Saturday, August 28, 2010

Ice-Candy-Man: The Dehumanizing Effects of Communalism

I was a child then. Yet the ominous roar of distant mobs was a constant of my awareness, alerting me, even at age seven, to a pal­pable sense of the evil that was taking place in various parts of La­hore. The glow of fires beneath the press of smoke, which bloodied the horizon in a perpetual sunset, wrenched at my heart. For many of us, the departure of the British and the longed-for Independence of the subcontinent were overshadowed by the ferocity of Parti­tion.'

The above statement very potently sums up the harrowing recollection of partition by Bapsi Sidhwa 'a Pakistani-Parsi Woman' and the leading diasporic writer of Paki­stan today (Bapsi Sidhwa in an  interview with Julie Rajan). Bapsi Sidhwa is a Parsi who was born in undivided India and grew up in Lahore, Pakistan, married to a Parsi from Mumbai, India, divorced after a couple of years, married a second time to a Pakistan-based Parsi and moved to the U.S.A., thus having ex­periences of a lifetime in a comparatively short span of time. She has been a precocious polio-ridden child with an uncanny knack for life around her. As a young girl, Sidhwa witnessed first-hand the bloody Partition of 1947, in which seven million Muslims and five million Hindus were uprooted in the largest, most terri­ble exchange of population that history has known. The Partition was a result of a complicated set of social and political factors, including religious differences and the end of colonial rule in In­dia. Sidhwa was also a witness to these evils, including an inci­dent in which she found the body of a dead man in a gunnysack at the side of the road. Characteristically succinct, she recalls the event, "I felt more of a sadness than horror." Her home city of Lahore became, a border city in Pakistan, and was promptly flooded by hundreds of thousand of war refugees. Many thou­sands of these were victims of rape and torture. Due to lasting shame and their husbands' damaged pride, many victims were not permitted entry into their homes after being "recovered." There was a rehabilitation camp with many of these women ad­jacent to Sidhwa's house, and she states that she was inexplica­bly fascinated with these "fallen women," as they were described to her at the time. She realized from a young age that "victory is celebrated on a woman's body, vengeance is taken on a woman's body. That's very much the way things are, particularly in my part of the world." These events left a permanent scar on the psyche of the child Bapsi and years later she could not resist her powerful urge to record that decisive moment in the history of the two nations and the result was her most influential and much-acclaimed narrative—Ice-Candy-Man/Cracking India.
Ice-Candy-Man (1988) is one of those few books which have captured the events leading to Partition so vividly and authenti­cally the others being Train 16 Pakistan (1956) by Khushwant Singh, A Bend in the Ganges (1964) by Manohar Malgonkar. The novel is considered by many critics to be the most moving and essential book on the Indian Partition. Told from the awakening consciousness of an observant eight-year-old Parsi girl, the violence of the Partition threatens'to collapse her previously idyllic world. The issues dealt within the book are as numerous as they are horrifying. The thousands of instances of rape, and public's subsequent memory loss that characterize the Partition are foremost. In the hatred that has fueled the politi­cal relations between Pakistan and India since that time, these women's stories were practically forgotten. In one of her infre­quent bursts of poetry, Sidhwa writes, "Despite the residue of passion and regret, and loss of those who have in panic fled—the fire could not have burned for. . . . Despite all the ruptured dreams, broken lives, buried gold, bricked-in rupees, secreted jewellery, lingering hopes . . . the fire could not have burned for months." Sidhwa replaces flowing, poetic sentences with force­ful criticism when she theorizes about what caused the fires to keep burning. Sidhwa repeatedly condemns the dehumanizing impact that religious zealotry played in promoting mob mental­ity, separation, and revenge during the Partition.
It is a book of many voices, poignant, humorous, and des­perate. It is a tale of upheaval in which every friend and enemy will be displaced. Eight-year-old Lenny, the spirited and imagi­native daughter of an affluent Parsi family, narrates the story of the Ice-Candy-Man during the 1940s, as she witnesses Muslims, Hindus, Christians, and Sikhs fight for their land and their lives. As rumours of riots, fires, and massacres in distant cities become a reality, Lenny's tale follows the course of her quickly shifting life.
This multi-dimensional novel evoked a very good response from the critics and won many accolades for the author. Khush-want Singh, the celebrated author of Train to Pakistan, one of the most powerful accounts of Partition, commends Sidhwa: "Ice-Candy-Man deserves to be ranked amongst the most authentic and best [books] on the Partition of India" Another noted Indian woman novelist Geetha Hariharan finds a contem­porary relevance in the novel as she comments: "Sidhwa cap­tures the turmoil of the times, with a brilliant combination of in­dividual growing-up pains and the collective anguish of a newly independent but divided country. Sidhwa's work, particularly the dehumanizing effects of communal ism, she movingly reveals in Ice-Candy-Man is painfully relevant to our present-day India."
