Society in sub-continent offers plenty of targets for the humorist, though it hasn't, at any rate in novels written in English, generated, too much straightforward comic fiction. It is more common to find an ironic perspective suddenly lightening a very serious undertaking. Bapsi Sidhwa, however, in a sprightly first novel The Crow Eaters shows that black comedy is by no means alien to the spirit of writing in sub-continent. Sidhwa's first published novel, The Crow Eaters, introduces a robust, farcical style in the Pakistani novel.
The Crow Eaters deals with no particular social or political issues at all. It's an affectionate and amusing chronicle of one eccentric Indian family's rise to prosperity during the early years of this century, when the British still ruled an empire on which the sun never set.
The story begins when Faredoon Junglewalla, or Freddy, loads his pregnant wife and widowed mother-in-law into a bullock cart and sets out for the fabled city of
to seek his fortune. Thanks to the complete lack of scruples with which he pursues his business dealings, he soon prospers. He has the backing of his fellow Parsees, or Zoroastrians, who, as members of Lahore 's smallest and wealthiest religious group, take care of their own. India
This community has always enjoyed a special relationship with the country's colonial ruler. Where does the sun rise? asks Freddy, who often misquotes homilies. “No, not in the East. For us it rises—and sets—in the Englishman's arse. … Next to the nawabs, rajas and princelings, we are the greatest toadies of the
British Empire!” So much for this unusual hero's political consciousness.
Freddy is an adoring husband to Putli, the village girl who never tires of his amorous gropings and produces seven children to fill the splendid new house he builds for them. His happiness would be complete if he were not continually tormented by the feisty, vulgar, contemptuous Jerbanoo, a true mother-in-law from Hell.
Jerbanoo never forgives Freddy for settling in a city where her remains will one day have to be buried among Christians and Muslims instead of being laid out on a sacred tower, where Parsees traditionally leave their dead to be eaten by carrion birds. On a family outing to the country, she spoils everyone's good mood by constantly pointing out “the vultures, plump, handsome creatures, roosting like angels on every tree!”
At one point, Freddy tries to kill Jerbanoo by setting fire to his house while she is in the upper room, but she is rescued by firemen after providing the entire neighborhood with the “engrossing spectacle of a fat lady beautifully screaming her head off on a balcony.”
She dispenses marital advice freely to her grandchildren, with severe warnings against household laziness.
When the family visits
, she drives the elderly wife of her British host to distraction with her constant criticism. Lifting the lady's dress up with a table fork, she chides, “Shame, shame, shame! You wearing such a small knicker?” London
The scenes involving Jerbanoo are among the book's most successful. Bapsi Sidhwa is a master of barnyard humor, contrasting the nouveau-genteel manners of the patriarch with the vulgarity of his rotund nemesis.
Other endearing characters are Freddy's son Billy and Billy's sweet, spoiled, childlike bride, Tanya, whose playful efforts to consummate their marriage in a speeding railway carriage are dampened by Billy's discovery that his new wife wets her bed. This tender secret binds their intimacy throughout their long marriage. Billy eventually becomes a patriarch himself, as Freddy, now old and pontifical, drifts into retirement.
Sidhwa's book has its somber moments, but fortunately they are few. Sandwiched between scenes of farce and satire, they aren't convincing. When Freddy treats one of his sons so cruelly that the boy goes mad, it's hard for the reader to know how to respond, since Freddy has been presented previously as nothing more than a lovable rogue. Though the author initially presents him as the main character, she loses track of him during the last third of the book as other family members' stories are told. Without Freddy, the novel's structure collapses, though its humor keeps us reading.
The Crow Eaters is best read as a series of wonderfully comic episodes, to be enjoyed for their wit and absurdity. Although the author has written more eloquently in subsequent books, this is a welcome reissue of a lively and entertaining first novel by a talented writer.