Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Narrative Techniques in Ice-Candy-Man

Bapsi Sidhwa, the internationally-acclaimed Pakistani Parsi writer, has secured an enviable position for herself among the literary circles today. She has proved that her minority experience as the member of a tiny Parsi community in Pakistan, far from being a visible trouble-spot on her creative psyche, offers her enough to celebrate her talent. She feels that it has given her a unique sense of 'detached attachment' for her country and its people. Her creative odyssey. which started with The Crow-Eaters (1978), has grown from strength to strength in her successive works like Pakistani Bride (1983), Ice-Candy-Man (1988) and An American Brat (1994).

Bapsi Sidhwa's third and till date the most celebrated and widely quoted novel Ice-Candy-Man/Cracking India (1988) is one of the most powerful narratives of recent times. The novel captures one of the most decisive moments in the history of India and Pakistan—Partition—in a very compelling way through the eyes of an eight-year old disabled girl, Lenny. As Tariq Rahman comments in a review: "The novel is an imaginative response to the traumatic events of the Partition of India in 1947, and Sidhwa has used surrealistic techniques, to make it an adequate symbol for the effect of external events on human beings." Another very perceptive comment comes from Sliashi Tharoor, a noted columnist and novelist: "Ice-Candy-Man is a novel in which heartbreak coexists with slap­stick . . . and jokes give way to lines of glowing beauty ("the moonlight settles like a layer of ashes over Lahore"). The author's capacity for bringing an assortment of characters vividly to life is enviable. In reducing the Partition to the perceptions of a polio-ridden child, a girl who tries to wrench out her tongue because it is unable to lie, Bapsi Sidhwa has given us a memora­ble book, one that confirms her reputation as Pakistan's finest English language novelist."'
Lenny's development from childhood to adolescence coin­cides with India's struggle for independence from Britain and the partitioning of the country into India and Pakistan. The skilfully interwoven plots give each other substantial meaning. Partly be-cause'Lenny comes from a Parsi family, a religious and ethnic minority that remained relatively neutral in post-Partition relig­ious conflicts, she has access to people of all ethnicities and re­ligions, both within Lahore and in other locales. More signifi­cantly, she has access to a wide variety of viewpoints, both pre-and post-Partition, through her Ayah, a beautiful woman whose suitors are ethnically and religiously diverse. From the lap of her beautiful Ayah, or clutching her skirts as Ayah is pursued by her suitors through the fountains, cypresses and marble terraces of the Shalimar Gardens, little Lenny observes the clamorous hor­rors of Partition. It is 1947. Lenny lives in Lahore, in the bosom of her extended Parsi family: Mother, Father, Brother Adi, Cousin, Electric-Aunt, Godmother and Slavesister. Working for them, or panting after Ayah, are Butcher, the puny Sikh zoo at­tendant, the Government House gardener, the favoured Masseur, the restaurant-owning wrestler and the shady Ice-Candy-Man— Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Hindus, friends and neighbours— until their ribald, everyday world disintegrates before the violence of religious hatred.
Lenny's passionate love for Ayah, and the loss of innocence that accompanies their changing relationship through the Parti­tion, is an energetic centre to the plot. Lenny's relationships with her mother, her powerful Godmother, and her sexually invasive cousin are also important to the novel. Lenny's polio forms a significant early narrative thread. Other minor but compelling subplots include Lenny's parents' changing relationship, the murder of a British'official, Raima's tragic tale, and the child marriage of Papoo, the much-abused daughter of one of Lenny's family's servants.
Sidhwa's focus in this symbolic novel is not so much on the story as it is on the narrative techniques, for they contribute to the work's total effect. Foremost among them is the first-person present-tense narration. Lenny, is—or was—a child when the events de­scribed take place, and the events are seen through her con­sciousness, the present tense providing immediacy and a certain simultaneity between past and present. By the end of both the novels, the narrator knows much about human treachery, mainly through the impact of external events. Lenny learns of the per­verse nature of amorous human passions from her experiences with her cousin, who courts her with a determination comparable only to the Ice-Candy-Maiv s pursuit of Ayah. How religious fa­naticism can breed hatred and violence is evident in the killing of the Hindus in Lahore and the Muslims in the Punjab of the Sikhs. The dehumanizing impact of communal riots is reflected in the story of Lenny's friend Ranna, a harrowing account of the human atrocities that can be perpetrated when all civilized re­straints are removed through external events or political propa­ganda.
