Saturday, August 28, 2010

The overall mode of The Crow Eaters is comic. It is not a social comedy or a satirical comedy, but is a genial comedy. Discuss.

Bapsi Sidhwa in a sprightly first novel,The Crow Eaters, shows that black comedy is by no means alien to the spirit of Indian writing. Her Parsi hero Faredoon (Freddy) Junglewalla, is one of those beguiling rogues whose exploits make such entertaining reading. Freddy's efforts to further his interests are related in detail, from his inauspicious entry into Lahore in a bullock-cart to the position of power and comfort he occupies at the end of his life. How did he get there? Briefly, by being “all things to all people in my time. There was that bumptious son-of-a-bitch in Peshawar called Colonel Williams. I cooed to him—salaamed so low I got crick in my balls—buttered and marmaladed him until he was eating out of my hand”.

Freddy is nothing if not quick-witted and venturesome. His good fortune begins with an act of fraud: “Insurance in India was in its infancy. Its opportunities struck Freddy as brand new …”, the author tells us glibly. He insures his store, saves its valuables at some other place and sets it to fire to claim for the insurance money.
Some time later, succumbing to curiosity about the future and having consulted a mystic, Freddy is startled when the man assures him that he has an intuitive understanding of the mysterious nature of fire. “Its divine energy will always benefit you.” Knowing exactly how a fire at his shop has benefited Freddy, the reader might wonder for a moment if Bapsi Sidhwa has created a character unique in fiction: a sardonic soothsayer.
She hasn't in fact; the sardonic impulse is all her own, and no less effective for that. Though she's too easy going to make a satirist, she never resists an opportunity to poke fun at every revered belief and practice in Parsi culture. For example: Freddy's wife Putli, outraged at certain relaxations in modern life, asserts her right to uphold tradition by following her husband assiduously about the house—at the required three paces behind him. And the fact that Lahore is without a Parsi cemetery (an open-roofed enclosure on top of a hill) causes one character to deplore the consequent cruelty to vultures, which are thereby deprived of a natural item of diet.
Freddy's business affairs prosper, but there are other areas in which things can go comically awry. We soon learn that family life in Lahore is no less prone to discord than it is in the West. One of the Junglewallas sons first declares his intention to marry a schoolgirl and part-time prostitute named Rosy Watson, then renounces materialism with such fervour that he keeps coming home in his underpants, having handed out his clothes to the needy. Another son, in whom the instincts of parsimony and self-advancement are well developed, spends his evenings studying on the pavement beneath the light from a street lamp so as to save electricity.
Charity is an integral part of the Parsi value system as it stems from a firm religious conviction. The religion founded by the prophet Zoroaster is a monotheism, with the sole God being the creator as well as the judge on the day of the Last Judgement. Ahura Mazda rules over the good spirits created by him, which are opposed in this world by the evil spirits. The ethics in Zoroastrianism demand active defence of the good, which explicitly includes truthfulness, righteousness and charity. Earthly renunciation and asceticism are condemned by Zoroaster (in sharp contrast to Hinduism and Buddhism) because they indirectly support the evil in its battle. Religion providing the impetus for charity is an aspect well portrayed by Bapsi Sidhwa. The history of the delightful rascal Faredoon Junglewalla is mingled with accounts of his charitable deeds. “And once you have the means, there is no end to the good you can do. I donated towards the construction of an orphanage and a hospital. I installed a water pump with a stone plaque, dedicating it to my friend, Mr. Charles P. Allen.” Herein lies the salient feature and highlight of the novel. As Bapsi Sidhwa's mode of perception is ironic she shows that Faredoon's charity does not make him a paragon of virtue but is tinged with self promotion. Even charity has an ulterior motive, a token of gratitude to former deputy-commissioner Charles P. Allen who granted Freddy a trade license with Afghanistan. Examples of the mingling of generosity and self-interest are numerous. When he helped Bobby Katrak escape police charges for killing a beggar whilst rashly driving his silver Ghost Rolls-Royce, the amiable Faredoon claims Rs. 50,000 as expenses to bribe Mr. Gibbons the Inspector-General of Police. The bribe is only Rs. 10,000 and the remaining forty is stowed in his special kitty.
 As Bapsi Sidhwa in characteristic ambivalent and ironic tone says, “this was the kitty he dipped into to help others—and occasionally himself.” So the author in a tone that both shocks and entertains, shows that Faredoon developed his philanthropic image to increase his business contacts and to appear selfless and counter the impression of being a toddy of the British. It is this ambivalent attitude towards charity, which has really piqued Parsi sensibilities, as generosity is shown as not just part of the value system but linked with the appearance and reality theme.
Charity for Faredoon is neither a pocketful of poses nor is it totally philanthropic. Bapsi Sidhwa uses irony to create humour and to present the ambivalent attitude towards charity of Freddy. Irony here is a mode of acceptance, a type of philosophy, highlighting the Parsi paradox.
The overall mode of the novel is comic. It is not a social comedy like that of Jane Austen or a satirical comedy of Swift or a comedy of manners, but is a genial comedy. The view of life of Bapsi Sidhwa is expansive. Human foibles and follies are treated with tolerance and mild corrective irony. Creditably the author is not moralistic and does not put forth norms of behaviour and attitudes to be emulated. Even when Faredoon Junglewalla resorts to dubious practices like setting his shop deliberately on fire, after hiding his goods in a hired godown, to claim insurance money, the tone is not that of chastisement. With emphasis on a mass of local detail, the comic aspect of the episode is highlighted. Bapsi Sidhwa neither approves nor disapproves.

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