Bapsi Sidhwa

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Judy Cooke (review date 19 September 1980)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 258

SOURCE: Cooke, Judy. “Roast Cat.” New Statesman 100, no. 2583 (19 September 1980): 23.

[In the following excerpt, Cooke praises The Crow Eaters as an “excellent” and enjoyable novel.]

Bapsi Sidhwa's The Crow Eaters is an excellent novel, her first, a book about India which one can wholeheartedly enjoy rather than respectfully admire. The author is a born storyteller, an affectionate, shrewd observer of the Parsi family whose history is here related. She organises her material well and writes with authority and flair.

‘Faredoon Junglewalla, Freddy for short, was a strikingly handsome, dulcet-voiced adventurer …’ It is an opening paragraph to whet the reader's appetite and the subject is not one to disappoint his public. Freddy is first seen trundling towards Lahore in a bullock cart with his wife Putli, his baby daughter and his dreadful mother-in-law. He has some trouble with the rooster sharing the ride, a perverse bird who likes to cling to our hero's buttocks at the climax of love-making ‘like an experienced rodeo rider’. In a matter of days Freddy finds an excuse for sacrificing this favourite and is soon eating chicken curry. That is the measure of the man. It is easy to credit his meteoric rise to fortune (aided by arson and insurance fraud); it is inevitable that his children are lesser figures, that Yazdi should renounce his inheritance in disgust, that Billy should become one of the richest misers in the continent. A Parsi Forsyte Saga? Who knows? Mrs Sidhwa's fiction may develop in a number of directions but one thing is certain, she will be read.

Patricia Craig (review date 26 September 1980)

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SOURCE: Craig, Patricia. “Junglewalla & Co.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4043 (26 September 1980): 1057.

[In the following review, Craig compliments the elements of black comedy in The Crow Eaters.]

Indian society 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, as in the novels of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. Bapsi Sidhwa, however, 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—in the tradition, if not quite in the class, of Basil Seal.

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.

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.

“Crow eater”, the author explains in a note, is a slang expression for someone who talks too much. She is not so helpful elsewhere. It is not clear, for instance, exactly why a lust-ridden member of a house hold should advertise his state by repeatedly adding salt to the family's drinking water. In Parsi circles, for all I know, the custom may seem as ordinary and obvious as the habit of throwing confetti at a bride and bridegroom does to us; still a word of explanation would have been useful. But in spite of this and other trivial irritations, The Crow Eaters is a pleasing piece of fiction—buoyant and good-humoured.

Frank Rudm (review date 18 October 1980)

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SOURCE: Rudm, Frank. Review of The Crow Eaters, by Bapsi Sidhwa. Spectator 245, no. 7945 (18 October 1980): 25.

[In the following excerpt, Rudm offers a positive assessment of The Crow Eaters, calling the novel “a wholly charming passage to India.”]

[The Crow Eaters] is about the vicissitudes of a Parsi family in Lahore. The action takes place between 1900 and the second World war. The title is taken from an Indian proverb: Anyone who talks too much is said to have eaten crows. Faredoon Junglewalla (Freddy for short) is never at a loss for words, or, for that matter, does he lack ideas, nefarious though they may be. Freddy is an engaging rogue, handsome, dulcet-voiced, and consumed with absurd vanities. The greatest thorn in his flesh is Jerbanoo, his mother-in-law, who has been unwillingly brought thousands of miles to Lahore from a Tower of Silence where a devout Parsi must be buried. She is a wily tyrant who is up to Freddy's tricks, but she is asleep when he sets fire to the premises that are both home and business. When the fire breaks out Freddy makes such a clamour that Jerbanoo is rescued, and her fears are temporarily allayed.

Freddy makes a successful claim on the insurance company and never looks back. He becomes a power in the community and is consulted on all sides. The proceeds from many small villainies swell Freddy's riches. Affluence leads to influence and soon Freddy and his timorous wife Putli are invited to Government House. As the fire of Freddy's life flickers he is yet stirred by the imminence of Independence from British rule from which he has so handsomely profited. Realistic to the last, Freddy tells his family, ‘We will stay where we are … let Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, or whoever, rule. What does it matter? The sun will continue to rise—and the sun continue to set—in their arses.’ The Crow Eaters is a wholly charming passage to India.

Alamgir Hashmi (review date autumn 1984)

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SOURCE: Hashmi, Alamgir. Review of The Bride, by Bapsi Sidhwa. World Literature Today 58, no. 4 (autumn 1984): 667-68.

[In the following review, Hashmi praises The Bride for its farcical elements and its examination of the complexity of socio-cultural differences in Pakistan.]

Sidhwa's first published novel, The Crow Eaters, introduced a robust, farcical style in the Pakistani novel. The Bride was written earlier but has only now been published. It narrates the story of Zaitoon, who lost her parents in the Indo-Pakistan riots in the summer of 1947 and was adopted by Lahore-bound Qasim, a Himalayan tribesman also fleeing the mountains after committing a crime and losing his wife and children to the fatalities inflicted by smallpox.

Zaitoon is so named by Qasim, after his own late daughter, and raised from the age of five in the city of Lahore as his adopted daughter. Against better counsel, he decides to marry her off at fifteen to a tribesman in the northern mountains, whence he himself originated. The city-bred young girl now must learn the ways of the tribesman's world outside the civilized, urban though decadent life of the plains, where she spent most of her years. The result is as expected. Sakhi is not husband she wants; nor is she the wife he can endure. So she must escape the rugged hills, which she does, and find her way back, which we cannot know about. Honor, commitment, marriage and loyalty are at stake, and there is really no way either to quash or to salvage them in the painful predicament in which Zaitoon's circumstances have placed her.

Escape from the oppressive, no-go “civilization” is what Carol also decides upon. She appears midway through the book, apparently to highlight Zaitoon's dilemma and to judge it with the outsider's objective eye. Carol is American and married to a Pakistani engineer living in the northern mountains, extremely dissatisfied with her own life as much as with local mores, which she finds “too ancient” and “too different.” She decides to go “home,” thus mirroring Zaitoon's flight from the “different” North. The two story lines combine to produce a splendid tale examining sociocultural differences at a level far above that which is familiar in Pakistani Anglophone writing.

Marianne Wiggins (review date 26 February 1988)

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SOURCE: Wiggins, Marianne. “The Melting Stomach.” New Statesman 115, no. 2970 (26 February 1988): 23.

[In the following review, Wiggins criticizes Ice-Candy-Man, asserting that the novel is a failure in terms of its stereotyped characterization, problematic narrative voice, weak sense of place, and oversimplified representation of the story's political context.]

A third of the way through Bapsi Sidhwa's new novel [Ice-Candy-Man], which pretends to be a tale about Independence, Mohandas Gandhi arrives in Lahore. The year is post-World War II, pre-Partition—say 1946. Lahore, then as now, is the intellectual centre of Muslim literature, the site of a great university and the home of Urdu poets. Then it was in India, now it is in Pakistan.

It would be ridiculous to presume that the Mahatma would choose to visit the city that is the heart of Muslim culture at that specific time for anything less than a calculated, political expediency. However, in the hands of Sidhwa, Gandhi's visit to the city is portrayed thus: “I am puzzled why he's so famous—and suddenly his eyes turn to me. My brain, heart and stomach melt. He is the man who loves women. And lame children. And the untouchable sweeper—so he will love the untouchable sweeper's constipated girl-child best.” Unfortunately, no untouchable sweeper's constipated girl-child materialises in this novel to help either the poor reader or poor Gandhijee along.

Rather, the book is peopled (for lack of a better description of how Sidhwa conceives of her characters) by a ragbag of sub-continental stereotypes. There are The Gurkha Soldier (“short and stocky like most of his race”), The Parsees (“prosperous, eating-drinking households”), the British Inspector General shouting, “You won't be able to blame everything on us for long, old chap!” and the Turbulent Unshaven Sikh who tries to take the Brit. Insp. Gen.'s eyes out with a fork at dinner, screaming, “Whyfore then you think we cannot do Home Rule?”

There are also Mother, Father and Electric-Aunt, whose names and roles (although not their dialogues) are blatantly derivative of the rambunctiousness of characters in Midnight's Children—but when Sidhwa sets a character with the potentially dramatic name “Slavesister” to talking, the words come out like this: “‘After the Mountbatten plan to tear up the Punjab how can you …’ mumbles Slavesister, shaking her head at the stove a looking martyred.”

To which the other female in this scene answers, “If your mutilated body was discovered in the gutter then you'd know how it feels!” Again, no mutilated body in the gutter arrives to help the reader know just how the Mountbatten plan must have felt …

Much of Sidhwa's trouble in telling this tale lies in her choice of narrative voice. She has chosen to address the most important issues of her country through the words of a seven-year-old girl, a polio victim called Lenny, who recites narrative action like this: “Ayah comes. And with her, like a lame limpet, come I …” and, during the aforementioned visit by Gandhi to Lahore, Lenny tells the reader: “Gandhijee certainly is ahead of his times. He already knows the advantages of dieting.”

As character fails, so does any sense of the politics of the time—so does any sense of place. The city of Lahore just cannot emerge from this imprecise and amateurish prose. “I am seeing more of Lahore, too,” Lenny promises halfway through the book:

Ayah and I roam on foot and by bus: from Emperor Jehangir's tomb at Shahdara to Shahjehan's Shalimar Gardens. From the outskirts of the slaughter house to the banks of the Ravi in low flood. We amble through the tall pampas grass—purposefully purposeless—and sniffing the attar of roses, happen upon Masseur: his creamy bosky-silk shirt, his strong forearms and broad ankles stretched out on a dhurrie on the grey sand.

More about the banks of the Ravi and less about the creamy bosky-silk shirt and strong forearms would have helped the reader to make sense of what the fuss was all about. As it is, Ice-Candy-Man is a fuddled attempt to inflate a Mills and Boon plot into a novel about Partition and, although Sidhwa's interest in the major issues cannot be faulted, hers is the dramatic failing of having chosen to write about events to which her imaginative power adds no new insight.

Bapsi Sidhwa and David Montenegro (interview date 26 March 1988/24 March 1989)

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SOURCE: Sidhwa, Bapsi, and David Montenegro. “Bapsi Sidhwa: An Interview.” Massachusetts Review 31, no. 4 (winter 1990): 513-33.

[In the following interview, which took originally took place on March 26, 1988, and March 24, 1989, Sidhwa discusses Pakistani politics, issues facing Muslim women, contemporary Islamic literature, and the central themes of her novels.]

This interview originally took place on March 26, 1988 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Because of the Rushdie affair and radical changes which occurred in Pakistan in the interim, a follow-up interview took place on March 24, 1989. The follow-up questions appear first in the interview.

(MARCH 24, 1989)

[Montenegro]: Could we begin by talking about how the sudden death of Zia and the subsequent election of Benazir Bhutto will affect the course of political life in Pakistan?

[Sidhwa]: Well, when Zia suddenly dismissed the then existing Parliament (elected on a non-party basis), he promised to hold elections on the nineteenth of November. This date was supposed to coincide with Benazir Bhutto's delivery of her child, and would put her out of circulation at a crucial time in her campaign. She surprised everyone by producing her baby a full month earlier, in October. The real date she was due was one of the better kept secrets in Pakistani politics. Only Benazir and the doctors knew the real date. I think this is fascinating, unprecedented. Here is a young woman standing for elections, and never before in the world of democratic politics has something like this been featured—that is, events being influenced by when a baby is due. Women entering politics adds a new dimension certainly.

Of course, very few people think Benazir Bhutto would have been elected had not Zia died when he did. He would certainly have created some excuse to outlaw the People's Party, or by some means seen to it that she would not be elected.

The elections went off very smoothly. We had hundreds of people from the foreign press waiting in Pakistan; everybody was expecting a bloodbath. But fortunately none materialized. I think Benazir knew her limits. Suddenly she really had this opportunity of being elected, so she and her party played it very cool. They didn't want to give anyone an excuse to rush in at this point and enforce martial law again.

How do you see her presence as Prime Minister affecting women's rights in Pakistan, and the Muslim world in general?

Well, the opposition certainly made a lot of noise that they didn't want a woman Head of State, but the majority in the country wanted her. The elections were fair and yet not totally fair, because we had the system of ID cards. It was declared that only those who had ID cards could vote, and not everybody had an ID card. Now the Chief Minister at that time—Punjab's Chief Minister and her main opponent—was in a position to issue ID cards, and he did apparently do so only to his party followers, by the thousands. And this was Benazir Bhutto's party's complaint that they were not getting the ID cards to vote with. I think that has influenced the figures that came out in the Punjab during the elections because the Chief Minister did win there. And one feels that if the elections had been on just the adult franchise basis, Benazir would have had a much bigger triumph.

As for women's rights, of course there was jubilation among the women. Well, not only among the women—who probably had the most to gain by it—but also among the vast majority of poor people. They were jubilant because her father had championed their cause. Benazir Bhutto got elected mainly on account of her father's memory. Otherwise she had no real political standing. She did develop a bit of support on her own, but the basis was her father's.

When she was appointed Prime Minister after the election, the opposition made a few noises, but one knew they wouldn't prevail. The very strange thing was that when they had to give her a vote of confidence in the National Assembly, a lady from the opposition cast a vote for her, saying: I just want to show my support for the idea of a woman Head of State in Pakistan. After casting her vote she crossed over to the opposition seats.

Many women hoped that she would now be in a position to repeal the Hudood Ordinance and the Sharia Law. These Islamic laws are interpreted harshly where they concern women. The women of Pakistan have, because of their strong opposition to these laws, developed a power base over the last few years. Pakistanis have become accustomed to seeing them out on the streets, protesting. In fact, people have had the most hope for change from women because they have been the most vocal on several issues. I think part of Benazir Bhutto's success in the elections is based on this phenomenon of women in Pakistan suddenly coming to the forefront and fighting the battles. The protesting women assumed leadership roles and their acceptance by people created the climate of acceptance for Bhutto. Otherwise it might have been too sudden for a country which was being dragged towards fundamentalism by a handful of people.

While I was in Pakistan, there were rumors of a sort of maneuvering going on, that we will accede these points, let's say, in one of the provinces somewhere, and the bargaining chip we want is that we should be able to do away—I'm talking for the P.P.P., Benazir Bhutto's party—with the Sharia laws. It would take time, but she was on the right path. Everybody was feeling encouraged.

But, as things stand today, the timing of Rushdie's Satanic Verses couldn't have been worse for Pakistan. Suddenly the fundamentalists are able to say: Look what the West is doing to us. Because of this book, the West is making very angry noises at the Islamic world. We have to fight this demon that is attacking our faith. And, of course, such people can manipulate religious sentiments. At this point, I think Benazir dare not bring the Sharia law issue forward. Her hands have been tied, for this issue. It would shake her government if she did. The fundamentalists were losing support but they are now organized again around the fury over Rushdie's book.

Would you describe the role of the book in Islam?

In Islam, the word “book” means more than it means in the West. Perhaps all over the East it means more. For example, the Moslems call the Jews and the Christians “those of the book.” The printed word in Third World countries is still rather dear. A book is seldom destroyed. And all this gives the printed word and a book more power than it has in the West. In the West, one is used to reading profanity in books, but the same thing in an Islamic country or a Third World country has a different connotation. Anything written down there is so much more powerful. After all the faith of the Muslims is based on The Book, on The Koran, which is God's word.