Bapsi Sidhwa chooses Lenny, a polio-ridden, precocious child as the narrator of the novel because she provides her with a scope for recording the events leading to bloody Partition riots with utmost objectivity, without an air of propaganda. Moreover, she comes from a Parsi family and so is free from any religious or ethnic bias. Like most of the children of her age, she has a truth-infected tongue. In many respects, she resembles her crea­tor who had a bad polio, which affected her normal movement compelling her to stay at home under the care of an Ayah for the most part of her childhood life, busy in delicately nursing her world of idyllic romances. Bapsi was of the same age when the  nation was divided into two and had the first hand experience of the Partition-riots. As she recalls: "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 events of Partition had left an indelible mark on the psyche of child Bapsi and kept compelling her to unburden herself from the harrowing experiences of those days. Lenny, in fact, is the per-sonae, voicing the inner urge of the author. Bapsi Sidhwa herself explains why she chose Lenny as the narrator of the novel: "I'm establishing a sort of truthful witness, whom the reader can be­lieve. At the same time, Lenny is growing up—learning, experi­encing, and coming to her own conclusions."' Though it sounds cautioning to identify the narrator with the author, the intersec­tions of the two. at various points of the narrative seem to be de­liberate and not a mere coincidence, because the novel is as much about personal history as it is about memory and imagina­tion. The author has no secrecy whatsoever regarding her resem­blance with the narrator as she admits in an interview, "the scene where people ride into the house to kidnap Ayah did happen in real life, although I have fictionalized it."
In Ice-Candy Man, Lenny is the narrative persona. Her nar­ration starts in her fifth year and ends after her eighth birthday. She recalls her first conscious memory of her Ayah thus: "She passes pushing my pram with the unconcern of the Hindu god­dess she worships." She also remembers her house on Warris Road in Lahore and how she used to find refuge in her God­mother's "one-and-a-half room abode" and succeeded in getting away from the "gloom" and the "perplexing unrealities" of home. These perplexities include her own polio affliction, which she uses as ah armour against a "pretentious world," her mother's extravagance, her father's dislike of it, her strain to fill up the "infernal silence" during her father's "mute meals" by "offering laughter and lengthier chatter" ("Is that when I learnt to tell tales?"). These perplexities also involve the household staff. It includes her very dear Ayah, an eighteen-year-old dusky beauty, Shantha, Imam Din, the genial-faced cook of the Sethi household, Hari, the high-caste Hindu, Moti, the outcaste gar­dener, Mucho, his shrew of a wife, Papoo, his much abused child—and the Ice-Candy-Man, a raconteur and a "born gossip" who never stops touching Ayah with his "tentative toes"—and masseur, a sensitive man who loves Ayah and is loved by her, much to the chagrin of Ice-Candy-Man; and last but certainly impressive Ranna, the boy whom Lenny befriends when she vis­its his village with Imam Din and numerous others. Lenny leads us on, dwelling on interesting facts mingled, as it were, with picturesque language. The main events, besides the end of the Second World War, India's Independence and Partition of the subcontinent into Pakistan and India, revolve around Ayah. She is—not unlike India itself—a symbol of larger-than-life reality, truly "perplexing." Lenny also notices that, "beggars, holy men, hawkers, cart-drivers, cooks, coolies and cyclists" lust after her. Hasn't India been a much-looted country, which finally is forced to make a new beginning? With such emerging connota­tions, the novel sustains our interest at the personal and political levels.
For Lenny, in a few years' time a whole world, which is also her world, undergoes a sea change marked by "blood dimmed anarchy." Her focus switches from her own "sense of inadequacy and uiiworth" and the "trivia and trappings" of her learning, to the world outside, which she finds is dark and dangerous. With greater perception, she notes the fast, unstoppable and violent changes that leave her and those around her, particularly Ayah, "wounded in the soul."
As observed by lyengar, in a novel "Action, passion, con­templation, feeling, even the unconscious mind find place." In Sidhwa's novel, one finds different shades of human thought, feelings and behaviour truthfully voiced. Every character in the novel lets us glimpse into his inner reserves and we are con­stantly surprised at the reality of it. Passages describing blood-shed and murder highlight the brute in human beings. After Master Tara Singh's rousing address against the division of Punjab, the mob turns "maniac." Even the police were targeted. And then there is towering inferno in Lahore. Lenny observes:
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—how long does Lahore burn? Weeks? Months?
The working of native psyche is well brought out by an ingen­ious use of various devices by Sidhwa in this novel. She shows us, with graphic clarity, how little Lenny's mind sees, grasps and ponders over the world around her through her nightmares, witti­cisms, description of people, their mannerisms and feelings in idioms and metaphors, both homegrown and alien. An enslaved coiintry's total plight is shown in the line
Queen Victoria's statue imposes the English Raj in the park.
Before the conflict, Muslims and Sikhs lived in peaceful har­mony. They celebrated and participated in each other's festivals such as Baisakhi and Id. But once the big trouble started "One man's religion is another man's poison." All this scuffle between two countries was caused and furthered when "the Rad-cliff commission deals out Indian cities like a pack of cards." And at the end of a gory day "the moonlight settles like a layer of ashes over Lahore."
