Saturday, August 28, 2010

Through Lenny's narrative Sidhwa has raised some gender related issues and the child's voice also generates a tone of authentic documentation of the Partition horrors. Discuss.

Ice-Candy-Man is Sidhwa's most famous and serious novel till now, possessing several layers of connotative and enigmatic interpretations. Critics have vociferously commented on die political, allegorical, social and feminist in­terpretations of the narrative. The novel was published as Cracking India by Sidhwa's American publishers Milkweed Editions in 1991. though there were no textual changes. The changed title suggests a different perspective to the reader about the dominant theme of the novel.
It focuses on the collective po­litical reality of the Partition of Indian sub-continent, while the earlier title Ice-Candy-Man, which has been retained for Indian editions, suggests a metonymic or even character-oriented inter­pretation. Ice-Candy-Man, the third novel of Bapsi Sidhwa, is the only novel in which she has used a child narrator. Whatever perspective is suggested initially to the reader by the title, the poignancy of emotional trauma and the sense of entrapment in the current situation is enhanced by the fact that the narrative is presented by a child. Negation of fruition to individual lives gains a suggestive urgency when it is reported by a child.
The figure of a child again simultaneously represents sev­eral marginalised identities generating a suggestive ambivalence. Lenny, the eight-year-old narrator of the novel is a polio-stricken girl belonging to a miniscule Parsi community. Lenny narrates the incidents and the characters of the novel to the readers, commenting and ruminating on various issues, also deftly cam­ouflaging the writer's omnipresence. Anita Desai has compared Lenny with Oscar of Gunter Grass's Tin Drum The physical disability of both these characters isolates them and gives an obliquity to their perspective which gradually develops into a criticism of the supposedly rational maturity of the adult world, exposing the abnormality of its behavioural norms. Lenny's keen observation presents the traumatic upheavals of a world in which the older values are suddenly crumbling and the new ethos is yet to take a final shape. The simplicity and straightforwardness of Lenny's perception at moments reminds us of Nellie, the child-heroine of Dostoevsky's The Insulted and the Humiliated, on ac­count of her sensitive understanding of human emotions and motives. As in Dostoevsky, the monstrosities of the adult world become transparent to the reader in their horrifying details in Sidhwa's novel also when contrasted with Lenny's naive logic.
Several books have been written about the growing up proc­ess of boys. Twain's twin novels The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn are perhaps the best examples of this genre in which the young protagonists gradually come to an un­derstanding of themselves and their country. R.K. Narayan's Swami and Friends is another example in which a boy gradually develops an understanding of the self within a wider socio­political context. The use of a girl-child as a narrator of a story to understand and capture the horrifying details of a turbulent his­tory is unique in itself. Told in the present tense and first person through an eight year old girl, the novel beautifully captures the human struggle of the Partition days, though simultaneously the device seems to put some constraints on the novelist. Lenny tells us in the very beginning of the novel: "My world is com­pressed." This self-imposed and culturally constructed limitation is successfully overcome by Lenny as she naively presents her comments on human relationships and their inscrutability against the backdrop of an unfolding history. With a child's wonder she observes social and demagogic changes, and interesting side­lights, occasionally indulging in judgement making. Her childish innocence enhances the sharpness of the irony and lays bare the devastating cruelty of a patriarchal order. Keeping a balance between despair and laughter, Sidhwa is also able to present the tragic holocaust of Partition without criticism, morbidity or pe­dantic preaching, with the help of the device of the child narra­tor. Ice-Candy-Man has a beautifully combined gripping Dicken-sian story with a postmodernist narrative experimentation. "Like Rudyard Kipling's Kim or the fourteen-year old narrator in Doris Lessing's story "The Old Chief Mshlanga," Lenny's growing up is marked as much by a loss of political and racial egalitarianism as by her developing sexuality." Lenny is also compared to the persona that Chaucer adopts in his Prologue to The Canterbury Tales, rendering credibility by being almost a part of the reader's consciousness.
Ice-Candy-Man is often termed as a bildungsroman. The term means a novel which follows the development of the pro­tagonist from childhood or adolescence into adulthood through a troubled quest for identity. Lenny's quest is also auto­biographical as there are many palpable commonalities she shares with the author. In her interview with Julie Rajan, Sidhwa admits that her life as a child in Pakistan was very much like Lenny's life in Ice-Candy-Man Like Lenny she also had polio and spent a lot of time with servants. She also had a number of operations, and wasn't sent to school. She read voraciously to engage herself. When she was growing up in Lahore it was a city of five million with only 200 Parsis. The Parsis easily adopted the mores of the dominant society which made Sidhwa comfort­able—like Lenny—with a whole medley of identities. The per­sona of a child enables Sidhwa to narrate her impressions freely, ask questions which grown up people avoid, and also to exercise a close watch over the narration itself. Since many details of the novel match the details of Sidhwa's life, it was easier for her to present her general convictions about individuals and their vari­ous relationships through the child narrator, and still control the narrative somehow, retaining thick encrustations of interpreta­tion.