Do you think Ayatollha Khomeinie, in making an issue of Rushdie's book, partly hoped to destabilize Bhutto's government?

No, I believe the situation was quite different. I heard that the moderates in Iran did not want the ayatollha to even know about this furor over Rushdie's work. But after the deaths in Pakistan and India, the news could not be kept from him. When he asked what was happening, they had to tell him. Then inevitably, you know, somebody asked him: What is the punishment for this? So he pronounced the death sentence. And, I think, if it hadn't gone to this extreme, if the ayatollha had not gotten into the picture, things would have been different. It's a pity because in Iran the moderates were looking to the West for help to rebuild their shattered economy. And they were changing this absolutism. They are also in a bind.

I was in Pakistan during Benazir's election and, of course, the Rushdie trouble had started sometime in September. Many of Rushdie's fans had read the book. He was one of the very few Muslims who'd really made it big in the West, and many Pakistanis identified with his success, and they admired him for it. But now they felt they were betrayed. They couldn't see why he had done this, why he had mocked their religion. They felt that, as it is, they were being stereotyped in the Western press, and Rushdie, in fanning the flames, was encouraging the stereotyping of the Muslims as fanatical.

Fanning the flames? In what way did he do this?

Well, Rushdie—and I believe he said this in interviews with the media—counted on this confrontation to take place. I think, like many writers, he wanted some incident to make his sales grow. I had one little clue. When the book was first banned in Indian, Rushdie must have spent nights awake, dashing off letters to each and every newspaper and magazine there to create a greater controversy. It was not enough that a country banned it; he wanted a little more of what we would call a “tamasha,” a little more of a show. And I think he was at first very pleased with all the media attention. He said that if he'd known this was to be the reaction he would have written even more provocatively. But I don't think he was at all prepared for the ayatollha jumping in as he did with the death sentence, and I'm sure that rattled him. Because, since then, he's not really issued many statements. He did issue an apology but there was no thought of withdrawing the book, so there's no point in an apology. And after that the situation was exploited by everybody. I mean, the book and Rushdie are sort of in the background now, and only the mistrust between the West and the Islamic East prevails.

What effect do you think the death threat, which crosses international boundaries, will have on free expression world-wide? Do you think it will have a chilling effect on writers?

I don't think so. I think it's had an absolutely warming effect on writers. They're so enamored of the thought that a writer has been able to create such a stir all over the world. I think the feeling among some people is that the First Amendment in America is also being waved about a little opportunely. I think people in the writing business do know there is censorship here as well. It is much more subtle and much more effective. A book that is not wanted or an author who is not wanted is not published, which leaves no recourse to the author. At least, in Pakistan or India, a book is banned. That leaves the author—like Rushdie, with the power he has—the recourse to protest and to make a worldwide noise over it. So, I don't think this is going to have a chilling effect on Western writers. Except maybe it will just bring all this out into the open—that this very self-righteous tone is a little hypocritical.

Do you think reviewers here also exercise a degree of censorship in their choice of whom to review, and editors as well in their choice of reviewers?

Yes, of course. In fact, I have had personal experience with what these people can do, and, ironically, in the form of Rushdie. He tried to kill my book Ice-Candy-Man.

There is also the painful fact that people in Pakistan and India were killed because of the book or, perhaps, not the book itself but the political furor. How do you feel about that equation where there is loss of life and there is literature and there is also politics?

It's very sad. I believe twenty-three people have died. I don't think their lives are less important than Rushdie's life. Rushdie is an extremely powerful man. If he were not so powerful, there wouldn't have been such a big hue and cry over his book in such terms as Britain withdrawing its relations with Iran, and the whole world going topsy turvy—everybody ready to bomb Iran for Rushdie's sake. If he had not been so very powerful, this would not have occurred. And he was using this power as arbitrarily as the ayatollha.

(MARCH 26, 1988)

The partition of India and Pakistan appears in some form in all three of your books. You were nine years old at the time. What are your memories of Partition?

Well, the main memory is of hearing mobs chanting slogans from a distance. It was a constant throb in the air and very threatening. Then I saw a lot of fires, it was almost like blood was in the sky, you know. And I saw a few dead bodies on my Warris Road. In fact, that's figured in two of the novels. I was actually walking to my private tutor, and there was this gunnysack lying by the roadside. The gardener, who was with me, just kicked the gunnysack, and a body spilled out, a dead body of a very good looking man. There was a bloodless but big wound on the side of his waist, almost as if it trimmed the waist. And I felt more of a sadness than horror. It seemed so futile—even at that time when I wasn't really conscious of death—the waste of life.

And did your family feel the pressures of what was happening?

Apparently. I didn't feel the pressures myself, but my parents were tense: they were up much later than usual whispering and working all the time. And there were a lot of visits from aunts and uncles. Subsequently, I learned that some of my aunts and uncles from Bombay had advised my parents to get away from Lahore, but they chose to stay in Lahore.

Did the fact that your family was Parsi rather than Muslim or Hindu make a difference in how you were affected?

Yes, it certainly made a big difference, because Parsis, though involved in the Independence struggle, were not with any one side during the partition. Like the Christians. And, as such, they weren't harmed by any party. In any case, they were such a tiny minority that they had no clout this way or that.

In Ice-Candy-Man, it was very useful to use the voice of a Parsi child narrator, because it does bring about an objectivity there. Your own emotions are not so … or at least your participation in events is not so involved. You are more free to record them, not being an actor immediately involved.

So an outsider sometimes sees more clearly?

When you put yourself into the persona of a child, in a way you remove all those blurred images—other people's opinions, expectations about what life is teaching you and the stereotypes which come in. Everything is a little fresher and refreshing, I think, from a child's point of view—more direct.

In Ice-Candy-Man, Lenny is very candid. At one point, however, she finds that her honesty has harmed someone close to her, has betrayed her nurse, Ayah. Then she thinks to herself, “my truth-infected tongue.” At another point, she also asks herself: “A life sentence? Condemned to honesty?”

Well, I'm doing two things here. I'm establishing a sort of truthful witness, whom the reader can believe. At the same time, Lenny is growing up—learning, experiencing, and coming to her own conclusions—one of them, that truth, truth, nothing but the truth can lead to a lot of harm, too. And in understanding the nature of truth, it's many guises, she gradually sheds her innocence and understands the nature of men.

In contrast, there is the lead character of The Crow Eaters, Freddy, who, in the hilarious opening scene, tells his children, “The sweetest thing in the world is your need … Need makes a flatterer of a bully and persuades a cruel man to kindness. Call it circumstances—call it self-interest—call it what you will, it still remains your need. All the good in this world comes from serving your own ends.”

Well, for all his apparent guile and unconventional thinking, he is a thoroughly moral man. He's very close to my ideal of what a man should be. He is smart enough to inhabit this world and protect his family, friends and community, and realistic enough not to search after ideals which would make him ineffectual and cause problems in this world. He's not an evil man; in fact he sticks very close to the tenets of his faith, Zoroastrianism. Whatever his motives or reasoning, he ends up doing good to the people he knows. He's an active force for the good in this world.

He uses his gains to benefit other people?

That's right. No matter how suspect his motives, you know, he ends up doing more good than a do-gooder might in the end.

The Crow Eaters really portrayed the Parsi community—a secretive community—for the first time in literature. When the book was published, did you have any difficulties within the community in Lahore?

Yes, very dramatic difficulties. The book launch took place at an intercontinental hotel in Lahore, and since there are not so many books written in English launched, it was quite a function, with a lot of writers and eminent people reading out papers on the book and all that sort of thing. And there was a bomb threat, which subsequently I realized was from a Parsi who felt very strongly about the book. It took me some time to realize what turmoil the book had created within the community. They thought I was revealing secrets which I had no business giving out. The Parsis are a popular minority, and flourish partly because of their image as a noble and charitable people. And they felt I was damaging the image. But this is a typical reaction, I think, for anybody who breaks new ground in a community like this. They felt threatened by it, although it was written out of great affection.

Was there anything in particular that they objected to most?

The choice of title was unfortunate. I mean, they, just straight away, without reading the book, said, we will never read a book with a name like this. They misunderstood the title. It just means a chatterbox. In a lot of our dialects—in Punjabi, Urdu, Gujarati—they say: “Have you eaten a crow that you're talking so much?” They linked the title to the system we have for the disposal of the dead in the tower of silence, where dead bodies are placed in walled enclosures which are open to the sky. And the birds of prey eat the body. They thought I was capitalizing on this sensitive aspect of a Zoroastrian custom, making fun of it, which was not so. Not in the title, at least.

Was part of the problem the fact that the book was written in English?

No, not at all.

In each of your books people appear in flight. Most dramatically, Zaitoon's flight from her husband in The Bride, and, in Ice-Candy-Man, Ranna's story of his flight from the Sikhs. Why so much fleeing?

I've never thought of it quite that way. It's interesting that you should see a connection there. Perhaps it has something to do with my personality. I always want to be somewhere I am not at that moment. Maybe I do want to flee situations so I visualize people as wanting to get out of situations and flee.

And then, of course, there is the dramatic element; tension and story in a flight and a chase and the effort to survive. As a novelist, you always like to link yourself with something dramatic. I think that's why you see the theme of Partition played out so often in my novels.

Can we talk about language itself for a moment? You speak several other languages—Urdu, Gujarati, and Punjabi. What part does each language play in your life? Are there tensions created between them?

None at all, particularly when I'm in Pakistan. All of us there tend to speak a garbled mixture of languages. But, while in Pakistan, I thought: oh, I speak English fluently. Then I came here and discovered that it was difficult for me to speak a string of sentences without putting some Gujarati or Urdu words in between. Because in Pakistan that's how we have become accustomed to talking. Listening to people who say they don't know any English, you'd be able to follow what they say because they're really throwing so many English words into the conversation.

It's a patois or a salad of languages?

Salad perhaps. I think you just juggle for the best meaning, somehow. And certain words are so much more expressive in another language. Something which is zestful comes out so much better said in Punjabi, or something which is emotional or romantic comes out better said in Urdu. Or certain Gujarati words carry so much more meaning. And you just automatically adopt this mixture to be more expressive.

Is one language more dominant for you? Which do you consider your mother tongue?

Gujrati, the language of the Parsis. My parents spoke it, and my husband and I, among our children.

Actually, it is a language of the Bombay area, the Gujart area in India, because that's where we first came as refugees at the time of the Arabic invasion of Persia. The prince who let us stay, stipulated we must learn the language of Gujarat. And so that became our tongue in India.

And the majority of the Parsis live in Bombay?

Yes. I think, there are about seventy thousand.

And in Lahore?

In Lahore, we have now only ninety-two, but at the time of The Crow Eaters—that is, at the time of Partition—there were about three hundred.

Are there any tensions between the Parsi and the Muslim communities in Lahore?

No, I've not seen any tension, so far. Luckily, we've escaped that sort of thing. There's also a very enormous community of Hindus in the Sind, and fortunately, up to now, there have been no religious riots.

Back to language; your books were all written in English. Does this cause any problems in Pakistan or India as far as representing your culture is concerned?

No, I find myself comfortable writing in this language. My written Urdu is not very good, though I speak it fluently. As for Gujarati, hardly anyone in Pakistan knows the language. In Britain, of all places, people say, “Why don't you write in your own language?” And they bring very heavy political overtones to bear on this. But I think, well, the English don't have a monopoly on the language. It is a language of the world, now. And it is a means of communicating between various nationalities and the most immediate tool at hand. So I use it without any inhibitions or problems.

In fact, it is of great advantage to write in English and be in Pakistan. My books are popular there. And Pakistan has pretty strong censorship. Strangely enough, you can get away with writing in English what you can't writing in Urdu. So, when it comes to translating into Urdu, I will have to modify certain passages that could be considered obscene.

How severe is censorship in Pakistan? There is press censorship.

I think it's never been as free as I found it in the past two years, since martial law was lifted and replaced by a kind of grassroots democracy. I was amazed how much newspapers in English were permitted to report. In some respects, I think, they dared more even than the American press. But again that's in English.

But we do have this strong element of fundamentalist fanatics. And, because of them, everybody has to be on guard. When these people get agitated, nobody can control them, not even the government. They just burn the books, the newspapers and wreck the newspaper offices and nobody can control them at that stage. So I think everybody to some degree exercises a sort of a self-censorship, almost.

In the Urdu media, the government comes down very hard on what it terms obscenity. Everything is obscene. Any of my sex scenes would be considered absolutely beyond the pale, and some political statements, too, if they were in Urdu. People go to prison for these things.

Women in Pakistan: you have recently written an essay titled “Women against the Mullahs.” Is the Islamic fundamentalism that is spreading in the Mideast and Asia, pushing women back into purdah?

Into the medieval ages. But women are violently opposing it. What is very sad is that, you know, I don't think most of us were aware that the Hudood Ordinance had been passed. And they are trying to bring the Sharia laws back, but the women are opposing it tooth and nail. Every time the Mullahs open their mouths to talk of Islam, they end up saying, “Women should do this, women should not do this. This is how women should dress, this is how women should behave, this is how women should not bring pressure on them, and this is how women should not entice men.” All those ridiculous things. They can't talk of Islam without talking of constricting women. And women are getting more and more fed up with this, because they have just a few hard-won rights. Very unfair things are happening in the name of the religion. Most men, when you talk to them, are opposed and they see the injustice of it. Judges see the injustice of it much more clearly than anyone because they deal with these cases every day. And I just hope now the Sharia law is not passed. Although the fundamentalists are determined to have it passed.

What do you think are the chances that it will be passed?

It's so hard to predict. I don't know how strong the women are and for how long they can oppose the Mullahs, who seem to be gaining in power. I don't know how long the rational elements in government will be able to oppose the Sharia law.

This is not the same type of fundamentalism which Iran is facing. It was exacerbated by the Afghan crisis. Fundamentalism, religion has been used to fight the war against the Russians. So, the war gave fundamentalism an impetus. It became politically expedient to promote fundamentalism.

And what legal steps are women taking?

They are taking legal steps. But legal steps are dismissed offhand, because you go into unending tangles in the interpretation of The Koran. The men interpret it differently; the women interpret it differently.

There is an impatient element, and I myself belong to that element. But I'm not a member of the particular women's group known as the Women's Action Forum, which is making use of much more demonstrative methods of protest like protesting in the streets. In fact, most women's organizations are taking recourse to this strategy because it's the only way they seem to be able to draw attention to themselves and their causes. And they do a few things which, in the context of Pakistan, are very exceptional. They burn their veils or they shout on the road, which is, you know, very strange to see happen in Pakistan, and it does draw a lot of attention.

But these women are dismissed offhand by the religious element as being almost prostitutes. “These are loose women who do such things.” Yet these women definitely belong to the elite of Pakistan because they are the only ones who can take such action, who are lettered enough and educated enough to do so. The poor women who belong to the lower or middle class aren't even conscious really of what's happening. They just suffer and suffer. They're in such turmoil they don't even have time to be conscious of what's happening to them.

A book titled Women of Pakistan says that the rate of literacy among Pakistani women is fifteen percent.

