Saturday, August 28, 2010

Ice-Candy-Man: A Reassessment

The Pakistani English novel has its roots in history and in the Pakistani consciousness, for it began as a vehicle of political awakening during the national struggle for Independence and thus, initially, the principal inspiration was not creative but expositoiy. Now that English fiction from sub-continent has come of age, and more than come of age, the possibilities of retrieving experiential moments of history through fictional strategies are innumerable. From vast, comprehensive and exhaustive papers, I am narrow­ing my focus down to a short, intensive one, more thought-provoking, perhaps, than any write up with an expansive sweep. For the novelist, from sub-continent, writing in English, the theme of India's Partition is imbued with the magical quality of a reflection in a mirror—it is true and yet not true. Every novelist has his own blend of fact and fiction to offer, the guiding factor which is a process of selection and elimination creating its own reality, but usually presenting a coherent version of events. This qualifying factor of "memory's truth," I believe, is a cardinal principle prevailing as a determi­nant in all fictional art and applies to all creative works.

The road from life to art, from author to creation, can mean turning the past alive by providing a transparent window on re­ality rather than an indecipherable code. The literary artist pro­ceeds through craft sophistication to an optimum level of fictive reality, a reality that is "true-to-life." Nothing is explained, what is shown must be perceived, apprehended and the reader's pleas­ure is often in proportion to what is left unsaid, or ambiguously hinted at.
Bapsi Sidhwa, a Parsi domiciled in Pakistan, is a novelist who has an abundance of inventive and narrative energy mani­fested in her fiction, which warrants the careful critical attention of those interested in new possibilities for imaginative prose which resorts to viable fictional means—largely realistic—for tracing the compelling force of historical events on individual lives and presenting a collage of the lives and experiences of men and women caught in the web of history. It is Sidhwa who gave to the Pakistani novel in English a distinct identity.
Bapsi Sidhwa's novels are notably different from one an­other in content and form, in subject and treatment. Her first novel. The Crow-Eaters, published in 1978, deals with the lives and fortunes of the Parsi Junglewalla family in British India. The narrative adroitly adopts comic and ironic modes directed to­wards the realization of Zoroastrian values in the lives of the members of the community. The novel is also an exposition of the anglicized Parsi way of life in Pakistan as Dina Merita's And Some Take a Lover (1992) is a comment on the upheaval in the world of the community caught in the political welter of the Quit India movement.
Sidhwa's second novel, The Pakistani Bride (1983), is very different from her first in that it makes no assertion of the Parsi identity. In fact, it has no Parsi character at all. It is about a young Pakistani girl, a Muslim refugee, who is adopted by a Pathan during the Partition turmoil. The novel testifies to Sid-.hwa's understanding of and insight into the Pakistani ethos, no doubt, but when released it did not really make waves. Next came Ice-Candy-Man (1990) which was followed by The Ameri­can Brat in 1994. The American Brat dramatizes the conflict of the value systems of the East and the West and this conflict of cultures has its impact not only on the social plane but on the personal life of the protagonist as well.
Coming back to Ice-Candy-Man, the response to this novel was absolutely mind blowing. The author in this work showcases the Pars! attitude—the Parsis, here representing a minority com­munity—to the imminent Partition and to the concept of 'Swaraj'. Set in pre-Partition Lahore, in the period which Subhash K. Jha in his review of the work refers to as the period of "The satanic rites of fragmentation in the Indian subcontinent,"' the novel clearly highlights the vulnerability of human relation­ships that can be torn asunder at the slightest pretext. Also, here again, as in Dina Mehta's novel and in Bapsi Sidhwa's earlier novel, The Crow-Eaters, we see the ambivalent attitude of the Parsis towards the British. They find it difficult to choose their loyalties—"Swaraj or the British Raj?" At a special meeting or­ganized at the Temple Hall in Warris road an irresolvable battle-of-words on the political situation ensues. Col. Bharucha's ad­vice to the Parsis is to keep their distance from the slush of the nationalist agitation. Dr. Mody, on the other hand, pleads for commitment to the cause of the freedom struggle for the trans­parent reason that "our neighbours" will think we are betraying them and siding with the English." And finally, at the instance of Toddywalla, the banker, the Parsis decide to opt for a path of compromise. Here, it may be relevant to point out that Sidhwa's novels voice the views of the particularly affluent, urban, mid­dle-class Parsis.