Lenny does not simply "inform" the reader of happenings. She questions happenings, people, motives and emotions in order to grasp their fullest interpretation. The naivete of the child per­mits her to look at things from unconventional angles. She lacks prejudices—the hatred and biases one learns as one grows up. Her innocence gives her the strength to raise doubts and ask questions which cannot be comfortably answered by any grown-up, and also to reach at conclusions intuitively. "What's a fallen woman," she asks her godmother. She also tells her godmother that her Ayah has "nothing to be ashamed of." Rather it is her friends who have irrevocably shamed her and she cannot be "bad" just because she's been kidnapped. Troubled by the surrounding communal frenzy she sometimes lapses into rhetoric postures also, asking in a grown up voice, "What is God?" Such postures convince us that the narrator's voice is controlled and guided by the author.
Through Lenny's narrative Sidhwa has raised some gender related issues too. Her impressionable young mind receives sev­eral images of man-woman relationships which lead her to ques­tion status quo. She notices how in Col. Bharucha's clinic a woman has to discuss her child's illness through her husband, as any direct conversation between genders was looked down upon by the society. During visits to Pir Pindo she meets young girls of roughly her age who have already unquestioningly accepted their socially designated gender roles. Ranna's sisters Khatija and Parveen wear the responsible expressions of much older women and affect the mannerisms of their mother and aunts. Being a young child she herself is not influenced by such stereotypes, but her neutral reporting sensitizes the reader to the extent to which they have seeped into the collective social thinking. Ayah's raw sexuality, her manipulation of it for small gains, and ultimately its destruction by force, awaken profound responses in Lenny and she lays bare the gender-based structure of contemporary India. Lenny also records how her mother, de­spite her modern life-style, is very much a traditional wife, al­most servile in her desires to please her husband. Lenny also be­comes a party to her games of coquettishly creating an atmos­phere of pleasant mirth whenever her father is at home. How­ever, the victimization of girls/women is not limited to man-woman relationship only. The novel also exposes the extent of gender conditioning through the description of Papoos', the Sweeper's daughter's, marriage to a middle-aged dwarf. Her mother Muccho, not only passes on several of her household chores to her, but also maltreats her, sometimes even inflicting serious injuries to her. Her marriage to a leering middle-aged dwarf and Muccho's smug satisfaction underscore "grotesque possibilities awaiting Papoo," which had been perpetrated by her own mother. Lenny's shock at Papoo's marriage is an oblique though profound criticism of the prevalent gender bias. It also suggests that women themselves unconsciously perpetuate victimization of their own daughters, saddling them with a re­petitive fate and treating marriage as a panacea of all ills.
The child's voice also generates a tone of authentic docu­mentation of the Partition horrors. The innocence of her child­hood days is suddenly snatched from her when she witnesses the fissiparous tendencies on the rise, the growing communal hatred and open gestures of arson and violence. Her familiar com­pressed surroundings suddenly distort into a topsy-turvy world in which values and allegiances shift suddenly. Lenny listens to the warnings of Sharbat Khan, watches an emaciated person being torn into two pieces by jeeps looks on as the Shalmi market burns, notes Hari's conversion to Islam, his adopt­ing a new name and a new dress code, and listens in snatches to the harrowing experiences of Ranna. She is also a witness to the betrayal of Ice-Candy-Man. These expe­riences compel her to define her own position in the society, forcing her to recognize and adapt to her own marginality. She becomes aware of her religious and gender related identities—her consciousness of these multiple layers of existence becomes her initiation into maturity.
The narrative technique in Ice-Candy-Man also helps us to understand the political irony of the situation. Like a wide-eyed child Lenny comes to know about the statements of various po­litical leaders. The Government House Gardener and Ice-Candy-Man jibe about Nehru, Gandhi, Jinnah and Tara Singh. Their opinions and repartee enable Lenny to grasp the remoteness of political issues from the lives of common people. She concurs with Ayah's statement that the political leaders do not fight for masses, "What's it to us if Jinnah, "Nehru and Patel fight? They are not fighting our fight." When the butcher contemptu­ously slanders Gandhi as "that non-violent violence monger—your precious Gandhijee," the Masseur tries to placate him ur precious Gandhijee," the Masseur tries to placate him, commenting that "he's a politician, yaar." Lenny also no­tices the changing nature of jokes and is startled to find that sud­denly there are "Hindu,. Muslim, Parsee, and Christian jokes." The stirrings of vague fears and apprehensions which Lenny feels at such moments convey the political reality of contempo­rary India.
Protected by her religious background and her family status, Lenny is not directly affected by the growing cruelty of these times. She remains on the periphery, watching the events unfold and commenting on them in a reporter's tone. Coupled with the innocence of a child's viewpoint, her detached tone enhances the poignancy of the emotions which are linguistically underplayed. Like any other child she is also flabbergasted at many details, "Can one break a country? And what happens if they break it where our house is? Or crack it further upon on Warris Road? How will I ever get to Godmother's then?" The device of the child narrator enables Sidhwa to reveal the trauma of Parti­tion, with a sprinkling of humour and allegory, and without any histrionics.
Thus the device of the child narrator has been very success­fully used by Sidhwa in Ice-Candy-Man. The use of a girl-child as a narrator in the novel enables her to simultaneously present a critique of several issues from multiple angles. Lenny's narrative voice is not unidirectional, the very ambivalence of her narration enriches the readers' understanding of the presence of multi-layered meanings in the text.

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