Fifteen percent is a very exaggerated figure. I would say it's closer to eight percent. Because, when you say literacy in Pakistan, it means if you can just sign your name you are considered literate. And a lot of women who go to school, let's say, up to the age of nine, or ten, revert to illiteracy. They totally forget what they've learned. It's much less than fifteen percent.

Obviously, then, there's great resistance to education for women.

Pakistan has always had the potential to be a richer country than India. The GNP there is higher than in all the surrounding areas of the subcontinent. And those who are better off, particularly those in southern Pakistan, are seeing to it that their children go to English-speaking schools. They are very conscious of educating their girls, and this is a movement for the better. But, among the lower middle class and the non-monied class, there is certainly a sentiment against girls studying.

Among the Parsis, there is no purdah?

No, none at all.

You mention in The Crow Eaters that, while there is no purdah in the Parsi community itself, you are surrounded by an atmosphere of repression, and this takes its toll on Parsi women as well.

Well, the Parsis, wherever they have lived, have taken on the color of that country. Parsi women dress a little differently in Pakistan than those in Bombay. And they probably would even in England, let's say. In Pakistan, that general repressive atmosphere for women naturally does have its effect on the values and attitudes which the Parsis hold there, with the result that a Parsi child might say, “Oh, Mommy don't wear that sleeveless shirt. Don't come to my school without your shawl,” or something like that. So to that extent it is very repressive, I feel, for girls.

Has the Zia government permitted the Islamization movement against women to go forward and, if so, is this an attempt to win legitimacy from the fundamentalists?

The fundamentalist movement is gaining strength because of political reasons and because of the Afghanistan situation. It is definitely very linked with that. We've had the war at our borders now for seven years, and, because of it, the government needs a lot of money, and gets this from sources where there are fundamentalists also.

And how have the Afghans fought so long? There are countries like Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia and Poland where the people couldn't resist the Russians even for days at a time. And these countries have, by our standards, a very developed and sophisticated, armed people. But here are these total primitives who carry homemade models of the Lee Enfield, who have given the Afghans so much fame in military terms for seven years. And there is a reason for this: they'd only be able to do this because of religion. Religion has played a very strong part in fighting this war. And this fact has been realized, and that is why fundamentalists have been promoted. They are the only force that could counter the Communist force there. It's so apparent, when they can resist for seven years while other countries can't for two days at a time.

There are around four million Afghan refugees in Pakistan. Has this created a large scale economic drain on the country?

Not only economic. It's an ecological drain. We have very little vegetation in the northern areas of Pakistan because of the poverty, but now these people have taken over almost every tree for firewood. They've brought their goats and cattle to graze, and wherever goats graze nothing will grow for centuries because they eat up the seed from inside the soil. It's been an ecological disaster on a very grand, massive scale.

What other effects do you think the refugees will have if the war continues for several more years or if they stay in Pakistan?

One terrible impact, which I've seen every time I've gone back during the past two years, is the proliferation of arms. My God, every household has a weapon now. And there were strict gun laws in Pakistan. Nobody had weapons; very few had licenses. And the other is the sudden outbreak and spread of drug use.

We are a very poor country, and now there's suddenly this enormous force of Afghans who are taking over the jobs of the poorer Pakistani. The Afghan, of course, through various forms of aid, is given a certain stipend every month. He's entitled to fifty rupees per head per month, plus food. Because of this, he can take on daily labor jobs for a much lower rate than the Pakistani can. So he's replacing the Pakistani. The Afghans are buying land; they're running this illegal drug traffic; they've changed the whole power structure of Pakistan. And they've done it overnight.

And they are a very ferocious, bullying, untamed people, you know. It's taken Pakistan thirty years to tame our own Pathans. The Afghans are totally a warrior people who suddenly descended on Pakistan with totally different values, very little consideration for life. They're liable to kill a person for ten rupees. They're being controlled, but with great difficulty. This doesn't reflect on all of them. When they've become entrepreneurs, they have more stake in the country, more stake in being peaceful.

Moving to another border, the border with Iran; Pakistan is predominantly Sunni rather than Shiite. What influence has the Sunni Khomeini government had on the Sunni population in Pakistan or on the Shiite minority?

I don't think the social revolution in Iran has made any change. There has always been a little Shiite-Sunni tension for a very long time. This has not posed any threat for Pakistan. Iran is on our border, but I don't think Pakistan has ever felt threatened by it, because the fundamentalism there is different. And, so far, I've not seen it, because the Shiites are also a minority in Pakistan. They seem to be a fairly enlightened minority; don't seem to be those extremists.

Pakistan also has a small border with China. What pressure does this exert on Pakistan?

China has always been a very good friend of Pakistan, and we feel strengthened by its friendship. Pakistan feels China has been its only reliable ally. America has always been an ally, but a very unreliable one. Whereas China, even if it's been able to help very, very little, symbolically it's helped a lot. Every time India, with its massive power on our borders, threatens Pakistan, China will come out with a humorous statement like: “Oh, the Indians have stolen eleven goats or eleven sheep, so we won't allow them to cross this area.” They give India little threats like that, that are a warning to leave Pakistan alone.

When India was at war with China in 1962, the United States shifted support from Pakistan to India. How serious a shift in the balance of power was this in the region?

The U.S. would much rather support India in every instance. But India plays a cool, non-aligned game, and has valuable assistance from the U.S.S.R. This leaves the U.S. little option but the role it plays in Pakistan. India is very powerful. Pakistan feels very threatened by India because it's massive compared to Pakistan. And there are so many internal pressures within India also, you see, which could spill over and suddenly make India attack Pakistan or threaten the border. Pakistan is very uncomfortable in its relationship with India.

And, of course, there's the nuclear problem. India did explode a bomb in 1974. [And in May, '89 it tested a nuclear missile.]

Yes. Once you pander to India, you abandon Pakistan. Pakistan feels it's just a small, kicked around and bullied neighbor to India.

Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto wrote a book called The Myth of Independence, which expressed that sense of being used by the superpowers. How do you feel about Bhutto's years in power?

Well, for me, those years were an exhilarating experience as a woman, and as a member of the minority. He had the sort of values most sophisticated people—in fact, he had the values most people in Pakistan agree with because he won by a huge majority in West Pakistan elections. And people were devoted to him, almost fanatically. At that time, during the elections, there was one party, which is still very much in power, called the Jamaat-e-Islami; they won almost no seats. Whereas whoever Bhutto put up on the call of social reform and a very secular platform got elected by enormous majorities. And that same mood has prevailed.

But it seems he became more and more isolated and defensive over the years.

Somehow, he became paranoid. He felt himself surrounded by enemies. And it wasn't really so much paranoia because he was beleaguered by superpowers. He was definitely targeted by America.

He was executed by Zia in 1979. What did you think then?

Well, when Benazir Bhutto appeared on “Sixty Minutes,” she was asked what she thought of Zia, and would she avenge her father's death. She answered something to the effect: “I don't believe in vendettas.” Naturally, she was very moved by the question and the memories it recalled. But she blamed America as much as Zia for her father's death. Most people in Pakistan believe America was responsible for Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto's death.

Thinking about cultural differences between East and West; first of all, are there differences in ways of storytelling? One reviewer has pointed out that The Crow Eaters is episodic, like an Indian folktale. Do you think a different manner of storytelling is used in the West? Or is there no difference?

No, there is a very enormous difference, especially if you compare America and Pakistan. I think it's pretty true of most western European countries, too. In the West, storytelling has been lost in the byways of verbal acrobatics and the need to be smart and innovative in writing. The story element is very often lost in what they call “literate fiction” in these parts of the world.

The Crow Eaters would be more in the style of my part of the world. It's telling a story. Then, again, I'm writing humor, and humor only comes out in scenes where you milk the scene for every ounce of its humor and drama. But The Crow Eaters is a novel. If you can call a lot of Naipaul's journalistic, self-indulgences a novel, this certainly is a novel.

In The Crow Eaters, Jerbanoo, the mother-in-law, is presented comically. In Ice-Candy-Man, Godmother is not and Lenny looks up to her. Yet, in a way, Godmother and Jerbanoo are very much alike. Has the attitude of the writer changed towards this type of woman?

These are two different people, though with some similar characteristics. But Godmother has somehow been able to become empowered. She has come to a stage in life where she's not dependent on men. Godmother's old husband is feeble by now. He's been relegated to the background. He's had his day. And she has come into her own as a woman. Whereas, in Jerbanoo's case, she is a widow and is still dependent for everything on her son-in-law. And, of course, the whole treatment of the story, the plot, the requirements of character is different in each book.

In Ice-Candy-Man, the narrator makes some very funny observations on Ghandi—with his weaving and talking about his digestive problems—and says that Ghandi is “an improbable mixture of a demon and a clown.” Later the narrator shows high regard for Jinah as a more reserved and serious politician. Do you agree with the narrator's point of view?

Yes. This comes down to a statement I'm trying to make in the book that there have been films like Ghandi which have sanitized him into a saint. He's not human in that film. And I tried to humanize him. While watching Ghandi, I enjoyed it as a writer and a person who is interested in drama. I looked at him from the perspective of the film which portrayed him totally as a hero, and I enjoyed the film. But at the end of it—my daughter and her friend were sitting with me, and they were almost in tears. They said, “How could you like the movie, Mommy? Didn't you see what they did to Jinah?” And they felt that they, as Pakistanis, had been personally hurt by the way Jinah had been treated in that movie. He was caricatured as a stick figure, as a very stiff villain of the piece. And I felt, in Ice-Candy-Man, I was just redressing in a small way, a very grievous wrong that has been done to Jinah and Pakistanis by many Indian and British writers. They've dehumanized him, made him a symbol of the sort of person who brought about the partition of India, a person who was hard-headed and obstinate. Whereas, in reality, he was the only constitutional man who didn't sway crowds just by rhetoric, and tried to do everything by the British standards of constitutional law.

Ghandi totally Hinduized the whole partition movement. This excluded the Muslims there. He brought religion into the Congress Party. And Jinah, who was one of the founders of the party, found he had to edge away from it because it was changing into a Hindu party.

Just one more question—a rather large one: What can the writer do? What makes writing important?

Well, I don't think the writer can—not a writer of fiction—change the world. I don't think so at all—or, if so, very little in practical terms. There are exceptions. Certain writers maybe are able to do it. The poet Neruda is one example. It depends, I suppose, on what country you inhabit and at what time. But I do think that a writer can at least place facts so that people recognize themselves and stop taking themselves too seriously or start seeing themselves in a more realistic light. We all are so prone to see ourselves as a little better than the other person. Some readers have commented, “Oh, you made me see myself.” Or “I'm an Oxford or Harvard educated person, and I find that really my thinking is no different from that tribal gentleman's in that tribal landscape you've portrayed.” And I feel my writing is at least making some people aware of what they are. That's going to have some impact.

Then there are these incidents I can describe where I feel very concerned about injustices, whether it is the behaviour of superpowers or the oppression of women or an injustice done to political leaders or to a country. At least, I think a lot of readers in Pakistan, especially with Ice-Candy-Man, feel that I've given them a voice, which they did not have before. They've always been portrayed in a very unfavorable light. It's been fashionable to kick Pakistan, and it's been done again and again by various writers living in the West.

So a voice gives … ?

It gives them a little self-esteem. This is a very strange thing, but the Western media has become so powerful that people in my part of the world are beginning to believe it. Their self-esteem is being eroded by their presentation as inferior persons. They're thinking less of themselves. And this has some strange results. When I was in Pakistan recently, I was suddenly struck by the fact that on a front page of a newspaper I saw an item saying: “Twelve Americans died, skiing in Colorado.” Then somewhere locked up in the middle pages, I saw a little item saying: “A bus fell down a gorge in the Karakorams, and fifteen people died.” So, you know, we have been diminished, in our own eyes. And that is the power of the media. And I feel, if there's one little thing I could do, it's to make people realize: We are not worthless because we inhabit a poor country or because we inhabit a country which is seen by Western eyes as a primitive, fundamentalist country only … I mean, we are a rich mixture of all sorts of forces as well, and our lives are very much worth living.

Maria Couto (review date 1 April 1988)

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SOURCE: Couto, Maria. “In Divided Times.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4435 (1 April 1988): 363.

[In the following excerpt, Couto comments that, while Sidhwa's storytelling talents are impressive, Ice-Candy-Man is ultimately flawed due to the author's problematic rendering of narrative voice.]

Bapsi Sidhwa's new novel—whose very title, Ice-Candy-Man, and the popsicles the eponymous trader sells, belong to a scene far removed from the subcontinent where we know the ubiquitous icecreamwalla—is an attempt to deal with the facts of history and the traumas of Partition. Sidhwa, a Pakistani now resident in America, is quite firm in her resolve to subvert what she sees as the Indian version: “And today, forty years later, in films of Gandhi's and Mountbatten's lives, in books by British and Indian scholars, Jinnah, who for a decade was known as ‘Ambassador of Hindu-Muslim Unity’ is caricatured, and portrayed as a monster.” The carping turns vicious when Mahatma Gandhi is involved:

He is a man who loves women. And lame children. And the untouchable sweeper—so he will love the untouchable sweeper's constipated girl-child best … ice lurks deep beneath the hypnotic and dynamic femininity of Gandhi's non-violent exterior.

Such testimony, most of it seen through the eyes of eight-year-old Lenny—who is firmly established as a truthful witness, unlike, say, Saleem Sinai, the unreliable narrator of Midnight's Children, who is often confused about his recall of events—disregards the fact that Mahatma Gandhi refused to participate in the government of the new nation because he opposed Partition.

Lenny tells her story—or, more accurately, her Hindu ayah's story—within the framework of her Parsi household. Ayah is warm, vibrant, earthy; equally evocative are the frolics of her many admirers. The most persistent of them is the Muslim ice-candy-man with his “stinking cigarette clenched in his fist, his flashy scarves and reek of jasmine attar”, selling popsicles or parakeets, inventing a higher status for himself in Pakistan as poet or bastard prince. Sidhwa's sometimes gifted storytelling is marred, though, by her device of the child's voice mouthing adult perceptions and anachronisms. Surely it is inappropriate to call the Sikhs at that time “Akalis … a bloody bunch of murdering fanatics”.

Tariq Rahman (review date autumn 1988)

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SOURCE: Rahman, Tariq. Review of Ice-Candy-Man, by Bapsi Sidhwa. World Literature Today 62, no. 4 (autumn 1988): 732-33.

[In the following review, Rahman offers a positive assessment of Ice-Candy-Man, praising the novel's sophisticated and effective narrative techniques.]

Ice-Candy-Man is Bapsi Sidhwa's third novel, following The Crow Eaters (1978) and The Bride (1983; see WLT 58:4, p. 667). As in the first two, the mode of narration is realistic. The quality of this surface realism is a product of acute intelligence, integrity, and imagination, the same qualities which enabled her to portray the life of the Parsi community with unflattering verisimilitude in The Crow Eaters and to which the conflict between the male-dominant values of the tribesmen and the people of the cities owes its power in The Bride. In the new work, however, the emphasis is not on representing phenomenal reality faithfully. The novel is an imaginative response to the traumatic events of the Partition of India in 1947, and Sidhwa has used surrealistic techniques, somewhat like Salman Rushdie, to make it an adequate symbol for the effect of external events on human beings.

