Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 850
Bapsi Sidhwa (SIH-dwuh) invented English-language fiction in Pakistan. Unlike India, from which Pakistan was carved, the country had no established literary tradition in English. Urdu was the official language, and many would have preferred that the former colonizers’ language disappear altogether.
Born into a wealthy family, Sidhwa spent her first seven years as an Indian citizen in the plains city of Lahore. In 1945, after India was divided, she became a Pakistani. The tremendous turmoil and bloodshed she observed as a child left its mark on Sidhwa, and later in her fiction she revived those powerful memories of Partition (as the division of India has come to be known). That she was born a Parsee also affected her writing. A Zoroastrian religious group of fewer than 200,000, the Parsees had long exerted enormous influence on the subcontinent through their business and professional standing. They also tended to be more Westernized than most of their fellow countrymen.
At age two, Sidhwa contracted polio, and she did not attend school until she was fourteen. Tutored at home in English, she read British literature extensively, a practice that encouraged her to become a writer. Her parents, however, had other ideas, and at nineteen she entered an arranged marriage and soon bore three children. As an upper-class wife and mother, Sidhwa broke tradition by starting to write, even though she admitted in an interview that at first she wrote in secret. Otherwise her friends would have thought her “pretentious,” she said: “After all, I was only a businessman’s wife.”
Her first novel, The Bride, was initiated by a story she heard during a family vacation in Pakistan’s tribal regions in the Himalayas. A young woman had made an arranged marriage with a tribal man. Unable to cope with the harsh treatment accorded women in that society, she ran away, only to be pursued, then murdered by her husband and his relatives. Sidhwa felt compelled to tell this story, which to her symbolized the plight of many women on the subcontinent. A friend helped her to place the manuscript with an agent, who tried for seven years to find a publisher.
In the meantime Sidhwa wrote The Crow-Eaters, a boisterous and earthy account of the Parsee community in pre-Partition India. Although warned that Pakistan was too remote for international audiences to consider it interesting, Sidhwa eventually found a British publisher for the book. In 1983, The Bride was published in London, followed by American editions. While both novels were well received overseas and on the subcontinent, the closely knit Parsee community at first objected to The Crow-Eaters, condemning it as an irreverent portrayal of their customs, religious beliefs, and attitudes. Once Sidhwa had established herself internationally as an important writer, the Parsees, proud of one of their own, forgave her for treating them in a comic manner.
Divorced and remarried, Sidhwa moved to the United States during the early 1980’s. In 1992 she became an American citizen and settled in Houston, Texas. Although far removed from the world of her childhood, soon after her arrival in America she began writing one of her finest works, Ice-Candy-Man. Sidhwa was seven when Partition came about, and violence erupted once millions of Muslims and Hindus were uprooted to turn Pakistan into an Islamic nation, India into a Hindu nation. The number of deaths has never been determined, but it is estimated that several hundred thousand died. Lahore, which had been assigned to Pakistan, witnessed some of the fiercest battles during this struggle for territory and possessions. In Ice-Candy-Man a seven-year-old female narrator recalls Lahore on the eve of Partition, then reveals the bloody aftermath of the political acts that brought about what she calls the “cracking” of India. Even though many Indian novelists in English have focused on Partition, Sidhwa’s novel carries a greater immediacy—perhaps because she was there and was able four decades later to re-create that tumultuous period through a singular act of memory. In 1991 Sidhwa received the Liberatur Prize for Ice-Candy-Man, a yearly award given by Germany to a distinguished writer from a non-Western country.
In her next novel, An American Brat, Sidhwa depicts the Pakistani immigrant in America. She noted in an interview that she was partially attempting to define her own experiences and reactions as she herself worked to know a new country. The narrative follows Feroza, a Parsee girl from Lahore, through her uncertain start in the United States and her adjustments as a college student. Partially set in Pakistan, the novel also introduces Feroza’s colorful family—her mother, in particular, who visits Colorado to break up a romance between Feroza and a non-Parsee. At the novel’s conclusion, Feroza realizes there is no going back, and she accepts that even while retaining her roots in the Parsee community she has become the product of two cultures.
Sidhwa received in 1994 the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund Award of $105,000 for her fiction. This recognition proves that the Pakistani-Parsee experience, remote and foreign though it may be to the Western reader, carries universal significance when viewed through the eyes of a perceptive writer.