism or jingoism. Similarly Bapsi Sidhwa shows there are no winners in the communal holocausts of Partition. This is revealed by clever juxtapositioning of images.
At the festival of Holi, instead of splattering friends with bright colours, people are splattering each other with blood. Bapsi Sidhwa shows the human loss in Partition:
Instead, wave upon scruffy wave of Muslim refugees flood La­hore—and the Punjab west of Lahore. Within three months seven million Muslims and five million Hindus and Sikhs are uprooted in the largest and most terrible exchange of population known to his­tory. The Punjab has been divided.
Bare facts present the horror of the greatest communal divide in history. Bapsi Sidhwa aptly shows the inexorable logic of Parti­tion which moves on relentlessly leaving even sane people and friends helpless and ineffective. Jagjeet Singh with a furtive group of Sikhs visited a Muslim village Pir Pindo under cover of darkness to warn them of an impending Akali attack. Pir Pindo is attacked at dawn and swamped by Sikhs. Men, women and chil­dren are killed. Similarly Sikh families are attacked in Lahore. The neighbours of the Sethis, Mr. and Mrs. Singh leave with their two children and a few belongings. Other goods are left behind with Lenny's parents. Sher Singh the zoo attendant flees from Lahore, due to insecurity, after his brother-in-law is killed. Similarly the student fraternity of King Edward's Medical Col­lege is disrupted. Prakash and his family migrate to Delhi and Rahool Singh and his pretty sisters are escorted to a convoy to Amritsar. In Lenny's household the gardener Hari is circumcised and becomes Himat Ali, and Moti becomes David Masih, the politics of compromise and survival. Ayah's lover the Masseur's mutilated dead body is found in a gunnysack. The moneylender Kirpa Ram flees leaving guineas and money behind. Even mid­dle-class families like the Shankers flee in haste. Partition is shown as a series of images and events depicting human loss and agony. The dislocation of settled life is aptly revealed by Lenny's understanding of the demographic change in Lahore. In awe she observes, "Lahore is suddenly emptied of yet another hoary dimension: there are no Brahmins with caste-marks—or Hindus in dhoties with bodhis. Only hordes of Muslim refu­gees." Lahore is no more-cosmopolitan. Even the Sikhs have fled. The child-narrator senses the difference and pain caused by the huge exchange of populations.
Bapsi Sidhwa also subtly delineates the psychological impact of the horrors of Partition on the lives of people. The communal frenzy has a distorting effect on people—and leads to feelings of suspicion, distrust and susceptibility to rumours. Even the chil­dren, Lenny, Adi and their cousin are intrigued and suspicious of any minor deviations from normal behaviour. Mrs. Sethi and Aunt Minnie travel all over Lahore in the car but do not take the children with them. Deprived of long drives, Lenny and her cousin are intrigued at the movements of their mothers. Ayah enhances the sense of mystery when she states that the dicky of the car is full of cans of petrol. The author shows that in a highly surcharged atmosphere, suspicion and distrust become inevita­ble. The Ayah is also suspicious about the movements of cans of petrol by the two Parsi ladies. If she suspects they are distribut­ing petrol to the arsonists she does not state so. The three chil­dren are stupefied by this revelation and let their imagination run wild. Finally they come to the same conclusion. "We know who the arsonists are. Our mothers are setting fire to Lahore!—My heart pounds at the damnation that awaits their souls. My knees quake at the horror of their imminent arrest."
Bapsi Sidhwa cleverly parodies the feelings of suspicion and distrust of the children for their mothers. The imaginary fears of Lenny, Adi and their cousin are a source of humour but also a grim reminder of how rumour becomes institutionalized in a highly surcharged atmosphere. The children only fantasize about their mother's dangerous acts but the author shows how rumour preys upon the frenzied minds of men vitiated by communal ha­tred. On the radio there is news of trouble at Gurdaspur, which the Ice-Candy-Man and his friends at once interpret as "there is uncontrollable butchering going on in Gurdaspur." There are further rumours of a train full of dead bodies coming to Lahore from Gurdaspur. The Ice-Candy-Man returns panting after a frantic cycle ride and adds to the horror, by describing atrocities on women and stating that the dead are all Muslims. The ac­quaintances of Queen's Garden believe this rumour and harbour revenge against Sikhs. They now look with hatred on long­standing friend Sher Singh, compelling the latter to flee from Lahore."