The logical narrative which can be abstracted from Ice-Candy-Man involves a love story. The voluptuous and much-wooed Ayah, a Hindu, is abducted by Muslim hoodlums and raped. Somehow she comes into the hands of her admirer, the Ice-Candy-Man, who makes her a dancing girl and marries her. She is discovered by the narrator Lenny's godmother, who arranges her rescue and sends her to India. Ice-Candy-Man “too, disappears across the Wagah border into India” in pursuit of her.

That story is of little significance in Sidhwa's sophisticated, symbolic novel, however. More important are the narrative techniques, for they contribute to the work's total effect. Foremost among them is the first-person, present-tense narration. Lenny, like Saleem Sinai in Rushdie's Midnight's Children (1981; see WLT 56:1, p. 181), is—or was—a child when the events described take place, and the events are seen through her consciousness, the present tense providing immediacy and a certain simultaneity between past and present. By the end of both novels the narrator knows much about human perfidy, mainly through the impact of external events. Lenny learns of the perverse nature of amorous human passions from her experiences with her cousin Hamida, who woos her with a determination equaled only by the Ice-Candy-Man's pursuit of Ayah; religious passion's potential for breeding fanatical hatred and violence, as in the killing of the Hindus in Lahore and the Muslims in the Punjab of the Sikhs, is reflected in the story of Lenny's friend Ranna, a harrowing account of the human atrocities that can be perpetrated when all civilized restraints are removed through external events or political propaganda.

Without a word of protestation or preaching and without histrionics, Sidhwa has written one of the most powerful indictments of the riots which occurred during the Partition. Previously there was almost nothing in English on the subject except for several works by Khwaja Ahmad Abbas and a few short stories by H. K. Burki and Tabussum. There was of course much that was good in Urdu literature and other languages, but only Khushwant Singh's Train to Pakistan (1956) took up the theme of the Partition. Now there is Ice-Candy-Man, which shows the human personality under stress as a result of that cataclysmic event and depicts a society responding to it in the way societies do react: through sheer indifference, gossip, trivial and malicious activities, making love, and also killing, raping, and going insane. These last aspects of reality are often lost in novels and short stories in which the trivial, the absurd, the obscene is not juxtaposed with the tragic, the sublime, and the momentous. Sidhwa's novel manages to do just that, and to do so with great symbolic significance. I consider it among the best works of Pakistani fiction in English and one of the truly good novels of this century.

Kamala Edwards (review date fall 1991)

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SOURCE: Edwards, Kamala. “Cracked Identities.” Belles Lettres 7, no. 1 (fall 1991): 47-8.

[In the following review, Edwards compliments Cracking India for its incisive and poignant depiction of the Partition of India.]

In Bapsi Sidhwa's novel Cracking India, the reader encounters a richly textured, multicultural society suddenly in flux. Within three months, seven million Muslims and five million Hindus and Sikhs find themselves uprooted in “the largest and most terrible exchange of population known to history.” But the 1947 partition made Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs each other's enemies, overnight. Subsequently, “one man's religion became another man's poison,” and religious affiliations and national identity emerge as crucial points of conflict in the novel.

Memories of partition surface in all three of Sidhwa's novels, but are nowhere as penetrating and poignantly recalled as in Cracking India. The narrator, Lenny, a polio-stricken Parsee, finds that she has become a “Pakistani in a snap. Just like that.” Lenny has seen the aspirations, trauma, and travail of the Muslim, Hindu, and Sikh men, women, and children with whom she grew up. She has had many teachers—her extended family: mother, father, aunt, Godmother; and cousin Adi; her servants; and her neighbors. When Lenny's world suddenly cracks, friends become enemies as the new nationalism, mingled with a vicious fanaticism, takes its toll on well-established human relationships. Lenny's episodic narrative of the local gossip, bizarre and brutal killings of friends, the kidnapping and rape of Shanta Ayah (her beloved nanny), the cruel betrayal by Shanta's admirer Ice-candy man, and the murder of Shanta's lover, Masseur, challenge the reader to sort out the contradictions and confusion that now permeate the eight-year-old child's fractured world.

When Masseur's body is found in a gunnysack, Ayah is haunted by his memory; she stops receiving visitors, trusts no one, and ignores the amorous advances of Ice-candy man. Lenny is shocked and shaken when an angry Muslim mob of looters enter her home. She recognizes Ice-candy man in this crowd of fanatics. He promises not to harm Ayah, but then betrays Lenny's trust by kidnapping Ayah.

While Lenny and her family remain in Pakistan, high-caste Brahmins move across the border to live in peaceful Indian communities. On the other hand, in order to survive the Muslim onslaught, Lenny's servant friends, the Untouchable sweeper Moti and his daughter Papoo, choose to remain in Pakistan because low-caste Hindus would not be better off in India. However, Moti does become a Christian and Hari the gardener converts to Islam. Even kidnapped Ayah Shanta has to take on a new Muslim name.

Against this background of social stigmas emanating from caste, creed, and cultural differences, the novel depicts a minority community's struggle for existence and its efforts to maintain its identity. Lenny and family are Parsees—the smallest minority in Pakistan. Although Lenny's family is proud of its Parsee heritage and Zoroastrian traditions, they learn to accommodate themselves to new norms in order to survive. Parsees tell each other, “We have to be extra wary or we'll be nowhere. … We must tread carefully … we must hunt with the hounds and run with the hare.” Thus, despite the seeming incongruity, Parsees observe the Jashans prayer ceremony to celebrate the British victory at the end of World War II. Lenny folds her hands in prayer and recites the 101 names of God in the ancient Avastan language of the Parsees when she anguishes over the secret missions of her mother and aunt; Mother prepares on Fridays to invoke the help of “great Trouble Eaters, the angels Mushkail Assan and Behram Yazd” as she smuggles rationed petrol to enable Sikh and Hindu friends to run away. Lenny's extended family is proud of its Parsee heritage, and Sidhwa designs family dialogues to enlighten the reader about the Zoroastrian faith and its rituals.

Sidhwa is a feminist and a realist. One sees in her women characters the strength of passion, the tenderness of love, and the courage of one's convictions. They struggle to overcome the hurts of time and escape the grip of a fate in whose hands they are often mere puppets—“polio stricken” Lenny, “widowed” Electric Aunt, “childless” Godmother, “fallen” Ayah, and “child bride” Papoo. But cracked identities and broken hearts are not condemned. Sidhwa's women overcome great odds, and they are not “bad” because they have been raped, widowed, abandoned, handicapped, or sterile.

Although Sidhwa's description of the partition experience is intensely emotional, the novel is not without flaws. Lenny is less than convincing when she mouths adult perceptions, especially about British politics. Some readers may find that Sidhwa tends occasionally to pander to Western tastes, or reinforces communal stereotypes and biases while seeking to inject relief via farcical scenes replete with sexual imagery, bathroom humor, and profanity. Nevertheless, Sidhwa's novel provides a fascinating cross-cultural vignette of how broken lives triumph when the past is forgiven, even if fate cannot be undone.

Jagdev Singh (essay date 1992)

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SOURCE: Singh, Jagdev. “Ice-Candy-Man: A Parsi Perception on the Partition of India.” Literary Criterion 27, no. 3 (1992): 23-35.

[In the following essay, Singh examines Ice-Candy-Man as a novel about the Partition of India told from the unique perspective of a sensitive Parsi girl. Singh comments that the story focuses on the effect of the Partition on the Parsi community as a whole.]

The Partition of the Indian sub-continent in 1947 is one of the great tragedies, the magnitude, ambit and savagery of which compels one to search for the larger meaning of events, and to come to terms with the lethal energies that set off such vast conflagrations. There have been a number of novels written on the horrors of the Partition holocaust on both sides of the Radcliff line: Khushwant Singh's Train to Pakistan (1956), Attia Hossain's Sunlight on a Broken Column (1961) and Chaman Nahal's Azadi (1975) present the Indian perception of the traumatic experiences while Mehr Nigar Masroor's Shadows of Time (1987) projects the Pakistani version of the tragic events, though both the versions are free from religious bias and written more in agony and compassion than in anger.

What distinguishes Bapsi Sidhwa's Ice-Candy-Man (1988)1 is the prism of Parsi sensitivity through which the cataclysmic event is depicted. Ice-Candy-Man is, so far, the only novel written by a Parsi on the theme of Partition. While the novel shows in the beginning the non-committal attitude of the Parsi community towards the flux in which the various communities of India found themselves in the beginning of the twentieth century, it distils the love-hate relationship of the Hindus and Muslims through the consciousness and point of view of Lenny, an unusually precocious five year old Parsi girl.

While the novel has attracted attention from Indian scholars and media persons, the studies themselves have been sketchy and inadequate. Madhu Jain in her review of the novel highlights the dilemma the Parsi community faced at the dawn of Independence: The parsi dilemma is: whom do they cast their lot with?”2 But perhaps because of the limitations of space, she does not go beyond this observation to analyse how the pattern of communal relations were subjected to a maddening change during the Partition. Although Khushwant Singh's review3 of the novel is comparatively longer, yet it, too, refrains from tracing at length the changing pattern of communal relations which form an integral part of this book.

In view of the obvious inadequacy of critical attention that this novel has received, this paper attempts to analyse the framework of the changing pattern of communal relations that continuously breaths underneath the narrative structure of this novel in order to evaluate its strengths and weaknesses as an aesthetic whole.

Set in Lahore, Bapsi Sidhwa's Ice-Candy-Man sets the tone and tenor of the events described in the very beginning of the novel. The tone of neutrality manifest in the narrator-character Lenny, in describing the climactic incidents of Partition, is anticipated in the Parsi get-together for the Jashan Prayer, to celebrate British victory, at the Fire Temple in Lahore. While the Parsis have all along been loyal to the British government: they, however, fear the Partition of India and consequently, are in a fix as to which community they should support. Col. Bharuch, the domineering Parsi doctor and the President of the ‘Parsee Anjuman’ sounds the note of caution:

There may be not one but two—or even three—new nations! And the Parsees might find themselves championing the wrong side—if they don't look before they leap!

(p. 37)

An “impatient voice” in the congregation replies sarcastically:

If we are stuck with the Hindus they'll swipe our business from under our noses, and sell our grandfathers in the bargain: if we are stuck with the Muslim's they'll convert us by the sword! And God help us if we're stuck with the Sikhs!

(p. 37)

It is at this moment of Prufrockian dilemma that Col. Bharuch allays the fears of his community by advising them to cast their lot with whoever rules Lahore:

Let whoever wishes rule! Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Christian! We will abide by the rules of their land!

(p. 39)

Thus the note is struck. The Parsis are going to be neutral in the tug of war among the three major communities of India. The neutral attitude of the narrator character, Lenny, has its roots in this racial psychology of the Parsis. In a way, the attitude of the Parsi community revealed here is the externalised collective sub-consciousness of Lenny.

As the action of the novel unfolds, we confront a pattern of communal amity where the three communities—the Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs—are still at peace with one another. But the intimations of an imminent death and destruction lurk in the symbolic significance of Lenny's nightmares at the break of dawn. In one of these nightmares she faces an immaculate Nazi soldier “coming to get me (Lenny) on his motorcycle.” Another nightmare that she recalls from her childhood which is more telling and suggestive is that of “men in uniforms quietly slice(ing) of a child's arm here, a leg there.” She feels as if the child in the nightmare is herself. She pictures her Godmother as stroking her head as they “dismember” her. She says:

I feel no pain, only an abysmal sense of loss—and a chilling horror that no one is concerned by what's happening.

(p. 22)

The nightmare symbolises the impending vivisection of India which was as cruel as the dismemberment of that child. Lenny's lack of pain, however, is suggestive of her community's indifference on account of its aloofness from the religio-political convulsion. This chilling horror that she feels over no one being concerned by what is happening sums up the lack of concern on the part of the authorities to check the unbridled display of barbarism during Partition.

Still another nightmare that Lenny has is that of a zoo lion breaking loose and mercilessly mauling her:

… the hungry lion, cutting across Lawrence Road to Birdwood Road, prowls from the rear of the house to the bedroom door, and in one bare-fanged leap crashes through to sink his fangs into my stomach … Whether he roars at night or not, I awake every morning to the lion's roar. He sets about it at the crack of dawn, blighting my dreams.

(pp. 23-24)

The hungry lion which invariably appears at the crack of dawn seems to be a symbol of the flood of mutual hatred that the dawn of Indian Independence released to cause havoc to the Hindus, the Muslims and the Sikhs on both sides of the border. Thus, with these three nightmares that Lenny has, the novelist prepares the reader for the gruesome and gory pattern of communal discord that became blatantly obvious during Partition.

Having planted these two authorial guide posts in the structure of the novel, Sidhwa deftly hands over narration to Lenny, who narrates the story of the changing pattern of communal relations. As the action of the novel moves forward, we perceive the pattern of communal amity that still exists in rural India, between the Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs. On her maiden visit to Pir Pindo, a Muslim village 30 miles east of Lahore, Lenny has her first experience of rural life. She finds the Muslims of Pir Pindo and Sikhs from the neighbouring village of Dera Tek Singh sitting together and sharing their concern about the worsening communal relations in the cities. Sharing the village Mullah's concern about it is the Sikh priest, Jagjeet Singh. His words have the ring of the religious concord in Pir Pindo and adjoining villages:

“Brother, our villages come from the same racial stock. Muslim or Sikh, we are basically Jats. We are brothers. How can we fight each other?

(p. 56)

As the conversation continues, we have a glimpse of the contrasting communal attitudes of townmen and country-folk, in the words of the Chaudhry of Pir Pindo:

… our relationships with the Hindus are bound by strong ties. The city folk can afford to fight … we can't. We are dependent on each other: bound by our toil; by Mandi prices set by the Banyas—they're our common enemy—those city Hindus. To us villagers, what does it matter if a peasant is a Hindu, or a Muslim, or a Sikh?

(p. 56)

The village Chaudhry's remarks have a historical authenticity. The Unionist Party of Punjab was a pro-farmer political party of the Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs struggling against the stranglehold of the Hindu money-lending class. That this party should have won at the hustings in the 1937 Provincial Elections, despite a stiff resistance from the Congress and the Muslim league, is indicative of the unstinted support that it got from the villagers of all the communities in Punjab. A renowned sociologist, M. L. Darling echoes the Chaudhry's remarks when he says:

A class of Hindu money-lenders had arisen in the Punjab which had enriched itself by exploiting the helpless peasantry …4

In fact, the roots of communal amity in rural Punjab go so deep that the members of the two communities are even ready to sacrifice their lives for protecting each other. “If need be, we'll protect our Muslim brothers with our lives!” says Jagjeet Singh. “I am prepared to take an oath on the Holy Koran”, declares the village Chaudhry, “that every man in this village will guard his Sikh brothers with no regard for his own life!” (pp. 56-57). One gets the impression that rural Punjab is an oasis of communal fraternity in the desert of communal hatred that is ever expanding to spread its tentacles to engulf the two communities in the cities. At this stage of Indian history the pattern of communal relations between the two rural communities, despite buffetings from outside, was still that of harmony and concord.