Reams have been written on the Partition—in resentment, in anger, in affliction, in erudition or as a cathartic exercise, or again, even as an attempt to exorcise ghosts, phantoms of the agonizing past that refuse to be ignored. Bapsi Sidhwa's account of the holocaust is a tale with a difference—it is a concatenation of events seen through the insouciant eyes of an eight-year-old Parsi girl Lenny (who could very well have been Bapsi Sidhwa herself), who is baffled and perplexed by the adult world of turn­abouts and shifting loyalties as also by changing emotions and widening gulfs. Caught between the conflicting demands of the major communities of the country, the Parsis in a pathetic mi­nority have no misconceptions regarding the choices they con­front. Under their affluence and prosperity won by competence and industry lurks a sense of insecurity when the country is on the verge of a painful partition: "If we are stuck with the Hindus, they'll convert us by the sword. And God help us if we are stuck with the Sikhs!" Finally, under the mature guidance of Col. Bharucha the Parsis of Lahore decide to stay on there and cast their lot with whoever rules Lahore—Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Christian. "People now shrink dwindling into symbols" and human beings suddenly turn on one another.
Lenny, polio-stricken in infancy, is cared for by her eighteen year old nubile, voluptuous, buxom, chocolate-brown Ayah, who is mostly spending time with her ward under Victoria's statue in Queen's Park. Interestingly, she is always surrounded by a host of male admirers—the Fallettis Hotel cook, the Government House gardener, the elegant, compactly-muscled Masseur and the "lank and loping" Ice-Candy-Man, later additions to the community of suitors being the Chinaman and the Pathan, Shar-bat Khan. "Ayah's presence," we are told, "galvanizes men to mad sprints in the noon heat" and she brazenly succumbs to the advances of each in turn—and each is conscious of the fact that "a whiff off Ayah carries the dark purity of creation." The group surrounding her "remains unchanged,... as always uni­fied around her." Primarily, however it is the Masseur and the Ice Candy Man who vie for Ayah's attention though it is the former who happens to be more privileged of the two.
The easy familiarity, the bawdy humour and the friendly banter in the narrative soon undergo a change in tone and direc­tion and each one has an acrimonious dig at the other's religion and nation. Every verbal exchange involuntarily slips into talk of India and Pakistan. Attitudes crystallize and the earlier distinc­tion at Queen's Park between "baba-log" with their starchy Ayahs and the n-ative children with their Ayahs in limp cotton sa-ris soon dissolves and now are seen only Muslim women in 'purdah' separated from the Sikh community that breaks away from Hindus.
In Lenny's house, too, the placid harmony amongst servants from different communities disintegrates and each concentrates on surer signs of his own religion. Ayah never forgets to burn joss sticks around the statues of her own gods. The pogramme begins and takes on a vertiginous speed with the perpetrators of the crime never being tracked down. The "we are brothers" the­ory fails. Gandhi visits Lahore and Lenny, seeing him, is dis­tressed at what she calls "this improbable toss up between a clown and a demon."
Nothing works—the nation is in flames, Lahore is burning, Mazang Chowk is turned to ashes. The Muslim mob comes to Lenny's house to assault the Hindu servants but Ayah is safely hidden at the back of the house. Lenny, with her penchant for truth is, however, soon cajoled into disclosing Ayah's hideout to the Ice-Candy-Man, who, despite promises to protect her, has her dragged out and carried away only, perhaps, to be made an in­mate of a brothel . Later it is heard and believed that the police rescue her from the Ice-Candy-Man who had forcibly married her and sends her back to her family in Amritsar. The irresolv­able end leaves us guessing as to whether Ayah was accepted into the family at home or did life become for her "the torture of Sisyphus," never ending.
Bapsi Sidhwa, in Ice-Candy-Man, experiments with the re­ality of the times to create a timeless reality of her own universe. History undertaken by the fiction writer and explored as mate­rial, refers always to the particular in which there is an attempt to present history as sensory detail, as visual image, as time which reverberates in our time.
Sidhwa, does not, in her novel resort to the immediacy of journalistic methods. Images in the novel do not, like in a jour­nalistic report, follow a conveyor-belt succession. She takes the slant of humour and the obliqueness of satire. The humour is sometimes mistaken for ribaldry but an in-depth analysis of the novel shows that all the humour, laughter and mirth employed is with a purpose. It is through their ribald humour and rustic wis­dom that Ayah's as also Lenny's companions enable the little girl to chronicle the tragedy of the Partition.