Besides idioms which evoke a terrible national tragedy, Bapsi Sidhwa also makes use of devices such as nightmares, jokes involving bathroom humour, poetry by the popular Urdu poet Iqbal, Parsi entrance into India, their customs, prayers, fire temples, and funerals in Towers of Silence, elaborate discussions and debates on national politics by the haves and the have-nots, detailed accounts of villages such as Pir Pindo inhabited by people of different re­ligions, and the bitter change of later times, forced con­versions, forced child marriages and many other mi­nute yet grave details, which succeed in bringing to the reader a whole gamut of tragi-comic and tragic incidents. As the narrative progresses, everything is filtered through the consciousness of Lenny. Her interest in things around her is somewhat unnatural as we find her recording each and every­thing like a video camera. There are no restrictions on her movements and she seems to be enjoying all the happenings around. She can attend the Parsi meeting to discuss the future course of action in the wake of Partition conflicts and can also loiter around parks, cheap hotels, and such other places along with her ayah and can have access to the popular opinion. Be­cause of her physical disability and precocious nature, she is loved and cared by all, and even her parents do not keep restric­tions on her. She is even allowed to accompany Imam Din in his visits to Pir Pindo, a village in Punjab. This visit provides her with an opportunity to meet Raima, the boy who later becomes a tool in the hands of the novelist to detail the events of inhuman brutality heaped on the Muslims across the border by the Sikhs, thus complementing the account of Partition narrated by Lenny.
The narrative design that Bapsi Sidhwa follows in the novel apparently looks very simple and straightforward, but on a closer look one realizes that its simplicity is merely deceptive. Al­though the main narrator is Lenny, the voice that emerges from the novel is far from being a monologue. There are moments when it is hard for the readers to believe that a little girl like Lenny can utter the words that have been put into her mouth. Like the one that is quoted here: I am held captive by the brutal smell. It has vaporized into a milky cloud. I float round and round and up and down and fall horren­dous distances without landing anywhere, fighting for my life's breath. I am abandoned in that suffocating cloud. I moan and my ghoulish voice turns me into something despicable and eerie and deserving of the terrible punishment. But where am I? How long will the horror last? Days and years with no end in sight.
And again:
My nose inhales the fragrance of earth and grass—and the other fragrance that distils insights. I intuit the meaning and purpose of things. The secret rhythms of creation and mortality. The essence of truth and beauty. I recall the choking hell of milky vapours and discover that heaven has a dark fragrance.
Passages like this make the reader aware of the presence of the author in the child, Lenny voicing her adult reactions to her childhood situation. Of course Sidhwa narrates the novel in the first person putting everything in the mouth of the child protago­nist, but one thing is for sure that she does it with a serious pur­pose. She does not want to sound political and controversial, yet cannot turn herself back from the purpose at hand, i.e., to present the other side of the truth regarding the Partition riots—the Paki­stani or in her own right the neutral point of view. It is another thing that at times she sacrifices even the decency and decorum of a literary artist, just flaunting the emotions of millions of peo­ple. Like we find in her observations and comments about Gan­dhi and Nehru. Lenny reflects on Gandhi:
He is small, dark, shrivelled, old. He looks just like Hari, our gar­dener, except he has a disgruntled, disgusted and irritable look, and no one'd dare pull off his dhoti! He wears only the loincloth and his black and thin torso is naked.
Gandhijee is certainly ahead of his times. He already knows the advantages of dieting. He has starved his way into the news and made headlines all over the world.
Despite the occasional limitations like the one we have noticed above, this goes without saying that "no other novel catches as this one does India's centuries-old ways of living with religious difference before Partition." Lenny is inquisitive and notices everything: clothes, smells, colour, the patina of skin, sex eve­rywhere, and eyes—olive-oil-coloured, sly eyes, fearful eyes. In writing which is often lyrical, always tender and clever, with a nuance here, a touch there, Sidhwa shows us the seedbed of the Partition massacres—an abused Untouchable, the ritual disem­boweling of a goat, a priest shuddering over the hand of a men­struating woman. This laughing, gentle tale, told through the eyes of innocence, is a testament to savage loss, and a brilliant evocation of the prowling roots of religious intolerance.
Thus though Bapsi has been accused by some diehard Indian nationalists of presenting a Pakistani view of history, we must not forget that this is a novel and not a work of social documen­tation; it limits itself to one child's perspective through which the dissenting, disagreeing voices she hears are refracted; and what Aamer Hussein says, "insofar as a novel can be objective, Bapsi is in the grand tradition of the Progressive writers on both sides of the border, scrupulously fair to all parties concerned, ap­proaching politics with the empathy and compassion of a hu­manitarian feminist." In fact the point of view Bapsi adopts, is one of the novel's most successful ploys. We believe we are wit­nessing the events of Partition through the eyes of an innocent child, but strategically placed flash-forward signal, in a subtle manner, that the adult Lenny is actually reliving the past in order to make sense of the events that baffled her when she was too small to comprehend; simultaneously, she restricts herself to the experiences and sensory perceptions of the child she was. Thus we are given a double—even dialogic—perspective that layers innocence on experience, introspection on hindsight.

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