The rumblings of communal discord soon reach Lahore. Lenny's parents often entertain guests who are drawn not only from their own community but also from the British and Sikh community. It is at one of these dinner parties that the Inspector General, Mr. Rogers expresses the view that the differences between the Congress under the leadership of Nehru and the Muslim league under Jinnah are pushing India to the brink of Partition. He feels that it is the English who are acting as a lid on this cauldron of flaming passions between the two communities. Mr. Singh, however, thinks that once India gains Independence, they will be able to settle all their differences, as these have been created by the British: “You always set one up against the other … you just give Home Rule and see. We will settle our differences and everything!” (p. 63) Mr. Singh echoes the views of the Congress at that time that wanted to present the picture of a conflict-free society before the British so as to hasten the process of gaining Independence. The Congress was conscious that internal divisions would delay the liberation of the country as the British could justify their presence on grounds of maintenance of peace and stability. An Indian historian, Mujeeb, highlights Mr. Singh's views viz-a-viz the Congress approach at that time:

… (these) considerations made the Congress hold that the minority problem could wait till the country became independent …5

Underlying the basic unity among the various religions of India is the Hindu Ayah and her multi-religious throng of admirers. Taking their turn one by one: the Mali Hari, the Ice-Candy man, the masseur, Sharabat Khan, Imam Din and Sher Singh, all converge on this focal point. The Ayah is indiscriminating towards all and it is in this that she becomes a symbol of the composite culture that India is. Interestingly enough, as the events roll ahead with a relentless speed, the group of Ayah's admirers begins to dwindle. A similar symbol of the Unity of Indian religions is provided by the visitors to the Queen's Park where men of all religions and creeds rub shoulders with one another. With the imminence of Partition, the Park presents a picture of different religious groups keeping away from one another's company. The passions run high even when men different religious communities talk and chat with one another. A reference to Gandhi, Nehru and Patel's influence in London evokes a retort from Masseur who feels that in ousting Vavell, they have got a ‘fair man’ sacked. The Ice-Candy man goes a step further:

“With all due respect, malijee”, says Ice-Candy man, surveying the gardener through a blue mist of exhaled smoke, “but aren't you Hindus expert at just this kind of thing? Twisting tails behind the scene … and getting someone else to slaughter your goats?”

(pp. 90-91)

When the Government House gardener tries to cool the passions by imputing the differences between the Hindus and the Muslims to the English, the butcher with his “dead pan way of speaking” remarks:

“Just the English?” asks Butcher. “Haven't the Hindus connived with the Angrez to ignore the Muslim League, and support a party that didn't win a single seat in the Punjab? It's just the kind of thing we fear. They manipulate one or two Muslims against the interests of the larger community …”

(p. 92)

Thus the novelist shows the gradual emergence of the pattern of communal discord in urban India.

As the setting sun of the British Empire gathers its parting rays before sinking into oblivion, the lumpen element around Ayah meet less frequently at the Queen's Park and more at the ‘Wresler's Restaurant.’ The geographical shift in their get-together is a premonition of the emergence of the pattern of communal discord. The British Queen whose statue stands abandoned in the Park, is soon going to relinquish her suzerainty over India and the Wrestler's Restaurant to which all flock now is a symbol of the wrestling ring that Partition is going to raise on the joint borders of India and Pakistan. Discussing the fate of the Punjab in the event of Partition, Masseur hopes that if the Punjab is divided, Lahore will go to Pakistan. The Government House gardener, however, hopes that this will not come true as the Hindus have much of their money invested there. At this the Sikh Zoo attendant, Sher Singh shouts:

And what about us? The Sikhs hold more farm land in the Punjab than the Hindus and Muslims put together!

(p. 120)

When Masseur advises Sher Singh that it would be good for their community to cast their lot with one country rather than be divided into two halves and lose thereby their “clout in either place”, Sher Singh, like the lions he tends, turns on him:

You don't worry about our clout! We can look out for ourselves … you'll feel our clout all right when the time comes!

(p. 129)

Seeing Sher Singh in a high temper, the butcher, with his professional mercilessness, cites the English, who call the Sikhs a “bloody nuisance.” At this Sher Singh and the “restaurant owning wrestler” threaten the Muslims with dire consequences in the event of Partition. The verbal skirmishes between the butcher and the Masseur on the one hand, and the Government House gardener, Sher Singh and the wrestler restaurant-owner on the other, show how deep the pattern of communal discord among the Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs has become. The course of the changing pattern of communal relations seems to augur ill for the three communities as Partition looms large on the horizon.

Filtered, as these widening differences are, through the prism of the Parsi character-narrator, Lenny, her response to these relations becomes significant. Commenting on these changes, Lenny, and by implication, the novelist herself, remarks:

Gandhi, Jinnah, Nehru, Iqbal, Tara Singh, Mountbatten are names I hear. And I become aware of religious differences. It is sudden. One day everybody is themselves—and the next day they are Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Christian. People shrink, dwindling into symbols. Ayah is no longer just my all encompassing Ayah—she is also a token. A Hindu …

(p. 93)

That these changes should have sunk even into the mind of the tender and immature Lenny, speaks of the extent to which the various communities of India had become conscious of their individual identity at the cost of the composite culture they had evolved after centuries. As time passes, Lenny becomes aware of the new-found religious fervour among Ayah's admirers. Not only are the differences within the cast hierarchy of the Hindus accentuated but also the racial differences among the Christians heightened. The English Christians look down upon the Anglo-Indians, who, snub the Indian Christians who, themselves, in turn, regard all non-Christians with a supercilious air. In this atmosphere of heightened communal consciousness, the Parsis are reduced to “irrelevant nomenclatures.” Bapsi Sidhwa, thus, paints a miniature picture of the pattern of communal discord that then prevailed and simultaneously turns the neutrality of the Parsis. In the mock-epic manner, she holds up these differences to ridicule by showing how they had even affected the classification of jokes: “Cousin erupts with a fresh crop Sikh jokes. And there are Hindu, Muslim, Parsee and Christian jokes.” The denunciation that jokes undergo because of the communal differences derides the very essence of these differences.

By showing the adverse influence of an imminent Partition, the novelist draws a line between national politics and the relationship among different communities. Partition is shown to be the result of irreconcilability of the adamant and rash leadership of India. In the dinner party, that has been referred to earlier, the Inspector General, Rogers wonders how far Hindus and Sikhs will be able to settle their differences with the Muslims so long as they acknowledge the leadership of men like Master Tara Singh, Gandhi and Nehru. In fact, the malevolent nature of the differences between the Congress and the Muslim League on the ordinary people of India is rightly anticipated by Sharbat Khan when he cautions Ayah:

These are bad times—Allah knows what's in store. There is big trouble in Calcutta and Delhi: Hindu-Muslim trouble. The Congress-wallahs are after Jinnah's blood. …

(p. 75)

Ayah, however, shakes off this caution with a casual remark:

“What's it to us if Jinnah, Nehru and Patel fight? They are not fighting our fight”, says Ayah, lightly.

(p. 75)

However, Sharbat Khan does not agree with her assessment and is of the opinion that though that “may be true but they are stirring up trouble for us all.” Here he becomes a persona of the novelist and comments that it was the intransigent sectarianism of the national leaders which wrought havoc on the pattern of communal amity existing in rural India.

As the fever of Partition runs high, Lenny notices “a lot of hushed talk.” Everywhere “men huddled around bicycles or squat against walls in whispering groups.” The fear of Partition and the violence it would unleash drives the common man to think about his safety. On her second visit to Pir Pindo, Lenny goes along with the members of Imam Din's family to Dera Tek Singh on the occasion of Baisakhi. As they reach the village, the festival is already in full swing. It is in the midst of these gay activities that Ranna senses the steel of suspicion and fear. Bapsi Sidhwa captures this feeling thus:

And despite the gaiety and destruction Ranna senses the chill spread by the presence of strangers; their unexpected faces harsh and cold. A Sikh youth whom Ranna has met few times, and who has always been kind, pretends not to notice Ranna. Other men, who would normally smile at Ranna, slide their eyes past. Little by little, without his being aware of it, his smile becomes strained and his laughter strident.

(p. 106)

The apathy of Ranna's friends is symptomatic of the tension which the arrival of the “Akalis” in Dera Tek Singh has generated. Dost Mohammad, Ranna's father, too, has noticed the intrusion of a new factor in the communal atmosphere of Dera Tek Singh. When he refers to them during his conversation with the genial faced Granthi, Jagjeet Singh, he learns about their sinister designs from the affable Granthi:

The Granthi's genial face becomes uncommonly solemn … he says: “… The Akalis swarm around like angry hornets in their blue turbans. … They talk of a plan to drive the Muslims out of East Punjab. … They say they won't live with the Mussulmans if there is to be a Pakistan. … Trouble makers. You'll have to look out till this evil blows over.”

(p. 107)

The patterns of communal relations between Lenny's first and second visit to Pir Pindo are, therefore, poles apart. While during her first visit, the Sikhs and the Muslims had pledged their lives to save each other from any intruders, during her second visit, that enthusiasm has evaporated in the heat of the violence that the Akalis hold out for anyone who comes in the way of their resolve. The pattern of communal harmony has been replaced by the pattern of fear and suspicion between the two communities.

It is in this surcharged atmosphere that the Akali leader, Master Tara Singh, visits Lahore. Addressing a vast congregation outside the Assembly chambers he shouts:

We will see how the Muslim swine get Pakistan! We will fight to the last man! We will show them who will leave Lahore! Raj Karega Khalsa, aki rahi na koi

(pp. 133-34)

His address is greeted with the roar of “Pakistan Murdabad! Death to Pakistan! Sat Sri Akal! Bolay so nihal! The Muslims, in turn, shout “So? We'll play Holi-with-their blood! Ho-o-oli with their blo-o-d!” (p. 134). With both the communities having taken up their positions, the ensuing festival of Holi becomes a blood-soaked festival. The pattern of communal amity that existed before the Baisakhi of that year got shattered in the blood-bath of Holi during Partition.

What follows Partition is the unbridled ventilation of the pent up rancour between the two communities on both sides of the border. While the Muslims of Pir Pindo—that fell on the Indian side of the border—are subjected to mass slaughter by the marauding gangs of the Akalis from the surrounding Sikh villages, the Hindus and Sikhs of Lahore undergo a similar harrowing experience. Their fate gets blighted when a train-load of corpses from across the border reaches Lahore. Ice-Candy man's relations lie dead in the heap of carcasses in the ill-fated train. Imam Din's entire family has been wiped out in Pir Pindo. Ranna alone has survived to tell to gruesome tale. While the ambers of Partition goad Ice-Candy man to join the marauding hooligans out to kill and destroy the vestiges of the Hindu and Sikh presence in Lahore, Imam Din remains calm in the face of all calamities. The distinction between the two becomes marked when a gang of Muslim hooligans comes to abduct Ayah. Imam Din goes to the extent of telling a lie about Ayah: “Allah-ki-Kasam, she's gone.” In contrast, Ice-Candy man not only abducts her and throws her to the wolves of Passion in a Kotha but also kills out of jealousy his co-religionist Masseur. Thus, the novelist shows that the defenders of Islam who turned Lahore into a burning city were not even true proponents of Islam. Imam Din's character, therefore, shines in this novel as that of Kamala in B. Rajan's The Dark Dancer (1958).

While the flames of communal passions leap up in the skies of Lahore, the Parsis, who till now, have maintained a safe distance from this communal conflagration, act as the Messiah of the Hindus and Sikhs trapped in the burning city. They, as Lenny learns later on, help in their transportation to India. Even Ayah is rescued by Lenny's Godmother and is sent to her parents in Amritsar. Thus, inspired by a feeling of humanism, the Parsis shake off their passive neutrality and become the agents of a healing process.

The change from the pattern of communal discord to that of reconciliation is, however, traced in the person of the Ice-Candy man. Though his role in the cataclysmic events of Partition is painted in lurid colours, his growing passion and love for Ayah is shown to redeem him from the morass of senseless communal hatred. From a rough and rustic man, always ready to nudge Ayah, the Ice-Candy man becomes a person of refined sensibility; he steeps himself in poetry. When Ayah is wrenched away from him and sent to Amritsar, he follows her across the border. That the Ice-Candy man is willing to leave the land, that he so much cherishes, for the sake of his Hindu beloved, is not only an example of self-sacrifice but also symbolic of a future rapprochement between the two warring communities—the Muslims and Hindus. Though Bapsi Sidhwa shows the possibility of the emergence of a harmonious pattern of communal relations between the Hindus and Muslims sometimes in the future, yet she leaves much unsaid about how the change in the Ice-Candy man's personality comes about.

Thus, the analysis of the changing pattern of communal relations shows a pattern of communal amity between the Hindus and Sikhs, on the one hand, and the Muslims on the other, in the pre-Partition era, a growing impatience and mistrust between them on the eve of partition culminating in the pattern of utter communal discord during Partition and the pattern of reconciliation in the breaking of the dawn of understanding between them in the distant horizon during the post-Partition era. Related very closely to these changing patterns of communal relations is the sea-change in the attitude of the Parsi community from the bald egg-shell of passive neutrality to an active neutrality towards the pattern of communal discord swirling around them during Partition.

Though Bapsi Sidhwa's novel does focus on the changing attitude of the Parsi community, it leaves out the exploration of the dilemma that the Parsi community had to resolve regarding its unnatural schismatic division between Indian and Pakistani Parsis. While the novel cannot be faulted for that, one does feel the need of yet another Parsi novel on the Partition which would explore and express this vital aspect.


  1. Bapsi Sidhwa: Ice-Candy-Man (First published by William Heinemann Ltd., 1988), London: Penguin Books, 1989. All page references are to this edition of the book.

  2. Madhu Jain: “Sensitive Servings: Deshpande and Sidhwa fetch notice”, India Today, September 15, 1989, p. 47.

  3. Khushwant Singh: “Ice-Candy-Man: Partition Story”, Saturday Plus, The Tribune, January 13, 1990, p. 1.

  4. M. L. Darling: The Punjab Peasant in Prosperity and Debt, London, 1925, p. 116.

  5. M. Mujeeb: Indian Muslims, London, 1967, f.n. 7.

Edward Hower (review date 24 November 1992)

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SOURCE: Hower, Edward. “Endearing Indian Tale.” Washington Post Book World (24 November 1992): E2.

[In the following review, Hower offers high praise for The Crow Eaters, applauding Sidhwa for her endearing characters and effective use of humor, farce, and satire.]

Bapsi Sidhwa, Pakistan's leading female author, has written two powerful, serious novels and one very funny one. Cracking India, which was reissued here to critical acclaim last year, and The Bride, also well received when it was published in 1983, dealt with such themes as ethnic violence and the exploitation of Asian women.

The Crow Eaters, the author's first novel, which has just been reissued, 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 Lahore 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 India's smallest and wealthiest religious group, take care of their own.

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 Moslems 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. “As for me,” she says, “I was never idle. Even when your grandfather was making love I busied myself removing blackheads from his neck and shoulders.”

When the family visits London, 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?”

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.

Edit Villarreal (review date 12 December 1993)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 741

SOURCE: Villarreal, Edit. “Feroza Goes Native.” Washington Post Book World 23, no. 50 (12 December 1993): 7.

[In the following review, Villarreal comments that An American Brat is an “affecting, amusing, and enjoyable” novel about a young woman's coming of age and the immigrant experience in America.]

