Saturday, August 28, 2010

Ice-Candy-Man: A Feminist Perspective

Ice-Candy-Man offers a significant treatment of a gynocentric view of reality in which the feminine psyche and ex­periences are presented with a unique insight. The women char­acters of the novel are aware and confident of their individuality and cannot be easily subjugated. Lenny, her Ayah Shanta, her mother and Godmother affirm their autonomous selfhood and ex­hibit capability of assuming new roles and responsibilities. They also expose the patriarchal biases present in the contemporary so­cial perceptions.

Ice-Candy-Man commands attention and admiration on several counts. It is the second novel by a woman writer (the first being Sunlight on a Broken Column by Attia Ho-sain), dealing with the theme of Partition of India, but it is the first by a non-partisan writer as Bapsi Sidhwa, being a Parsee, does not belong to either of the two communities which per­petrated mayhem on each other. Therefore, it is likely to be a more neutral and objective account of the traumatic event of Partition which caused divisiveness, disharmony, mutual suspi­cion, hardening and then tuning into hostility of feelings of friendliness and good-neighborliness and the eventual holocaust. While Attia Hosain does not delve deep into the gory details of the massacres, Sidhwa depicts the events overtaking the Partition in their naked cruelty and ruthlessness. It is a bold attempt on the part of a woman writer to take up a theme which is different from the traditional issues the women writers generally assay—the issues of romantic involvements and the sentimental stuff. Also it is no mean achievement on Sidhwa's part to depict the process of sexual maturation of a young girl while living in a country like Pakistan where the measure of freedom for women is considerably less than it exists in India. But above all, the novel becomes a significant testament of a gynocentric view of reality in which the feminine psyche and experiences are pre­sented with a unique freshness and aplomb. I shall attempt to demonstrate in the course of the paper how the gynocentric per­spective determines the narrative strategy, resulting in the pro­duction of a truly feminist text. For the purpose of contrast, I shall posit a male discourse on the same theme, that is, Khush-want Singh's celebrated novel, Train to Pakistan. Strategy, even in the literary context "retains all its other inferences related to military strategy of skilful use of a stratagem, or a maneuver for obtaining a specific goal or result. Strategy is a move in a game, and the objectives are not available at the surface level of the narrative. It occupies a space between language and plot and between plot and character. Through the structural device (as is done by Jane Austen in Mansfield Pork in which the moral con­trol and power to order things passes from the male characters into the hands of Fanny Price who had been marginalized in the beginning of the book) Bapsi Sidhwa turns the female protago­nists into the moral centre, while most of the male characters ei­ther remain apathetic or indulge in destructive violence and dis-integrative action. The analysis of Ice-Candy-Man reveals that the female characters pulsate with a will and life of their own. While these characters are unselfconscious of the biological es­sential ism of their sex, they cut loose the constraints imposed by the gender which is a social construct (and can therefore be de­constructed), and which has come into existence through centu­ries of biased, motivated and calculated orchestration of the ag­gressive patriarchal postulates. In a "patriarchal social set up, masculinity is associated with superiority whereas 'femininity is linked with inferiority, and while masculinity implies strength, action, self-assertion and domination, femininity implies weak­ness, passivity, docility, obedience and self-negation. Ice-Candy-Man, though ostensibly a hero-oriented novel, subtly but effectively subverts the ingrained elements of patriarchy, privi­leging female will, choice, strength along with the feminine qualities of compassion and motherhood.
The central consciousness of the fictional world of Ice-Candy-Man is represented by a young girl, Lenny, who is lame. The lameness of the narrator-protagonist becomes suggestive of the handicap a woman creative writer faces, when she decides to wield the pen, because writing, being an intellectual exercise, is considered a male bastion, outside the routine of a woman's submissive domesticity. Her recuperation symbolizes the over­coming of the constraint on the intellectual activity of writing by Bapsi Sidhwa. By making Lenny the narrator of the novel, the novelist lends weight and validity to the feminine perspective on the nature of surrounding reality.
An essential difference between a feminist text and a male discourse is that in the latter it is the male who is invested with the qualities of heroism, sacrifice, justice and action while gen­erally the female protagonists remain the recipients of the male bounty and chivalry, in a feminist text, it is the woman who "per­forms" and controls and promotes the action by her active in­volvement and concern and in the process it is she who acquires the attributes of heroism and glory. In Ice-Candy-Man, the nar­rator's relationship with her cousin (he remains cousin through­out the novel, without the specific identity of a name) upholds the principle of equality (or even superiority of woman), as she does not allow him to manipulate her sexually and he remains a drooling figure, adoring her for her vivaciousness. In no way does Lenny's lameness become a source of self-pity or a con­stricting force on her psyche. She remains assertive, at times even aggressive and holds her own when it comes to the crunch. And who is the formative influence on Lenny? Her Ayah, Shanta.
