Saturday, August 28, 2010

Life and Works of Bapsi Sidhwa

Bapsi Sidhwa was born in Karachi in 1939. She was brought up and educated in Lahore. When she was still nineteen years old, she fell in love with a Bombay businessman and married him. But this marriage did not last long. After the breakup, she took to writing. Later she got married to Noshirwan, a respected businessman from Lahore. Bapsi Sidhwa graduated from Lahore's Kinnaird College for Women. She has been active in social work and shows a concern for the women around. She has been a part of a women's delegation to Iran and Turkey in 1970.
She has been a volunteer for many social work organizations. She is a Parsi Zoroastrian, a distinctive minority who left Iran for South Asia to avoid religious persecution. There are many Parsi people living in India, Pakistan along with U.S.A, Canada, Australia and England. Her writings reflect a distinctive Pakistani yet Parsi ethos. Her sense of individualism and humour makes her a fine comic writer in English. But she cannot be labelled as a comic writer only. In her four published novels, the different themes are— the Partition crisis, expatriate experience, the Parsi milieu and social idiosyncrasies of the Parsis, the themes of marriage, the problems of Asian women, patterns of migration and the complexities of language. She has emerged as Pakistan's finest English language novelist as The New York Times observes.
In 1980, Bapsi Sidhwa's first novel, The Crow Eaters was published which was well appreciated by readers in Europe. Then came her novels Ice-Candy-Man, The Bride and An American Brat. She received a number of prestigious awards like Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Writer's Award in 1993, The LiBeraturepreis award from Germany, Sitara-i-Imtiaz from Pakistan. The review in The Observer in 1980 observed on her novel The Crow-Eaters as: "Bapsi Sidhwa's novel belongs to that rapidly expanding literary by-product of the Empire: English language fiction by Third world writers about their societies during the colonial rule." The great Urdu poet from Pakistan Faiz Ahmed Faiz praises Bapsi Sidhwa for her wit, racy style and shrewd observations of human behaviour. He even compares her to V.S. Naipaul and R. K. Narayan.
During her childhood years, Bapsi Sidhwa suffered from an attack of polio and she was tutored at home by an Anglo-Indian lady. Bapsi depicts this lady as Lenny in her novel Ice-Candy-Man. She became a voracious reader in her early years. She realized that her creativity could come out from her lonely moments. She confesses that writers like Charles Dickens, V.S. Naipaul and Leo Tolstoy influenced her style of writing. Though she is fluent in several languages yet she prefers to write in English. She believes that though a writer cannot change the ethos in society yet he can present the facts in a realistic manner. At present she lives in America.
Bapsi Sidhwa's novel The Bride deals with the repression of women in the patriarchal Pakistani society. The novel is based on a true story narrated to Sidhwa when with her family, she stayed at an army camp in the remotest regions of the Karakoram mountains. A colonel in charge of the place and some engineers narrated the story of a girl from the plains. She was being taken across the Indus by an old tribal to marry his nephew. But the girl ran away after the marriage and hid herself in the cold mountains for fourteen days. The tribalmen and her husband chased her and caught her. After beating her severely, they threw her down into the turbulent waters of the Indus. Sidhwa with the help of her imagination and craftsman-ship fictionalised this true story. She gives this sad tale a 'habitation and a local name'. The girl is named as Zaitoon. This novel provides a realistic picture of the treatment of women in Pakistani society. In this novel, Sidhwa also introduces a parallel story of an American girl and her flirtation with major Mushtaq of Pakistani army. In the main plot, Zaitoon is fascinated by her father's vision of the lost mountain paradise. When she is married in the montains, she realizes that her romantic dreams of mountain life were only dreams. Reality was shocking. The novel ends with Zaitoon's epic struggle to find the bridge and cross it. In this novel, Sidhwa makes a conscious departure from the ending of the true story. In the novel, the girl is not killed; she safely crosses the bridge.
Sidhwa's another novel The Crow-Eaters is a humourous novel which tells of the achievements of a tiny community which has survived cultural invasions. This community succeeds in retaining its cultural identity. The novel describes the social mobility of a Parsi family, the Jungle wallas during the first part of the twentieth century. It is about Faredoon, nicknamed Freddy. He is ambitious and achieves name and fame but at a cost. His name and fame have dubious roots. He has developed a philanthropic image to promote business. Once he set his shop on fire to get insurance money. "Bapsi presents the Parsis here as cultural hybrids. The novel derives its humour from a blend of fantasy, scatology, physical and verbal incongruity and caricature. Sidhwa writes in the tradition of Aristophanes, Fielding and the earlier novels of Y.S. Naipaul, a mixture of farce and irony which arouses laughter but also conveys serious themes. Sidhwa's vision is comic as she portrays the vitality of life in mother-in-law Jerbanoo, wife Putli son Behram and his wifeTanya and the paranoid second son, Yazdi. The novelist's penetrative insights in presenting the marginalised Parsi milieu makes The Crow Eaters both entertaining and educative".