Coming of age is never easy. Coming of age as a woman is even harder. But coming of age as a female immigrant in a foreign country may be the most difficult of all. For many women born into societies with restrictive social and political codes, however, immigration may be the only real way to come of age. In An American Brat, Pakistani-born novelist Bapsi Sidhwa reveals with a humorous yet incisive eye the exhilarating freedom and profound sense of loss that make up the immigrant experience in America.

Sidhwa begins her novel in Lahore, Pakistan. Feroza Gunwalla, a 16-year-old Parsee, is mortified by the sight of her mother appearing at her school with her arms uncovered. For Zareen Gunwalla, Feroza's outspoken 40-something mother, it is a chilling moment. The Parsees, a small sect in Pakistan, take great pride in their liberal values, business acumen, and—most importantly—the education of their children. Zareen's family, the Junglewallas—a fictional clan chronicled in Sidhwa's previous two novels, The Crow Eaters and Cracking India—have for generations bred strong-willed, independent women. Zareen knows she must do something to keep her daughter from being further influenced by the morals of the majority Muslim government.

But what can a free-thinking Parsee mom do when she sees her daughter becoming “more and more backward”? Send her to America, of course.

Feroza is packed off to visit her Uncle Manek, a student at MIT. But as Zareen waves goodbye to her daughter, she cannot know that in America Feroza will become more independent than Zareen ever dreamt, or hoped, was possible.

With Uncle Manek, Feroza quickly sees both the squalor and the beauty that America offers. In New York, she's repelled by the smells of the city. Yet Feroza sees that, along with the stench, America possesses luxuries and a utilitarian efficiency that are almost magical.

In the end, though, it's not material comfort that seduces Feroza into a love affair with America. Nor is it the stares from handsome young American men. What seduces her is the candor, the unabashed freedom, behind those stares. Wanting to get beyond her own self-consciousness, Feroza decides to prolong her stay.

But Manek, fearing “the catastrophe that could take the shape of a good-looking non-Parsee man,” places Feroza in a small, strictly supervised Mormon college in Twin Falls, Idaho. Manek's overly protective plans go haywire, however, in the person of Feroza's American roommate.

Jo Miller, as simple in her desires as her name, smokes a lot, drinks liberally, eats compulsively and never stops falling in love. Although Jo, as written by Sidhwa, is a blowzy American cliche, Feroza is impressed with her unrestrained energy. The girls become fast friends, and soon transfer together to the University of Colorado, where Feroza's transition to an American lifestyle is complete. She quickly begins to act, talk and dress like an American girl. She even falls in love like an American girl, and, copying Jo's impulsiveness, Feroza writes home to Lahore, blithely announcing her intention to marry. She also blithely announces that Peter, her new love, is Jewish. In no time at all, Zareen heads off on her first visit to America, determined to save her daughter from a marriage that, to a Parsee, means nothing less than cultural suicide.

Feroza is moved by the ultimate argument Zareen uses against her marriage to Peter. If a Parsee woman marries outside of her community, she can no longer practice her religion and is no longer considered a Parsee. The same law does not apply to Parsee men. The iniquity rankles Feroza. Married or not, she exclaims indignantly, she has experienced freedom in America and she refuses to live without it now.

Hearing this, Zareen, at last, truly perceives her daughter, not as a wayward child, but as a modern version of herself and the other Junglewalla women who preceded her. Like her female ancestors chronicled in Sidhwa's two previous novels, Feroza is defining herself, breaking away from the strictures of the past without denying her heritage. One only hopes that Feroza's maturation as a woman will make for a journey as affecting, amusing, and enjoyable as her coming-of-age does in An American Brat.

Chris Goodrich (review date 14 January 1994)

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SOURCE: Goodrich, Chris. “A Wide-Eyed View of America, Where All Has Been Made Easy.” Los Angeles Times (14 January 1994): E4.

[In the following review, Goodrich praises An American Brat, calling the work “a funny and memorable novel.”]

It's 1978 in Pakistan and 16-year-old Feroza Ginwalla, the heroine of this novel [An American Brat], is beginning to worry her relatively liberal, upper-middle-class Parsee parents.

She won't answer the phone; she tells her mother to dress more conservatively; she sulks, she slams doors, she prefers the company of her old-fashioned grandmother; she seems to sympathize with fundamentalist religious thinking.

What to do? “I think Feroza must get away,” says Zareen, the girl's mother, to her husband, Cyrus. “Travel will broaden her outlook, get this puritanical rubbish out of her head.”

And indeed it does—although to a disastrous degree, from Zareen and Cyrus' point of view, for Feroza's three-month sabbatical with her uncle in Massachusetts turns into a three-year sojourn in many parts of the United States.

By the time Zareen decides, toward the end of the book, to reassert parental control by flying from Lahore to Denver—where Feroza has become a hotel-management student—it's too late. Her daughter is already an “American brat,” a woman with a mind and opinions of her own, able to relish the ability to choose.

An American Brat is an exceptional novel, one of such interest that the reader's reservations, while significant, are ultimately of little consequence.

Bapsi Sidhwa, author of three previous works of fiction and frequently referred to as Pakistan's most prominent English-language novelist, has produced a remarkable sketch of American society as seen and experienced by modern immigrants.

America, to Feroza and her Uncle Manek, is in many ways a paradise—as indeed it appears to be for Sidhwa, a Parsee who has lived in the United States for many years—but An American Brat is nonetheless a measured portrait, often reassuring and discomfiting at the same time.

It's both wonderful and startling, for example, to hear the fully Americanized Manek say to the newly arrived Feroza, as she grapples with some well-wrapped container, “Remember this: If you have to struggle to open something in America, you're doing it wrong. They've made everything easy. That's how a free economy works.”

In style, An American Brat is nothing like Henry James' The Ambassadors, being straightforward, humorous, easygoing and unpoetic. In plot, though, it bears some similarities, with travelers finding themselves unexpectedly transformed by their encounters in a new land.

Feroza soon realizes that Manek's years in the United States have changed him: He is now “humbler and, paradoxically, more assured and quietly conceited, more considerate, yet … tougher, even ruthless.”

One of the first things Zareen notices about Feroza at the Denver airport is her gaudy tan: “You'd better bleach your face or something,” she tells her daughter, “before you come home.”

But even Zareen proves vulnerable to America's charms:

Although she has come to break up Feroza's engagement to a “non”—a non-Parsee—she glories in the shopping and amenities of Denver life, “as happy as a captive seal suddenly released into the ocean.”

Zareen, her American mission at least partially accomplished, returns to Pakistan but wonders momentarily whether she has done the right thing. And that's the issue lying at the heart of this novel—the competing loyalties immigrants feel toward family, culture, heritage, self.

The problem only flashes through Zareen's mind because she is too old to be fully taken with American ways; Manek can almost ignore the contradiction because, being male, he will be celebrated for living in the United States so long as he takes a Parsee wife.

Feroza, by contrast, feels the brunt of the conflict, newly aware of the severe sexism in Parsee culture—men can marry outside the faith, for instance, while women cannot—and thrilled at the idea of having her own money, her own career, her own identity. Feroza has come to America, she discovers moments after first landing in New York, to be “unself-conscious”—to be free, once and for all, of “the thousand constraints that governed her life.”

An American Brat suffers from a meandering, literal plot and a tone that doesn't distinguish major insights from minor ones. Page by page, though, Sidhwa keeps the reader engaged, for one can never predict which mundane American event she will display in an entirely new light.

At the hospital: A Parsee couple is presented with a $15,000 bill for their daughter's delivery, where-upon the shocked father replies, walking out, “You can keep the baby.” At home: Feroza, gushing over Manek's vast supply of canned frankfurters and sardines, saying, “I could eat this all my life!”

At an expensive restaurant where Manek has sent back half his meal, to Feroza's horror, because he can't possibly pay for it: “If you weren't so proud,” Manek tells his niece, “you wouldn't feel so humiliated, and you'd have enjoyed a wonderful dinner.”

He has a point, however twisted, and it's moments like that which make An American Brat a funny and memorable novel.

Adele King (review date spring 1994)

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SOURCE: King, Adele. Review of An American Brat, by Bapsi Sidhwa. World Literature Today 68, no. 2 (spring 1994): 436.

[In the following review, King criticizes An American Brat as a problematic and flawed novel, noting that Sidhwa's narrative is “unsophisticated” and that the story oversimplifies American life.]

Bapsi Sidhwa's earlier novels were set in Pakistan and India and described life in her own Parsee community. An American Brat is a result of her years living in the United States and tells of the problems of adjustment to a new culture as experienced by her heroine Feroza, a young Pakistani Parsee girl who comes to visit and then to study in the U.S. and who becomes “an American brat,” according to some of her relatives. Her impressions of American life, her comparisons with the life of her wealthy family in Lahore, and the experiences of a small group of friends she makes in Idaho and Denver form the basis of the book, which sometimes reads like a rather melodramatic travelogue in which all the material advantages of American wealth are set against a continuing round of horrors: attacks by drug addicts at the Port Authority Terminal in New York, the burglary of her Idaho apartment by the drug-addict boyfriend of a roommate, the disappearance of another (black) roommate who is never found. American young people have freedom, but in Sidhwa's tale they do little but jump into bed with one another, swear, and shoplift.

At the end, Feroza, having fallen in love with an American student and spent nights in his bed, is still a virgin nevertheless and, after a visit from her outraged mother, who cannot accept a marriage outside the Parsee faith, ends up alone. The conclusion is rather a case of eating your cake and having it too, as Feroza is going to stay in America, where life is more stimulating and where as a woman she has more freedom, but her creator has kept her technically “pure” and still a believer in her ancestors' faith.

Criticism of Pakistani politics is a subtheme. During Feroza's days as a student, her hero, Bhutto, is executed. The government of his successor, General Zia, is particularly criticized for its treatment of women. The victim of a rape is judged guilty of adultery and subject to imprisonment and beating. This political content is not developed to any extent, however; neither is it integrated into the story. Similarly, some of the explanations of Parsee customs seem mere anthropological detail. The author forgets about such victims of Islamic fundamentalist oppression, or even the vast majority of the population, when she describes her heroine as having “grown up, like most young girls in the Subcontinent, believing that everything she expected of life would be hers after marriage.” The descriptions of America are occasionally comically inaccurate: a Parsee student gets a job selling Bibles in the Bible Belt and begins by visiting each “parish priest” to learn about his potential customers! An Indian student manages to get a doctor (and presumably the hospital) to change a bill for care of a premature baby from $15,000 to $1,000!

In her earlier novels Sidhwa's sense of the comedy of Parsee life compensated more adequately for a rather unsophisticated narrative skill.

Novy Kapadia (essay date 1996)

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SOURCE: Kapadia, Novy. “The Parsi Paradox in The Crow Eaters.” In The Novels of Bapsi Sidhwa, edited by R. K. Dhawan and Novy Kapadia, pp. 125-35. New Delhi: Prestige, 1996.

[In the following essay, Kapadia discusses the phenomenon of upward social mobility among the Parsi minority in Sidhwa's novel The Crow Eaters.]

The Parsi are an ethno-religious minority in India, living mostly on the west coast of the subcontinent, especially in Bombay. In Pakistan, most Parsis reside in Karachi and Lahore. As their name implies, the Parsis are of Persian descent. The word Parsi means a native of “Pars” or “Fars,” an ancient Persian province, now in Southern Iran. They left their homeland over 1,200 years ago to save their religion, the teachings of Zoroaster, from being Islamized by the invading Arabians. They are followers of Prophet Zarathustra; their religion known as Zoroastrianism was founded around 2000 B.C. Its essence is to be found in the five Gathas or Divine songs of Zarathustra (there may have been more Gathas, but they are not traceable).

In the last census, conducted by the Government of India, the Parsis were only about 95,000 in number, 0.016 percent of the total population of India. Yet their feeling of group identity and active participation in the social, cultural and economic life of both India and Pakistan is immense. As a community they are comparatively well-off, with few living below the appalling poverty-line of the subcontinent. What are the motivating factors which make this smallest religious minority in the world strive for excellence, instead of being wrapped in the throes of survival? Are the answers to be found in the social code and value systems of the religion (like the Protestant work ethic, which encouraged thrift and hard work and led to the rise of capitalism in eighteenth century England) or the socio-economic conditions in India or the status of a limited minority being strictly loyal to every ruling authority or a mixture of all these factors? In her novel The Crow Eaters, Bapsi Sidhwa attempts an answer to these queries, by recreating a fictional yet typical saga of a Parsi family and the corresponding social milieu. It is the only novel of its kind, as it is the first account of the workings of the Parsi mind, social behaviour, value systems and customs. Creditably Bapsi Sidhwa never lets the novel degenerate into a mere sociological treatise. The satirical fiction, mock-epic tone and the lampoon of major characters like the successful businessman Faredoon Junglewalla, his equally successful son Billy and mother-in-law Jerbanoo, make the novel an entertaining piece of literature.

The Crow Eaters, first published in Pakistan in 1978, describes the social mobility of a Parsi family, the Junglewallas, during the British Raj in the early twentieth century. In just one generation they increased their business from a single general merchant store in Lahore to a chain of stores, in several North Indian cities and licence for “handling all traffic of goods between Peshawar and Afghanistan.” It also traces the attempts of Parsis, migrating from the west coast and settling in the more salubrious climate of North Indian cities, in the late nineteenth and the turn of this century. This is the hallmark of Bapsi Sidhwa's work, deceptively perceptive, she accurately depicts historical facts interwoven with satirical fiction and lampoon which aptly recreates the Parsi milieu and yet makes for delightful reading. The authenticity of Bapsi Sidhwa's work is evident as she was born in Karachi in 1936, was brought up in Lahore and continues to live there. Her family, the Bhandaras, a leading business family of Lahore for generations, had migrated there in the last century. So Bapsi Sidhwa belongs to the third generation of Parsi settlers in North Indian cities and was reared on tales both fictional and otherwise on the entrepreneurial skill of the elders of her community. Hence her description of the exploits of Faredoon Junglewalla and his family is not just historical fiction, but has a strong autobiographical element also.

Bapsi Sidhwa turns autobiography into art by her clever use of irony. The use of irony also prevents the novel from becoming either laudatory or disparaging, an inherent danger when an author writes about his or her own community, both the shortcomings and achievements. Wealth and status is the ultimate aim for Faredoon Junglewalla. He achieved this ambition but at what cost. Bapsi Sidhwa's mode of perception is ironic. As we appreciate Junglewalla's achievements, doubts are raised about it. The novel commences on a note of praise for Faredoon Junglewalla, Freddy for short, described as a strikingly handsome, dulcet-voiced adventurer. About his career it is said,

he not only succeeded in carving a comfortable niche in the world for himself, but also earned the respect and gratitude of his entire community. When he died at sixty-five, a majestic grey-haired patriarch, he attained the rare distinction of being locally listed in the “Zarathusti Calendar of Great Men and Women.”1

The achievement is stupendous, yet doubts are raised about it. Freddy's fame and wealth are shown to have dubious roots. The maintenance of identity, in spite of being a microscopic minority, of which Freddy is so proud, is shown as mere public relations, bordering on sycophancy:

And where, if I may ask, does the sun rise? No, not in the East. For us it rises—and sets—in the Englishman's arses. They are our sovereigns! Where do you think we'd be if we did not curry favour? Next to the nawabs, rajas and princelings we are the greatest toadies of the British Empire! These are not ugly words, mind you. They are the sweet dictates of our delicious need to exist, to live and prosper in peace.