The Ayah is a flame of sensuousness and female vitality around whom the male moths hover constantly and hanker for the sexual warmth she radiates. She acts like the queen bee who controls the actions and emotions of her male admirers: the Fal-lattis Hotel cook, the Government House gardener, the butcher, the compactly minded "head and body masseur" and the Ice-Candy-Man. The measure of Ayah's power is seen when she objects to the political discussion among her multi-religious ad­mirers as she fears discord the Ice-Candy-Man defers to her wish and says, "It's just a discussion among friends . . . such talk helps clear the air . . . but for your sake, we won't bring it up again." Epitomizing the strength of the feminity of a female, she infuses in Lenity the ideas of independence and choice. Flirta­tious and coquettish, the Ayah is fully aware and confident of herself as an individual, who cannot be taken advantage of. At the same time, she is fiercely loyal to the interests of the family she serves and is extremely protective of Lenny, as a mother would be, besides being emotionally attached to her. She suffers during the Partition riots, she is abducted by the cronies of the Ice-Candy-Man, ravished and raped by the hoodlums, kept as the Ice-Candy-Man's mistress for a few months and then is forced to become the Ice-Candy-Man's bride. Her name is changed from Shanta to Mumtaz and she is kept at a kotha even after her mar­riage. During the interregnum between her abduction and mar­riage, she, in the words of Godmother, is "used like a sewer" by "drunks, pedlars, sahibs and cut-throats," with the connivance of the Ice-Candy-Man. But as soon as the opportunity presents it­self, she seizes, her freedom and gets away from the man she does not love. She is firm and decisive. "I want to go to my fam­ily.... I will not live with him," she tells Godmother. And this decision is in spite of the Ice-Candy-Man's love for her who weeps, snivels and pleads humbly with the Godmother to let her remain with him as he has married the Ayah. He receives a thrashing at the hands of the burly Sikh Guard at the Recovered Women's Camp gate, where Ayah is admitted and turns into a madfaqir, going to the extent of following the Ayah to Amritsar. Lenny's mother conforms to the traditional Image of a fidel, faithful and serving wife who seems to be capable only of hu­mouring things out of her husband. She submits to the moods of the man she is wedded to, tolerating in the process, the conven-tional hegemony given to the male of the species among human beings. And here it appears, the writer could not muster courage enough to invest her (Lenny's mother) with qualities different from those she does, considering the social ethos in the country of her habitat. But the feminist in Sidhwa cuts a caper, and achieves her end in a subtle and complex way. While in Train to Pakistan, it is Juggut Singh (Jugga) who, ennobled by his feel­ings of love for his beloved Nooran, saves, at the cost of his own life, the whole train-load of Muslims migrating to Pakistan in a bid to get away from the clutches of the violent riots, in Ice-Candy-Man, it is Lenny's mother and Lenny's aunt who play the sterling humanitarian and heroic role of fighting for the lives and property of Hindus. Clearing herself of Lenny's accusation that she has been helping in the communal conflagration, she says: "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 your ayah, to their families across the border." Thus, it is the two women who undertake the risky job of lives in danger and the fact acquires signifi­cance in the fictional scheme of things.
Towering high among the women protagonists is the vibrant figure of Lenny's Godmother (one of her aunts) whose name is Rodabai. Godmother's personality sparkles with razor-sharp wit, her indefatigable stamina, her boundless love for Lenny, and her social commitment. Her sense of humour, her deer-like agility, in spite of her old age, and her power to mould, modify and order not only individuals but even the system, when she so desires, earn her respect and admiration of people around her. But be­sides these qualities she is endowed with profound understanding of human existence and her wisdom is revealed when she con­soles the Ayah, in the aftermath of what has been done to her: "That was fated, daughter. It can't be undone. But it can be for­given. . . . Worse tilings are forgiven. Life goes on and the busi­ness of living buries the debris of our pasts. Hurt, happiness . . . all fade impartially ... to make way for fresh joy and new sor­row. That is the way of life." The most glorious example of her self-confidence, authoritativeness, capacity to handle cri-sis-situations deftly is provided by her dealing with the Ice-Candy-Man and the rescue of the Ayah she effects after she has been kidnapped and is kept at a kotha. The Ice-Candy-Man is propped with the power of the pimp-community, consisting of lawless elements. Endowed with a glib tongue, he is not an easy person to deal with. I would like to quote snatches of the con­fronting conversation, in order to bring out, in full measure, the power to annihilate the adversary Rodabai possesses:
Affected at last by Godmother's stony silence, Ice-Candy-Man lowers his eyes. His voice divested of oratory, he says, "I am her slave, Baijee. I worship her. She can come to no harm with me."
"No harm?" Godmother asks in a deceptively cool voice—and arching her back like a scorpion its tail, she closes in for the kill. "You permit her to be raped by butchers, drunks, and goondas and say she has come to no harm?"
Ice-Candy-Man's head jolts back as if it's been struck.
"Is that why you had her lifted off—let hundreds of eyes probe her—so that you could marry her? You would have your own mother carried off if it suited you! You are a shameless badmash! Nimakharaml Faithless!'-'
Godmother's undaunted visit to the disreputable "Hira Mandi" (the area of kothas) and the rescue of the Ayah, once she is con­vinced that the Ayah is being kept by force against her will, are commendable indeed. Godmother concentrates in her character what the feminists feel is very important for a woman to realize her individuality: the feeling of "self-worth."