Sidhwa's another novel Ice-Candy-Man which is also known as Cracking India by Sidhwa's American publishers Milkweed Editions (1991) is her grand achievement. In this novel, Sidhwa employs the political and narrative strands. In her narrative strategy, she makes use of a child narrator. The story is told from a child's point of view. When the novel opens, the narrator Lenny is eight years old and suffers from Polio. The child narrator records the incidents relating to the Partition. "The device of the child narrator enables Sidhwa treat the holocausts of partition without morbidity, pedanticism or censure. It also helps to maintain a masterful balance between laughter and despair." The Parsi community is shown in a fix on the issue of the Partition. They want to stay wherever they are. Ice-Candy-Man is a politically motivated novel. One finds references to the names of political leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Jawahar Lai Nehru, Lord Mountbatten, Subhash Chandra Bose and Mohammad Ali Jinnah. Here Bapsi does not treat Gandhi as a saint but as a clever politician, "an improbable mixture of a demon and a clown." She confesses that she has tried to humanize the divine image of Gandhi. In this novel, she selects some villages in undivided Punjab province where Sikhs attack the Muslims. These incidents are a part of her political game-plan. She writes about these Sikhs as, "the Sikhs perpetrated the much greater brutality—they wanted Punjab to be divided. A peasant is rooted to his soil. The only way to uproot him was to kill him or scare him out of his wits." In the incidents and episodes she narrates, it becomes obvious that the Muslims in East Punjab suffered more. The Sikhs killed a large number of Muslims in an organised violence. "Her moral vision is that it is the ordinary person who battles wrongs like Lenny's Godmother who helps Ayah to escape from Hira Mandi and move to a refugee camp in Amritsar... The horror of Partition are aptly depicted by Sidhwa without histrionics or preaching,".
In her next novel An American Brat (1994) Bapsi Sidhwa moves the- locale from Pakistan to the United States of America. In it, she takes up the issues like globalisation, brain-drain from the third world. "In An American Brat, Bapsi Sidhwa handles the change in theme and locale, expertly, with a lot of humour and from a contemporary perspective. This novel marks her entry into the orbit of diasporic fiction in which other South Asian novelists have already made a mark," writes Novy Kapadia. The genius of Bapsi Sidhwa as a writer is better revealed in her novel An American Brat which brings out her gift of keen observation, heightened sense of story and character alongwith her moral vision of her Parsi community. In the narrative of An American Brat, the protagonist Feroza Ginwalla the rebellious daughter of Cyrus and Zareen Ginwalla moves from Gulberg, Lahore to Denver, Colorado, U.S.A. with her ambitious, hopes and dreams. The novelist delineates the character of Firoza "adapting to an alien culture and the stress that accrues when colliding cultures clash." On many occasions, Firoza finds, herself in an awkward situation whom she fails to understand the nuances of a foreign language. Her room mate -Joe teaches her various Americanism. This helps Firoza to grow and make herself fit in a new system. In the last pages of the novel, Firoza has shed her old persona of Lahore and she finds herself a new with an independent attitude. "The perennial Parsi problem of inter-faith marriage arises when Feroza wants to marry David Press, an American Jew. The family assembles at Lahore and treat the situation like a dire emergency. Sidhwa through the guise of humour, shows how elders exert the pressures of conformity and tradition on the youngsters by applying forms of emotional blackmail. Reprimanding a young cousin who defends Feroza's choice of marriage, Grandmother Khutlibai contrived to make her vigorous person look crumpled and close to death while she spoke, so that the spirit of rebellion in Bunny and other youngsters was nipped in the bud." This novel caused alarm in the Parsi orthodox people.
In her novels, Bapsi Sidhwa also provides a glimpse of her comtemporary political condition in Pakistan. In her novel, An American Brat, she provides a backdrop to the fundamentalism prevailing in Pakistan during the reign of General Zia. Sidhwa is ironical while discussing the problem of fundamentalism in Pakistan. Sidhwa's indictment of fundamentalism is not restricted only to the Muslim community but also to other communities. She also exposes the parochial attitude and narrow-mindedness of American society. Sidhwa with her astute characterization, positive outlook and humour tackles some of her contemporary problems. Her writings show the cultural multiplicity of which she has been a part. "It is Sidhwa's sexual and excretory candour and depiction of enforced sexual innocence in a touching and humorous manner which also makes her novels unique. The strain of extrovert ribaldry in her work has given a new dimension to sub-continental English fiction...," observe Dhawan and Novy Kapadia. Sidhwa has been a trend-setter in less inhibition and open views on sex Saadat Hussin Manto, Asmat Chughtai.
In her another great novel the Ice-Candy-Man,Sidhwa has followed "the modernist/post-modernist vein of narrative experimentation. Otherwise she adheres to the Dickensian method of a gripping story but unlike Dickens with limited authorial intervention, and the linear realist narrative." Her focus has always been on her Parsi community and its problems. In modern times, the Parsi community though affluent, faces the danger of becoming more than a mere minority group. These worshippers of fire are now struggling to maintain the strength, vigour and number also. Sidhwa with her insight and understanding of Parsi faith's, antiquity and its beliefs, unveils secrets of her community life. During the recent years, Bapsi Sidhwa has emerged as a potent voice of the Parsi community and as a committed writer in Pakistan writing in English.

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