Sidhwa's narrator is Lenny, a Pars! girl with a 'truth-infected tongue' who turns eight on the day Partition is announced. Lame in one foot and indulged by her reasonably well-off parents, Lenny is ferried around Lahore by her beloved Hindu Ayah (nanny) whose 'spherical attractions' draw a varied group of suitors eager to dispense ice-lollies, silk doilies, massages and other gifts. Here's how we first meet Lenny:
Lordly, lounging in my briskly rolling pram, immersed in dreams, my private world is rudely popped by the sudden appearance of an English gnome wagging a leathery finger in my ayah's face. But for keen reflexes that enable her to pull the carriage up short there might have been an accident: and blood spilled on Warns Road. Wagging his finger over my head into Ayah's alarmed face, he tut-tuts: "Let her walk. Shame, shame! Such a big girl in a pram! She's at least four!"
He smiles down at me, his brown eyes twinkling intolerance. I look at him politely, concealing my complacence....
"Come On. Up, up!" he says, crooking a beckoning finger.
"She not walk much . . . she get tired," drawls Ayah. And si­multaneously I raise my trouser cuff to reveal the leather straps and wicked steel callipers harnessing my right boot.
Confronted by Ayah's liquid eyes and prim gloating, and the triumphant revelation of my callipers, the Englishman withers.
Lenny's deformed foot sets her proudly apart from other chil­dren, spares her the tedium of school—she receives private tui­tion by the odorous Mrs. Pen—and gives her entry into the world of adults. Cared for by Ayah, she observes her romances and admirers as well as the lives of other servants and relatives. There is Cousin who thinks he has turned into a honeycomb when he discovers ejaculation and is besotted with Lenny, or Dr. Manek who can fart on cue.
With her throng of characters, Sidhwa paints a microcosm of Pakistani society, filtered through Lenny's irreverent and inno­cent eye which values people regardless of their social standing and rejoices in their lusts and longings. Born into the tiny Parsi community, Lenny is outside the communal frenzy that follows, but emotionally torn by the violence engulfing her friends. If Sidhwa is partisan, it is in her contempt of politicians pursuing separatist agendas, dividing maps in state rooms.
The vortex of violence that soon follows sucks up Ayah and her Muslim admirer Ice-Candy-Man just as it rips apart other lives. But Sidhwa stays true to her characters: they refuse to give up on life, stop joking or turn into tragic symbols. All of which brings home the horror of what they survive. As men lose their senses, raping, killing, and looting, women reveal their strengths, building links across the divided communities, sheltering survi­vors, insisting on continuity.
The novel captures the dispirited effects of communal frenzy that follows the Partition through the innocent eyes of Lenny, much more likelier creator, polio-ridden, precocious and a keen observer of the happenings around. Lenny's disadvantage, as she is physically handicapped, turns out to the benefit of the readers. She is looked after by her Hindu ayah, "chocolate-brown and short. Everything about her is eighteen years old and round and plump. Even her face. Full-blown cheeks, pouting mouth and smooth forehead curve to form a circle with her head. Her hair is pulled back in a tight knot. . . she has a rolling bouncy walk that agitates the globules of her buttocks under her cheap colourful saris and the half-spheres beneath her short sari-blouses." As the above description suggests, her ayah is exceptionally beauti­ful and sensuous, capable of attracting people. Lenny is con­scious of this fact as she reveals: "The covetous glances Ayah draws educate me. Up and down, they look at her. Stub-handed twisted beggars and dusty old beggars on crutches drop their poses and stare at her with hard, alert eyes. Holy men, masked in piety, shove aside their pretences to ogle with her lust. Hawkers, cart-drivers, cooks, coolies and cyclists turn their heads as she passes, pushing my pram with the unconcern of the Hindu god­dess she worships." Among her admirers Ayah has Ice-Candy-Man, Masseur, Imam Din, Hari and many more. It is through her that young Lenny gets a feel of the life of the cross-section of Pakistani society. They feed and cater to her idyllic world of romances. They are what they are to her—human be­ings, full of human strengths and weaknesses. She loves them their company, their frailties, little disputes, jokes, funny stories and their jealousies to command the love and attention of Ayah. She never cares for their religious faith, their distinct loyalties and political talks till she hears the disturbing talk of Partition of the nation. Things don't remain the same as this news spreads like a bush fire in her town. Her idyllic world of childhood inno­cence gives way to the tormenting adult world of Partition riots. The individual identities merge with the identities of the com­munity and soon the society is sharply divided on the communal lines. Lenny cannot understand it, as she reflects:
There is much disturbing talk. India is going to be broken. Can one break a country? And what happens if they break it where our house is? Or crack it further up on Warns Road? How will I ever get to Godmother's then?