As against Sidhwa's novel, Khushwant Singh's Train to Pakistan is manifestly a male discourse in which it is the men who are in command and it is they who occupy the centre of the stage. The focus is on the hero, Juggut Singh mostly, and even though he is portrayed as a budmash, the writer's sympathy and admiration are obviously for him: for his devil-may-care attitude, his jauntiness, his physical stature (and later for his moral stature as well). When Juggut Singh has been arrested for the dacoity and the murder in the village of Mano Majra, the novelist com­ments: "Juggut Singh's head and shoulders showed above the turbans of the policemen. It was like a procession of horses with an elephant in their midst—taller, broader, slower with his chain clanking like ceremonial trappings. There is hardly a woman character in the novel who matches the heights Juggut Singh reaches. It is a man's world of Juggut Singh, the budmash turned into a moral hero, Hukam Chand, the Magistrate and the Deputy Commissioner who tries his best to keep the situation under control in Mano Majra in the wake of turbulence caused by the Partition, Iqbal, the Marxist, whose ideology fails him in this time of crisis, Bhai Meet Singh, the priest of the village Gurd-wara, who wants to keep on the right side of the police and the police sub-inspector, who is angry with the Sikhs of Mano Majra for not mauling the Muslims. The relationship between Juggut Singh and his beloved Nooran is that of an overbearing lover and submissive beloved. Once his lust overtakes him, he lays her, her protests notwithstanding, and he talks to her peremptorily. Nooran's words about him confirm this point: "That is all you want. And you get it. You are just a peasant. Always wanting to sow your seed. Even if the world were going to hell yon would want to do that. Even when guns are being fired in the village. Wouldn't you?" And when, frightened by the sound of gun-shots, and by the prospect of her absence being noticed, she tells him that she will never come to see him again, he says angrily, "Will you shut up or do I have to smack your face?" Let us now compare the relationship between Lenny and Cousin. The latter's carnal cravings are thwarted deter­minedly by Lenny. "Ever ready to illuminate, teach and show me things, Cousin squeezes my breasts and lifts my dress and grabs my elasticized cotton knickers. But having only the two hands to do all this with he can't pull them down because galvanised to action I grab them up and jab him with my elbows and knees; and turning and twisting, with rny toes and heels." No woman character in Train to Pakistan attains heroic stature; they remain sex objects, on altars of grand sacrifice and macho love or remain consigned to the parameters of the conventional con­cept of womanhood. Clearly, the perception of woman is patriar­chal and, therefore, women are not individually realized beings. They remain on the margin of the plot, while the task of further-ing the action is given to the male protagonists. (Of course, Nooran indirectly galvanises Jugga into the significant humane act.) While Khushwant Singh's I Shall Not Hear the Nightingale portrays a fully realized, towering character in the person of Sabhrai, who remains an impressive figure throughout the book, with her qualities of faith in the Great Guru, moral uprightness, empathy and religious poise, the women characters in Train to Pakistan remain pale shadows of their male counterparts.
But then we come across the oppression and exploitation of her younger sister by Rodabai (Godmother). In spite of the younger sister's slaving obedience (she is called Slavesister), she is treated shabbily and frequently humiliated by Rodabai. Slave-sister's humiliation in the presence of others becomes unseemly and unpalatable. She is leading the life of a bonded slave, forced to suppress her self in every interaction (confrontation, to be pre­cise) with the old lady; she is not allowed to exercise her discre­tion or her will in any situation. Does this relationship serve any creative purpose in the novel? On the face of it, it just appears to be a dispensable part of the plot, whose removal would not affect the coherence or the compactness of the structure. But I think, Sidhwa wants to convey an important message, or warning that the exploitation, manipulation and suppression of one individual by another are not confined to the male-female relationship. These can exist between a female-female relationship as well and become as vicious and debilitating for the victim as when a male dominates and exploits a woman. The feminists, it seems, are being made alive to the dangers of replicating the patriarchal principle and thus perpetuating the class of the exploiters and the exploited amorfgst themselves. This makes Sidhwa's feminist credo broader, fairer and more responsive to the human condi­tion.
Ice-Candy-Man, thus, becomes a feminist text in the true sense of the term, successfully attempting to bring to the centre-stage the female protagonists. These protagonists, while on the one hand, come alive on account of their realistic presentation, on the other, tliey serve as the means of consciousness-raising among the female segment of society. Literature is a powerful tool in the hands of creative writers to modulate and change the societal framework, and Sidhwa through her extremely absorb­ing and interesting work seeks to contribute to the process of change that has already started all over the world, involving a re­consideration of women's rights and status, and a radial restruc­turing of social thought. Sidhwa belongs to that group of women creative writers who have started to depict "determined women for whom the traditional role is inadequate, women who wish to affirm their independence and autonomy and are perfectly capa­ble of assuming new roles and responsibilities." These writers wish to build a world which is free of dominance and hierarchy, a world that rests on the principles of justice and equality and is truly human.

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Anonymous said...

Who says that measure of freedom for women in pakistan is less than in India.?? Ur perspective is totally biased n stereotypical.

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