Issues of gender and power permeate Cracking India. Through choosing a female protagonist and having much of the action presented through her memories, Sidhwa provides insights into the ways power operates in the adult Lenny’s contemporary Pakistani society and into the limited ways she understood it as a child. Part of the nature of power, Sidhwa suggests, is that it functions at every level of society and is so thoroughly embedded in people’s understanding that they accept it without thinking (this is the concept of hegemony). Gendered inequalities structure both the personal experiences of Lenny and her Ayah (caregiver) and the much larger political processes that constituted Partition.
Lenny’s combined perspectives of past and present are particularly important in conveying the gendered dynamics of power. Sidhwa’s overall approach comes from postcolonialist feminist perspectives. The colonized people of Indian were all part of the “subaltern,” as discussed by Gayatri Spivak. Under colonialism, the colonized territory and its inhabitants are generally associated with childlike status, and part of the justification that the colonizers bring to colonial rule is the need to guide them. Similarly, delays in agreeing to end colonial rule are said to be based in the colonized needing more time to mature. Nonwhite people, especially women, are also associated with that immature, emotional status.
In creating a protagonist who is both female and a child, Sidhwa emphasizes the hegemony of colonial control. Although Lenny comes from an upper-class family, she is not white or British. In subaltern theory, class is an aspect of self-delusion among the colonized, who cannot have true power while remaining under colonial rule, and class dominance is largely negated by race. While the native people clearly identify positions on class and race hierarchies, the dominant colonizers view them through a single lens as nonwhite and non-European.
Ayah, although an adult while Lenny was a child, is from the working class; her job is to care for the wealthy child. Lenny understands the woman’s involvement with multiple men as seductive charm or attractiveness, and this reflects her childish misinterpretation of female lower status. Lenny mistakenly identifies Ayah’s limited maneuvering within highly restrictive class and race boundaries as freedom. Ayah’s situation is another metaphor for the overall colonial situation of pre-independence India.
It seems that unwittingly, Lenny becomes the instrument of Ayah’s downfall. By betraying a confidence and misplacing trust in the Ice-Candy Man, Lenny exposes Ayah to a situation in which men brutally rape her. As Sidhwa shows Lenny protected in a largely female sphere, her understanding of male roles is curtailed. The protection of her cloistered state proves illusory, just as the benevolence of colonialism masks the hegemonic domination that keeps the colonial government in place. While the single character of the Ice-Candy Man can be taken as an individual who acts outside the parameters set by law, he is one of the only male characters in the novel. As such, he represents the complicity of male actors who dominated the political and diplomatic arrangements of Partition, as well as those who joined in mobs and perpetrated violence.