I ask Cousin.
"Rubbish," he says, "no one's going to break India. It's not made of glass!"
I ask Ayah.
"They'll'dig a canal . . ." she ventures. "This side for Hindus­tan and this side for Pakistan. If they want two countries, that's what they'll have to do—crack India with a long canal"
Gandhi, Jinnah, Nehru, Mountbatten are names I hear.
And I become aware of religious differences.
It is sudden. One day everybody is themselves—and the next day they are Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Christian. People shrink, dwin­dling into symbols. Ayah is no longer just my all-encompassing Ayah—she is also a token. A Hindu. Carried away by a renewed devotional fervour she expends a small fortune in joss-sticks, flow­ers and sweets on the gods and goddesses in the temples.
The news of atrocities on Muslims near Amritsar and Julliindhar are heard in Lahore. The details are so brutal and bizarre that it is, hard to believe. After a fortnight or so an army truck dumps a family outside the gate of Lenny and she recognizes them to be the distant kins of Imam Din from a village in Punjab. The proc­ess of uprooting has started. The familiar faces have started dwindling or have changed beyond recognition. The people who were simply friends have now turned Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs or Christians, fighting for their land and faith even at the cost of their established social relationships. Lenny has a bitter realiza­tion by now: "One man's religion is another man's poison." (117, my italics) Suddenly the whole atmosphere is charged with religious slogans. The Sikhs are wielding their kirpans shouting 'Pakistan Mwdabadl Death to Pakistan! Sat Siri Akaal! Bolay se nihaall'  And Muslims are roaring: 'Allah-o-Akbar! Yaaaa Ali!' and 'Pakistan Zindabad. The Hindu houses are put on fire in Lahore in retaliation to what happens in Punjab. Sid-hwa captures this poignant moment in a very touching paragraph of the novel:
Trapped by the spreading flames the panicked Hindus rush in droves from one end of the street to the other. Many disappear down the smoking lanes. Some collapse in the street. Charred limbs and burnt logs are falling from the sky.
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. Ayah moves away, her feet suddenly heavy and dragging, and sits on the roof slumped against the wall. She buries her face in her knees.
Communal frenzy has rocked the two sides and geographical di­vision has led to division in souls of the people. People are being butchered, men, women, children, old, young, handicapped, dis­eased, indiscriminately on the either sides. Houses are set on fire, looted. Women have been the worst sufferers as they have been raped brutally and their limbs amputated. Ice-Candy-Man is no more the simple admirer of Ayah whom she scolds at times for his unruly behaviour, he has become a militant Muslim fighting the cause of his faith and land. One day he comes breathless in sweat and dust to announce the worst outcome of these commu­nal riots:
'A train from Gurdaspur has just come in' he announces, panting. 'Every one in it is dead. Butchered. They are all Muslim. There are no young women among the dead! Only two gunny-bags full of women's breasts!'
One by one most of the Hindus and Sikhs in Lahore have either left, killed or forced to convert in this bloody battle. Hari, the gardener, has been forced to adopt Muslim faith and has now be­come Himat Ali. Even Ayah is not spared and is kidnapped by a mob with the help of Ice-Candy-Man, her lover, to suffer hu­miliation, defilement and mental torture. At that instant she is not the woman whom Ice-Candy-Man always desired, she is a Hindu woman who deserves to be treated the way Muslim women have been treated by Sikhs and Hindus. She is forced to become Mumtaz, the wife of Ice-Candy-Man and also to dance and sleep with numerous people until she is recovered from that hell by Godmother. Masseur's body is found by the roadside in a gunny sack. Thus this surge of communalism spoils the harmony and peace of Lahore completely. Thousands have been uprooted and rendered homeless, thousands have lost their lives, thousands have been compelled to leave a legacy of lifetime in that one moment. Lenny realizes this change as she goes to the Victoria Park with her new ayah Hamida. The whole atmosphere has changed; she is not able to find any familiar face among those who are occupying her favourite spot. As she narrates: "Beaden Road, bereft of the colourful turbans, hairy bodies, yellow shorts, tight pyjamas, and glittering religious arsenal of the Sikhs, looks like any other populous street. Lahore is suddenly emptied of yet another hoary dimension: there are no Brahmins with caste-marks—or Hindus in dhotis with bodhis. Only hordes of Muslim refugees." Lahore is seething with aliens who have lost their settled homes in India and have been forced to go to Paki­stan. Having lost their property, prestige and nearest and dearest ones in this riot they are struggling hard to recover from this sudden jolt. They are occupying the abandoned houses of Hindus and Sikhs who have left Lahore to meet the same fate at the other end.