So the sycophancy is shown as a “need to exist,” neither lauded nor condemned. The tone of the author is ironic. There is a protective irony in the novel, balancing personal inadequacies against the contradictions of life itself. Hence irony is also a mode of acceptance—a type of philosophy.

Freddy's ostensibly humorous comments, his obsequious behaviour towards Mr. Charles P. Allen, the Deputy Commissioner and his frequent visits to the Government House to pay homage to the British Empire, underline a basic attitude to the ruling colonial power which Bapsi Sidhwa carefully explores. Since the Parsis settled in India, they realized they could only survive as a minority by being strictly loyal to every ruling authority and avoiding tensions and conflicts between various groups and powers in the state. At no time in the subcontinent was the community itself a power factor that would have been able to enforce its own interests against the will of the rulers. Hence Parsis learned to realize that only loyalty to the ruler generates that political climate in which they could remain undisturbed as a minority. The only condition for their loyalty was that they were not hindered in the practice of their religion. Hence the exaggerated servility of Freddy, his son Billy and other Parsis towards the British is revealed as an act to ensure legal security, peace and economic prosperity. With her ironic perspective the flattery of the Parsis is humorously revealed in the novel, but it also expresses an underlying identity crisis and quest for security amongst the community as a whole.

Such a prevailing attitude also leads to adopting customs and manners of the British. Knowledge of English education in a Christian missionary school was considered essential, not because of superior instruction or knowledge but as it offered a chance for rapid social mobility. The interaction of two cultures naturally produces tensions when for instance Putli, the wife of Freddy, resists change: “What revolted Putli most was the demand that she, a dutiful and God-fearing wife, must walk a step ahead of her husband. She considered this hypocritical and pretentious, and most barbarous.” (185)

Putli adopted to what she considered new-fangled customs, when she and her husband were invited to the formal tea-parties on the gracious lawns of the Government House. She is cajoled to these functions by her husband, for whom it is an opportunity for advancing contacts and consolidating friendships. The Parsi milieu of Putli had a different value system, which the author highlights: “Deep-rooted in the tradition of a wife walking three paces behind her husband, their deportment was as painful to Putli as being marched naked in public.” (185)

As regards adapting customs of the British the novel shows the gradual assimilation of British value systems in the Parsi milieu. Putli tried to preserve certain Parsi customs, like walking behind her husband. However her daughter Yasmin after marriage ignores such notions as old-fashioned and vehemently protests at the servile attitude of women: “Anyway it's stupid to walk behind your husband like an animal on a leash—Oh Mother! Hasn't Papa been able to modernize you yet?” (187)

Putli, the earlier generation Parsi, is scandalized by Yasmin preceding her husband down the steps and into the carriage and her seeming relationship of equality with her husband. Initially adapting the manners and customs of the ruling colonial power was gradual and Putli's inability to understand change is seen as the ‘generation gap.’ However the scope of the novel is large, it shows the reality of a whole family and its network of relationships, spreading out to encompass a wide variety of human beings of different ages. Bapsi Sidhwa portrays the changing generations in the Junglewalla family. The new generation, with their increasing economic contacts with the British, like Billy's scrap iron deal, become increasingly westernized. This is best exemplified by the life-style of the youngest son Billy and his fashionable wife Tanya:

They made friends with modern couple equally determined to break with tradition. It amounted to no more than a fanatical faith in the ways of English society in India, and a disciple's knack of imitation. They were not of the masses, this young crowd. If their wealth did not set them apart, their ability to converse in English certainly did. They were utterly ashamed of traditional habits and considered British customs, however superficially observed, however trivial, exemplary.


This changing social milieu and identity crisis which Bapsi Sidhwa accurately depicts was distinctively visible amongst Parsis in British India and is a social problem for many in the community, even in contemporary India and Pakistan. In the newspaper, The Parsi, published since 1905 in Bombay an article appeared stressing that the ambitions of most Parsis were aimed at as close a connection with the English as possible: “The closer union of the Europeans and Parsis is the finest thing that can happen to our race. It will mean the lifting up of a people who are lying low, though possessing all of the qualities of a European race.”2 Such a feeling is conveyed in the novel but Behram Junglewalla and his family do not consider Westernization as a conscious abandonment of their own group identity. They observe the trappings of ostensibly ‘liberal’ western culture:

They entertained continuously at small, intimate “mixed” parties where married couples laughed and danced decorously with other married couples. “Mixed” parties were as revolutionary a departure from Freddy's all-male get-togethers at the Hira Mandi, and Putli's rigid female sessions, as is a discotheque from a Victorian family dinner. The parties were fashionably cosmopolitan, including the various religious sects of India: Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims and Christians, the Europeans, and the Anglo-Indians.


Parsis maintained group identity by their dress. But even in the matter of dress, generational change is evident. Faredoon and his family took pride in their traditional mode of dress. Whenever Faredoon went to Government House for formal parties or to pay homage to the British empire he would consciously be, “rigged out in a starched white coatwrap that fastened with bows at the neck and waist, and crisp white pyjamas and turban.” (15) His wife Putli, and his mother-in-law Jerbanoo never appeared in public

without “mathabanas”—white kerchiefs wound around the hair to fit like skull caps. The holy thread circling their waist was austerely displayed and sacred undergarments [‘Sadra’] worn beneath short blouses, modestly aproned their sari-wrapped hips.


The next generation of Parsis Behram and Tanya slowly discard the traditional dress. Tanya, for instance, still wore a sari, but it was more revealing: “She became daring in her attire and tied her sari in a way that accentuated the perfections of her body. She took to wearing a little make-up and outlined the astonishing loveliness of her lips.” (243) However in form of dress, even Behram is still traditional. He urges and argues with Tanya, not to reveal her midriff so glaringly or to look boldly and mix freely with other men, as the intentions are misconstrued. Even in the relationships between man and woman, Faredoon and later his son Behram adopt double standards. Behram especially wants Tanya to appear Westernized and talk English.3 However at home, he wants his wife to be servile and domestic, always at his beck and call. So the novel aptly reveals the Parsi milieu in the throes of change.

Besides their limited status as a minority community, another reason for the supreme respect and regard the Parsi had for the British, was because of the social code of their religion. The basic attitude of the followers of Zarathustra towards a ruler was that of loyalty akin to the Iranic, pre-Islamic Sassanian traditions. This concept of loyalty to the ruler, gave Zoroastrianism the rank of a state religion, which meant a close relationship between state and community, based on mutual support. All the Parsis wanted from the ruling British authorities was religious autonomy and protection. They got both. The ideal state in Zoroastrian philosophy is free of a deification of the ruler. The conception of a good ruler is more a just and religiously tolerant exercise of authority. In the African Prayer, there is a special request for a good ruler defined thus: “A good Government is that which keeps and directs the country to be prosperous, its poor to be without distress, its laws and customs to be just, which cancels unjust laws and customs.”4 As the Parsis primarily traced their secured status as a minority, their economic and social prosperity to British rule, identical with “good government” as identified in the African prayer, loyalty was a self-evident precept for them. Another sound sociological factor which explains the consistent loyalty of the Parsis to the British, is aptly enumerated by eminent historian D. F. Karaka, in his scholarly work, History of the Parsis: “When they [Parsis] compare their condition in India with that of their co-religionists in Persia [Iran] who were reduced until recently to a miserable state of persecution, they fully and rightly appreciate blessings, which they enjoy under the British Government.”5

Such feelings were prevalent in the Parsi milieu and Bapsi Sidhwa aptly conveys it in The Crow Eaters. Freddy took every opportunity to demonstrate his loyalty to the British. After settling down in Lahore, he wore his finest and most resplendent clothes to visit Government House and sign his name in the Visitor's Book. This was his way of establishing his credentials and stressing his loyalty to “Queen and Crown.” If such an act seems absurd, social historians will recall that on occasions like royal birthdays, coronation ceremonies, arrival of a new viceroy or death in the royal family, the Parsis demonstrated their collective loyalty by public meetings and Jashans (group prayers). In cases of British military entanglements outside India, Parsis adopted the terminology of British imperialism. They termed Britain's wars as just and essential for world peace, for the progress of civilization and freedom. The historian D. F. Karaka recalls that 6,000 Parsis gathered in Bombay on the occasion of the Crimean War, to pray for a British victory. If such was the prevailing social milieu, Faredoon Junglewalla's reference to former Deputy Commissioner Charles P. Allen's children as “my Prince” and “my Princess” and vitriolic outbursts against the freedom movement led by Dadabhai Naoroji of the Congress is not sheer exaggeration or eccentricity but a deeply perceptive insight into the workings of the Parsi mind.

It is the paranoid feelings of being a miniscule minority, which is the motivating factor for the behavioural pattern of the Parsis, ranging from quest for excellence to eccentricity. Bapsi Sidhwa constantly lampoons the zeal with which leading Parsi business magnates, Faredoon Junglewalla, Mr. Toddywalla and the baronet Khan Bahadur Sir Noshirwan Jeevanjee Easymoney6 championed the British cause. However hilarious their outbursts of loyalty may seem, the Parsis in British India were a schizophrenic community. A perusal of social history reveals the causes for this insecurity and alienation of many members of the community. For purposes of trade and business, the British granted the Parsis a special status as a broker and reliable trading partner. However, rapid social mobility amongst the Parsi community led to a conscious group desire to identify themselves all too closely with English themselves. The willingness to grant the Parsis a special status had its limits. The English refused to consider Parsis as their own kind even if they were equally educated and extensively anglicized. Similarly the Parsis inspired by the behaviour and statements of community leaders like Sir Jamsetjee Jeejeedhoy7 and the prevailing social milieu, developed an aversion to identifying themselves with other Indian communities. This led to a mental estrangement from India, for many Parsis, without, however, finding an identity of their own, free of both the English and other Indians. Being a shrewd observer of human fallibility Bapsi Sidhwa reflects this identity search in several situations and aspects in The Crow Eaters.

A striking manifestation of this identity crisis is the dying Faredoon Junglewalla's vehement protests against the nationalist movement and exhortations to his offspring to remain loyal to the British Empire. Dadabhai Naoroji is referred to as “that misguided Parsi from Bombay” who started “something called Congress and keeps shooting off his mouth like a lunatic, “Quit India! Quit India!” However shocking Faredoon Junglewalla's views may be, they were representative of a majority of Parsis, especially the business class, bankers and civil servants. Except for a fringe minority, drawn into the vortex of the nationalist movement, the majority of the Parsi community shared the views expressed by a dying Faredoon Junglewalla on the freedom struggle.

He utters ideas. People like Gandhi pick them up—people like Vallabhbhai Patel and Bose and Jinnah and Nehru … and that other fool in Karachi, Adil Mama. What does he do? He sacrifices his business and abandons his family to the vicissitudes of poverty. He wears a Gandhi cap, handloom shirt, and the transparent diaper they call a dhoti. He goes in and out of jail as if he were visiting a nautch-girl at the Hira Mandi! Where will it get him? Nowhere! If there are many rewards in all this, who will reap them? Not Mama! Not Dadabhai Naoroji! Making monkeys of themselves and of us! Biting the hand that feeds! I tell you we are betrayed by our own kind, by our own blood! The fools will break up the country. The Hindus will have one part, Muslims the other, Sikhs, Bengalis, Tamils and God knows who else will have their share; and they won't want you!


The apprehensions of Faredoon Junglewalla are not the figment of a dying man's fevered imagination but based on social reality. There were three anti-Parsi riots in Bombay and other cities in 1851, 1874 and 1921. On the last occasion, Gandhi called for a boycott of the visit of the Prince of Wales to India. Many Parsis refused to join this boycott, which sparked off a violent riot (there were 15 deaths) and anti-British and anti-Parsi aggressions persisted for a couple of years. Memories of such incidents were an integral part of the Parsi milieu and increased their loyalty to the British. However, displaying remarkable adaptability, the Parsis on realizing the inevitability of Independence altered their allegiances. With a dying man's perceptiveness Faredoon Junglewalla hints at the necessity of changing allegiances. Following a query by his son-in-law Bobby Katrak about the future of the Parsis after Independence, Faredoon makes a prophetic reply: “We will stay where we are. … Let Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, or whoever, rule. What does it matter? The sun will continue to rise—and to set—in their arses.” (283) Such witty remarks are the hallmark of Bapsi Sidhwa's style and the genial satire both shocks and offends Parsi sensibilities in the sub-continent. It is remarks like this which led to the function held in Pakistan to launch the novel being sabotaged by a bomb scare—suspected to be the work of some irate Parsis. Although The Crow Eaters is a novel that may shock, offend and dismay, it never ceases to entertain. It is a rambunctious mixture of gentle perceptiveness and wild barnyard humour. The satire of Bapsi Sidhwa, though sharp is never castigating and censorious like that of Swift, but is a genial tolerance of the foibles of a community, full of paradoxes with an identity crisis caused by their minority status and ideas of loyalty to the ruling authorities.

Another aspect of identity crisis, on the verge of paranoia, amongst the Parsis, is exemplified by the escapist behaviour of Yazdi, the second son of Faredoon Junglewalla. A sensitive boy, Yazdi is aggrieved at the conspicuous commercialism and sycophancy of the Parsis. A human dimension to his revolt is also introduced, as his father refuses him permission to marry a childhood sweetheart, the Anglo-Indian Rosy Watson. All these factors make Yazdi revolt against the existing system in his family. His initial form of revolt adds to the rollicking, hilarious narrative, and is almost a parody of Christ's Sermon on the Mount, “Love thy neighbours, as thou love thyself.” Yazdi takes charity to the extreme. He initially returned from school barefoot having given his shoes to an orphan in his class: “A few days later he returned without his shirt, and the day after that, he climbed up to the flat in only his homemade underpants. He had distributed his apparel among four beggars near the Regal Cinema square.” (153) He is transferred to a boarding school in Karachi. There he becomes a drop-out, a modern-day “hippy,” drifting about the city, “squandering his allowance and fees on beggars” and sleeping on park benches and pavements. He sought solace by assisting the lepers outside Karachi.

Finally Yazdi makes a total break from his family. His share of the family money is put in a Trust and he gets monthly interest. Yazdi uses the money “to feed dying children” and “buy medicine for the sick left to decay like exposed excrement in choked bazaar lanes.” He becomes a follower of Mazdak, the first communist. Yazdi calls Mazdak, “A Zarathusti ancestor. He realized centuries ago that all material goods, including women had to be shared.” (212) His family does not meet him or hear from him. Billy strolling along Chowpatti Beach, Bombay with his fiancé Tanya is the last person to see Yazdi, an emaciated vagrant lying on a bench. The characterization of Yazdi adds to the richness and variety of the novel, as it shows all Parsis are not types, nor do they have stereotype reactions. However there is a structural flaw in the presentation of Yazdi. The Crow Eaters is a very compact novel and though it shows a network of human relationships and reality of a whole family, there are no loose ends in the plot. The exception is Yazdi. He is never shown practising his professed charity like Dr. Kenny in Nectar in a Sieve by Kamala Markandaya. The characterization of Yazdi is deliberately or accidentally left vague, which is slightly jarring.