The novelist's satire is of a characteristically cruel and un­forgiving nature—Lenny's world centres around her relationship with her loving Ayah, and ardent cousin suitor (who transposes Lenny from dolls to condoms) and a Godmother with her com­panion connotatively referred to as Slave sister. Lenny grows up when she learns on her own the lesson that divides her Hindu Ayah, from her Parsi employers and her Muslim revengers. To put it broadly, the novel is "about the slow awakening of the child heroine both to sexuality and grown up pains and pleasures and to the particular historical disaster that overwhelms her world." T.N. Dhar's conclusion in his book, History-Fiction Interface in Indian English Novel that "the novelist deals with history by using narrative modes which are essentially non-mimetic, such as comedy, satire and allegory" is unflinchingly applicable to Sidhwa's Ice-Candy-Man for in it the non-mimetic mode represents a "reality" that transcends historical space for it is "memory's truth" again as Salim Sinai in Midnight's Children calls it and in the end "it creates its own reality." Thus, there is no knowable reality. Only personal observations. It is these per­sonal observations that make Lenny grow up and interpret her perception of the duplicities and deceptions of a savage adult world. Wading through the sea of events and experiences, she soon acquires a heuristic perspective in life which enlarges her consciousness and awareness of things around. Her experiment with truth has ended in misery.
Even though Ice-Candy-Man is primarily a novel of the Par­tition, the Partition as a historical event and not an emotional convulsion, one may, for an observation, turn to R.K. Narayan's emphatic statement that "'a mere story is not the point of fiction; people and emotions are what's important." Emotion in this novel is conspicuous by its absence in the man-woman relation­ship and it is this very absence that is a comment on the image of woman as portrayed in this work.
Ice-Candy-Man skilfully recreates the ethos of the Partition as a historical event affecting the lives of the characters in the novel but apparently, the novelist, in her bid to crystallize objec­tive reality has markedly ignored the experimental realm of the highly victimized woman—the Ayah of the Parsi family at La­hore—who suffers excruciating pain and agony at the hands of the mob that tears her apart. As if this physical abuse by the mob was not enough, the Ice-Candy-Man clinches her lot by con­demning her to prostitution. Though later he tries to make amends by marrying her, the harm has been done. She is, one presumes, left with a lacerated heart and mind but nowhere does the novelist elaborate on her injured psyche. And yet, we may absolve the novelist of this charge for, perhaps, this was not a part of her scheme of things.
The Parsi world in the novel is clearly more about women than men. Characters like Lenny's father, Old Husband and even Manek Mody are relatively insignificant when compared to Godmother and Mother. But it is the men, and especially the Ice-Candy-Man, who perpetrate the suffering of the women. Lenny's father's indulgence in adultery and his lashings endured by her mother are instances that make strong the case against the vic­timization of women. But none speaks out, and Ayah, too, moves "from speech to silence." Silence in the novel is designed to be more eloquent than speech.
The combination of laughter and ribaldry, wit and wisdom is in the novel an unmistakable pointer to the degree of levity with which a woman is treated. As mentioned earlier, each one of the suitors in the novel makes frivolous advances to Ayah but none treats her as an individual in her own right. She remains throughout a symbol of sex, an "object" to be ogled rather than an individual to be regarded and respected.
There is no attempt on the novelist's part to show her as an approximation to the Indian concept of the female "Shakti." There is no attempt either, as in Jayanta Mahapatra's poem, "Temple," to plumb the agony and the enigma in the Indian woman, "a riddle on its pedestal' (as Mahapatra refers to her). Apparently, there is no agitation regarding her, anywhere in the novel—there is only raillery and reporting of a dispassionate kind. Deep down, however, there is something very unnerving about the betrayal of the Ice-Candy-Man who, Sidhwa tells us "appears to have grown shades darker, and his face is all dried up and shrivelled-Iooking." The supposedly staid and cool narrative operates at a plaintive decibel mixing illusion and real­ity, fiction and fact as the flow of events demands. Thus, under­lying the thematic historical perspective of Ice-Candy-Man is the trauma of reassessing the past in terms of experiential reality un­derpinning the larger historical reality.
Sidhwa conceives of historical representation not only as a welter of statistical events but as a repertoire of inexhaustible possibilities in terms of happenings as well as human experience, central and peripheral—all merging into an organic totality which forbids a linear interpretation of the past and offers instead an entirety of existence.

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