The novel describes the horrors of the Partition very well and the reader is drawn into the tale. The fears, the insecurity, and the hatred that was bred in the people by the politicians of that time for their own vested interests is very much caricatured in the novel. The changing loyalties of the circle of friends who in the end become fiends brings forth the true horror of Partition when friends became traitors. The description of the massacre of Ranna's village shows how humans behaved like savages, killing their own countrymen. The Ice-Candy-Man sees a perfect op­portunity to claim what he thinks is his. The Partition also psy­chologically affects the Ice-Candy-Man as his family is mur­dered brutally on the train. It turns him into a cruel person he then joins in the fray and kills Hindus, some of them his friends. All in all the Ice-Candy-Man is very much affected by the Parti­tion and he uses the violence as a mechanism to claim Ayah but it backfires.
Thus here a sad tale of Partition is shown, where the crimes of the people killed the national spirit and no matter what was tried, it still remains as a deep scar on the psyche of the people. As Jinnah himself put it, 'Pakistan has been the biggest mistake of my life.' Partition of India is truly the sorest point in the sub­continent's history, when a new nation was born amidst turmoil and violence that later both countries have regretted and will do so for the rest of their existence. So will the Ice-candy-man re­gret his deeds for the rest of his miserable life.
The Ice-Candy-Man shows us the naked human emotions that are revealed whenever passions run high and it also shows how they can be good and evil in the same person. The novel has a simple narrative, enhanced by the use of humour, which effec­tively tells us the story of the Ice-Candy-Man. It precisely cap­tured that decisive moment in history when 'one day everybody is themselves—and the next day they are Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Christian', when identities that existed side-by-side get sharp­ened like swords against each other. It is a story which has been repeated in various attempts at genocide and 'ethnic cleansing' the world over, and which, in the case of India and Pakistan up­rooted seven million Muslims and five million Hindus and Sikhs as they fled from massacres to cross newly-created borders.
The legacy of this tumult is the continual chafing of Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs, with periodic eruptions of violence stirred up now-and-then by political interests and local gangsters. So supposedly sensitive is the issue that government media in India will often demurely speak of 'attacks by members of one community against members of another'. This is a story in which individuals and their community identities are inseparable, a story of emerging nations as well as a story of single characters.
Not only Lenny, but everyone in this novel experiences substantial change in the context of the Partition. Ayah's traumatic transformation at the hands of Ice-Candy-Man, the suitor, who finally possesses her, and Ice-Candy-Man's own moral erosion through the Parti­tion, figure the situation of all people involved in the ill-planned Partition, which resulted in migration, deaths, and incidents of rape and torture, all on a massive scale.
The links between individuals and nations are emphasized both by multiple plots and points of view. Specifically, while Lenny is the clear protagonist and narrator for most of the novel, Ranna, a Muslim child, whose experiences were particularly violent and traumatic, tells his own story. A significant aspect of the novel is the marginality of Britain and the Raj in the plot; colonialism sets this trauma in place, but postcolonial characters are its focus.
Thus the novel Ice-Candy-Man to a great extent focuses on the dehumanizing effects of communalism. The novelist is aware of the sensitivity of her readers on the two sides and has quite skilfully interwoven a gripping tale of everlasting impact. Being a Parsi, a microscopic minority, Sidhwa for the most part of the action has been a neutral observer and has at the same time a li­cense to comment on the .events without being termed a propa­gandist or communalist. As she herself says in one of her inter­views:
"The struggle was between the Hindus and the Muslims, and as a Parsi (member of a Zoroastrian sect), I felt I could give a dispassionate account of this huge, momentous struggle."
Again at another place she almost reiterates the same thing: "As a Parsi, I can see things objectively. I see all the common people suffering while the politicians on either side have fun." But this does not mean that Parsis were silent spectators in this grimmest and most cruel human drama. They had their own share of things. Bapsi Sidhwa also wants people to know what Parsis had to offer during that period. We find Lenny's mother and God­mother helping the suffering women even at the risk of their own lives. It is ultimately Godmother who rescues Ayah from the clutches of Ice-Candy-Man and manages to send her to her fam­ily. Lenny's mother helps her Hindu and Sikh friends with gaso­line etc. so that they can safely leave Pakistan. Lenny is suspi­cious of her mother's activities, as she secretly slips out of the house at odd hours, and charges her for her involvement in the bloody battle at that she explains her mission and her voice is not intended for Lenny alone it is for the whole world: "I wish I'd told you ... we were only smuggling the rationed petrol to help our Hindu and Sikh friends to run away. And also for the con­voys to send kidnapped women, like our Ayah, to their families across the border." The novel, apart from being a classic of partition novel, is a celebration of writer's own community and its humanity and loyalty for the nation and the people it inhabits and shares things with. 

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