In the vitiated communal atmosphere, insanity prevails as or­dinary men lose their rationality. Such a degradation is best ex­emplified in the rage of Ice-Candy-Man who says:
"I'll tell you to your face—I lose my senses when I think of the mutilated bodies on that train from Gurdaspur . . . that night I went mad, I tell you, I lobbed grenades through the windows of Hindus and Sikhs I'd known all my life! I hated their guts."
Revenge becomes the major motivation for the Ice-Candy-Man and his friends. The role of rumour and the consequent pattern of violence as depicted by Bapsi Sidhwa is compact and realistic.
Sidhwa's novel written at a period of history when communal and ethnic violence threaten disintegration of the subcontinent, is an apt warning of the dangers of communal frenzy. Bapsi Sidhwa shows that during communal strife, sanity, human feelings and past friendships are forgotten. At the Queens Park in Lahore, friends and colleagues had argued endlessly about the impossibility of violence against each other and of fleeing from their homeland. Yet ironically, whilst the elders— Masseur, Butcher, Ice-Candy-Man. Sher Singh and Ayah—gos­sip about national politics the child-narrator senses the change in the days before Partition:
"I can't put my finger on it—but there is a subtle change in the Queen's Garden."'
The admirers of Ayah, in the pursuit of love temporarily sidetrack communal feelings and "Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Parsi are as always, unified around her." The others without such motivations are delib­erately sitting with members of their own community, huddled together preserving cultural and religious identities. The Brah­mins form their own circle of exclusivity. Burkha-clad Muslim women and children have their own group. The saddest fact as observed by Lenny is that even the children do not mix whilst playing.
Lenny attempts social interaction with a group of Sikh chil­dren but Masseur tries to pull her away. Sikh women ask her name and the name of her religion. When the child states that she is a Parsi, the Sikh women express amazement at the discovery of a new religion. It is then that Lenny instinctively realizes the social divide between communities. Rationalizing her feelings she says,
“That's when I realize what has changed. The Sikhs, only their rowdy little boys running about hair piled in topknots, are keeping mostly to themselves."
The author implies that the events at Queen's Garden are a reflection of a crystallization of feelings at a larger scale in Lahore and other cities of India.
Cultural and religious exclusivity leads initially to indifference and later to contempt which becomes the breeding ground for communal violence and bigotry. With a subtle parody, Bapsi Sidhwa conveys the dangers of social exclusivity. The Ice-Candy-Man, in striking attire, enters the Queen's Garden, 'Thumping a five-foot iron trident with bells tied near its base." He is in the guise of a holy man. The author implies that in an atmosphere which encourages religious bigotry, even charlatans emerge as holy and godmen. The difference between appearance and reality is slim. The Ice-Candy-Man's antics provoke amusement but it is a pointer to the duplicity of people in the name of religion.
Ayah's admirers maintain a facade of unity by cracking ribald jokes on community characteristics. However they also become vicious—and prey to communal frenzy in the near future. The Ice-Candy-Man is part of the fren­zied mob which abdicates Ayah and keeps her in the brothels. So even the passion of love is powerless against re­ligious bigotry. Later in the novel, the Ice-Candy-Man attempts to make amends, he marries Ayah, changes her name to Mumtaz, and recites love poetry to her. But even here love is shown as powerless. Ayah has revulsion for her newly acquired Muslim identity. With the help of Lenny's godmother she is taken to a Recovered Women's Camp and then sent to her family in Amritsar. The Ice-Candy-Man, now a "deflated poet, a col­lapsed pedlar" follows her to Amritsar in vain. Their relationship is serrated forever, one more victim of communal frenzy and Partition. Love does not conquer all, when communal and ob­scurantist passions are aroused.
With a sprinkling of humour, parody and allegory Bapsi Sidhwa conveys a sinister warning of the dangers of compromising with religious obscurantism and fundamentalism of all catego­ries. Otherwise a certain historical inevitability marks this his­torical process. Though her novel is about the traumas of Parti­tion, Bapsi Sidhwa reveals that communal ri­ots are contemporaneous and that those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it.

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