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 Ahura Mazda (“Wise Lord”) being the creator as well as the judge on the day of the Last Judgement. Ahura Mazda rules over the good spirits (Spenta Mainyu) created by him, which are opposed in this world by the evil spirits (Angra Mainyu). 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 B. Allen.” (2) 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 B. 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. She presents the hilarious saga of a Parsi family, which is not just the social mobility and value system of a man and his family but the movement of the times. Her most perceptive insights are in presenting the marginal personality aspect within the Parsi milieu. Most Parsis in the novel are shown as cultural hybrids, living and sharing intimately in the cultural life, traditions, languages, moral codes, and political loyalties of two distinct peoples, which never completely interpenetrated and fused.


  1. Bapsi Sidhwa, The Crow Eaters (Delhi: Sangam, 1980), p. 1.

  2. Quoted in Eckehard Kulke, The Parsis in India; A Minority as Agent of Social Change (Delhi: Bell Books, 1978), p. 138.

  3. N. S. Ginwala says: “These dressed up dolls of Parsi ladies pretend to be highly civilised and refined, and better socially, morally and intellectually than everybody else, simply because they are able to speak English and have a glimmering idea of English society, life, dress and manners.” “A Peep into Parsi Life,” Journal of the National Indian Association, No. 110 (February 1880), p. 73.

  4. J. J. Modi, A Pahlevi text quoted in Moral Extracts from Zoroastrian Books (Bombay, 1925), p. 44.

  5. Quoted in The Parsis in India, p. 134.

  6. Up till 1946, a total of 63 Parsis had been knighted. Of the four Indians who had been made hereditary baronets up till 1908, three were Parsis; Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy (1857), Dinshaw Manekshi Petit (1890) and Cowasjee Jehangir (1908).

  7. “They, my children's children, shall be taught, that fidelity to the British Crown is their first duty—loyalty the first virtue.” Quoted in The Parsis in India, p. 139.

Alamgir Hashmi (essay date 1996)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1456

SOURCE: Hashmi, Alamgir. “The Crow Eaters: A Noteworthy Novel.” In The Novels of Bapsi Sidhwa, edited by R. K. Dhawan and Novy Kapadia, pp. 136-39. New Delhi: Prestige, 1996.

[In the following essay, Hashmi offers high praise for Sidhwa's novel The Crow Eaters as a representation of Parsi culture and history.]

Though poetry in Pakistan has been a thriving art form, novels in English are few and far between. In fact, fiction and imaginative prose as a whole have suffered acute disfavour over the years; and while acknowledging resplendent instances of exception, such as the works of Ahmed Ali and Zulfikar Ghose, one is naturally inclined to welcome the appearance of yet another noteworthy work in the sparsely dotted landscape of prose art in our country.

The Crow Eaters, Bapsi Sidhwa's first published novel, purports to be a succinct and satirical account of the success story told to the youngsters in his later years by the Parsi Seth Faredoon Junglewalla himself, the central figure whose rise to fortune and social stardom we follow in the three hundred-odd pages strewn with matters “local” and much good-natured humour and drollery. The speech is laconic, yet winsome, as the Junglewalla relates how he managed it:

Yes, I've been 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 a crick in my balls—buttered and marmaladed him until he was eating out of my hand. Within a year I was handling all traffic of goods between Peshawar and Afghanistan!


The Parsi background and focus give additional significance to this narrative, as very little is known generally of this isolationist sort of community in the subcontinent, particularly at a personal or imaginative level. As such, a recognition of the novel's particular landscape is to register time through a consciousness with which perhaps not many outsiders would be familiar. Here is how the story finds its beginning, from the anonymous forests of central India to Lahore, where the Junglewallas settle down, within the first twenty pages:

Faredoon Junglewalla, Freddy for short, embarked on his travels towards the end of the nineteenth century. Twenty-three years old, strong and pioneering, he saw no future for himself in his ancestral village, tucked away in the forests of Central India, and resolved to seek his fortune in the hallowed pastures of Punjab. Of the sixteen lands created by Ahura Mazda and mentioned in the 4,000-year-old Vendidad, one is the “Septa Sindhu”; the Sind and Punjab of today.

Loading his belongings, which included a widowed mother-in-law eleven years older than himself, a pregnant wife six years younger, and his infant daughter Hutoxi, onto a bullock-cart, he set off for the North.


We know fairly well by now the various characterizations of time through the ethnic consciousness of many of the major communities in the subcontinent, for example, the Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, and so on, but the present work seems to be quite unique inasmuch as it permits a view of the Parsi code of feeling and behaviour. This must be the reason the author has continually to halt the actual narrative to incorporate passages that in an academic paper would be consigned to footnotes, such as the information on Parsi customs (although some of these and a few local phrases remain unexplained) and the mode of their migration to India; or a parenthetical aside like “(Lahore can be as cold in winter as it is hot in summer)” to substantiate the fact of a “chilly afternoon” mentioned earlier in the same sentence. (32) This, doubtless, results a considerable authorial presence—and perhaps comfort in the fact that the reader's response can only be right.

The novel has memorable characters, individual but not atypical, and of all ages, as the narrative encompasses some forty years. Gormandizing Jerbanoo, Freddy's mother-in-law, whom he considers his mortal foe but who is nowhere near dying despite his dark plans to get rid of her by setting his shop and house on fire, profiting doubly through an insurance fraud (a proud invention for the India of 1901, we are told in confidence)—of course the latter is a success. The heaviest weather is made in a few excremental episodes, however true, during her short visit to England where the English are exposed to Jerbanoo's Indian standards of domestic and social life.

A soothsayer fakir, a Sadhu fortuneteller, a mystic, and numerous English and Indian colonial figures make appearances to relieve the misery of the burpy, dyspeptic passages about Jerbanoo. But the dialogue for the greater part remains sprightly. The story slackens after the arson episode but picks up again as the children grow up one after another to get their chapters in. The Towers of Silence (Parsi burial grounds) provide some of the most solemn moments in the story, particularly when, contrary to Parsi tradition, at his son Soli's burial Freddy declares the place open to outsiders (just for then) in a moving speech.

Regardless of the dark depths to which Freddy could stoop to stay on top, he knows how to manage himself as a godfather of his community, to dispense favour and command obedience and gratitude. His wife Putli (Urdu for “puppet”), is an ideal of Indian wifely submission, love and responsibility. She is equally understanding towards her children, even when one of them turns out to be a poet, and progressively a shaven-headed saint rebelling against the family tradition. The other son, Billy, comfortable “in the proper tradition,” is betrothed to lissome Tanya Easymoney, and her betrothal is “executed with the acumen of a new American cigarette being launched on the market.”

The description is always sharp-eyed. Here is Billy:

Billy had grown to manhood—and his ears had grown with him. The lint-like cartilages had hardened and stuck out like teapot handles. His straggling, five-haired moustache now made a substantial smear beneath the bumpy crag of his nose; and above it triumphed the centre-parting in his hair. Oil-glossed, blue-black, the hair waved away to end in a squiggly froth of curls.


This is Jane Austen writing a Dean Swift number—the result being a hilarious social farce. Sidhwa is aware, as in Billy's newspaper advertisement of his matrimonial availability: “If a point was stretched, what did it matter? All is fair in love and advertising.” Which is fine if the language is as concrete as in the above quote, but the following adjectival reportraiture is redundant:

Behram Junglewalla, Billy for short, was a taciturn, monosyllabic, parsimonious, and tenacious little man. His tight-lipped, shrewd-eyed countenance instantly aroused mistrust—precisely because he was so trustworthy.


That last twist belongs to the ironical tones in which the burden of tradition is made light and bearable. Billy again: “His frugality he might have inherited from an undiluted line of Parsi forbears.” (192)

The “undiluted line” plays back on Faredoon Junglewalla's paternal lecture to Yazdi, the poet-son, who in violation of the family's tradition wants to marry Rosy Watson, an Anglo-Indian classmate of doubtful respectability:

I believe in some kind of a tiny spark that is carried from parent to child, on through generations … a kind of inherited memory of wisdom and righteousness, reaching back to the times of Zarathustra, the Magi, the Mazdiasnians. It is a tenderly nurtured conscience evolving towards perfection.


Bapsi Sidhwa writes from a deep historical consciousness. Her evocation of a part of Lahore life as lived in the first half of this century is convincing—and charming to me as a Lahorite myself. She herself grew up in Lahore and makes her home there; the first-hand knowledge of it certainly lends credence to the irony, as it arises out of a deep understanding of the place and people and their ways. She is looking at the whole, and the constituent parts, through the diminutive lens of insidious comicality as an outsider who knows better; as a member of the Parsi minority in Pakistan who knows her people's secrets, real strengths, and foibles. Her novel, beyond particular situation and character, aims at a sweep that encompasses a people and may well be better considered in that light.

What a wonderful relief from the quantities of underbelly, feline fiction that our magazines usually put out. The vigorous style of the book is a riding crop for any pair of “amorous buttocks” used to blushing at mild innuendo. To the small body of fiction written in this country, Bapsi Sidhwa has added her witty and piquant voice, and a loquaciousness that is endearing. The title of the book refers to the Parsis' “notorious ability to talk ceaselessly at the top of their voices like an assembly of crows.” (56) If this fiction is any evidence, it pleases.

Bapsi Sidhwa and Preeti Singh (interview date 1998)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3779

SOURCE: Sidhwa, Bapsi, and Preeti Singh. “My Place in the World.” ALIF: Journal of Comparative Poetics, no. 18 (1998): 290-98.

[In the following interview, Sidhwa discusses the autobiographical elements of her fiction, her role as a postcolonial female author, her identity as a member of the Parsi community, and the use of humor in her novels.]

Bapsi Sidhwa is a well known writer from Pakistan whose fiction has won fame both at home and abroad for the sensitivity with which it depicts the people and places of the South Asian sub-continent. The Bride (1983), The Crow Eaters (1982), Cracking India (1991) and An American Brat (1993) are stylistically dexterous, and so liberally laced with humor that reading them is both a pleasurable experience as well as conducive to an insight into the complexities of life in the subcontinent. For although Sidhwa sees herself as a subcontinent writer, she is a Parsi who has lived many years in Pakistan. This gives her voice a distinctive edge, and makes her one of the best known of the Zoroastrian writers of today. The Zoroastrians or Parsis are a small community of less than one million comprised of the followers of the ancient religion of Iran, Zoroastrianism. Early Zoroastrians left Iran for South Asia after the Muslim conquest of Iran in the seventh century. Long concentrated in Bombay and other areas on the northwestern coast of the Indian subcontinent, today they are spread all over the world. There are a remarkable number of good Zoroastrian writers from India, Pakistan and South Africa now resident in the United States, Canada and Britain. Their experience of double migration gives them a unique perspective on their home countries as well as on the countries of their adoption.

[Singh]: You have four novels to your credit, each four or five years apart. Would you say that each relates to your own experience? Do they correspond to any phases in your life?

[Sidhwa]: Well, let us put it this way, there is in each character of The Bride (which though published after The Crow Eaters was actually written first)—in Zaitoun the heroine, in the relationship between Carol and her husband, and other relationships in the novel—some aspects of my own life. My growing up is partially reflected in Zaitoun's growing up. But there is very little of the real me in Zaitoun. Her character called for an act of imagination. I did not know enough about Kohistani and Pathan cultures. I had to read a lot and to create a lot. I heard the story of a runaway bride in Kohistan, a wild, unadministered mountainous area in Northern Pakistan but I knew nothing of her background, where she came from, who her parents were, how she met the tribal etc. All these I had to create.

The Crow Eaters also has many extremely imaginative portions. There are bits and pieces of community lore. But some of the characters are based on people I know—a certain gentleman or a certain lady! The parents in this novel, for instance, are certainly based on my own parents, with little bits and pieces of detail taken directly from my mother's conversation. However, the subject matter of this novel is totally fictional. I myself am very little in this book.

But in Ice-Candy-Man or Cracking India, the first part is autobiographical, except that the central character of the child is not me per se. I had to create some distance between the child Lenny and myself as a child. Otherwise I would not have been able to write so freely. I made her a much more defiant and feisty child. Also, this child is informed by my adult consciousness. So a lot of me is there, but other bits are purely imaginative. For instance, the relationship between Lenny and her male cousin—I had no such male cousin! I had no such Ayah either. But we did have servants like Imam Din and Yusuf. So partially I took things directly from my own experience, but the rest is created.

In An American Brat there are many experiences that me and my family actually went through personally or heard about after migrating to the United States. Otherwise I would not have dared to write about America. Most other writers who have come here from the subcontinent have not taken that step yet.

In retrospect, I am not sure it was such a good idea to attempt to create so many American characters in An American Brat. But I wanted to do it. I didn't want to sit in America and write only about the expatriate community here, or about the community I left behind. I could have done that even in Pakistan. I am having new experiences here everyday, and they need to be incorporated in fiction. There is a great dearth of candid writing about our expatriate community here and its experiences with the mainstream American community. So far only Bharati Mukherjee has attempted to write on this theme and has done a good job. But even she has created few American characters. This is not easy to do. I have been here only a few years and don't know American culture very well. Trying to interpret it can be quite dangerous. But American readers have, on the whole, appreciated my attempts, and found my observations about America revealing.

Some Indian reviewers, however, have been somewhat offended by the book, and I am not very sure why. Maybe the current antagonisms between the two countries and my Pakistani origins have contributed to this hostility. I was a bit disappointed by this, because I feel myself part of the subcontinent. I don't feel myself “other” from India. In fact, I have been an Indian citizen also.

Would you say, then, that the Pakistani reaction to An American Brat was more positive?

Yes, it was much warmer, though somewhat apologetic. But the Indians in America have loved it. The whole South Asian expatriate community has loved it.

What do you think is the role of fiction in today's world for a post-colonial writer such as yourself? I ask this question specially in the context of Ice-Candy-Man and in the interpretation of recent history. Did you see yourself as consciously trying to interpret the way things happened at the time of Partition?

Yes. My intention was to write about Partition because very little had been written about it. There are certain images from my past which have always haunted me. Partition was a very violent experience for everybody in the Punjab. Although I was very young then, I saw chance killings, fires, dead bodies. These are images which have stayed with me. There were also the stories I grew up with. There was a certain sadness in them.

Also, there was, in those days, such a strong sense of hostility between the two communities. I thought that, over a period of time, the two communities would forget this hostility and heal themselves. But that has not been the case, neither in Pakistan nor in India, nor even in Bangladesh. This hostility has to be dealt with. It seems that it is part of human nature to want to fight with somebody. If we can't fight with someone else, we fight amongst ourselves. In Pakistan, for instance, the shias fight the sunnis. This may be merely because there is not a large enough minority community to fight against.

Would you say that your novel was an exercise in bridge-building?

Not really. Bridge-building only to the extent that in all such situations innocent people get involved in turmoil created mainly by politicians. I wanted to show how people should not get carried away by political rhetoric and the promises politicians make. Part of my title Ice-Candy-Man did reflect on ice candy men, i.e., manipulative politicians who hold out false candies to people.

Can you comment on the changed title of this novel in the American edition? I take it that Cracking India was not your choice?

No, it was not my choice. It has, in fact, suggested a shift in focus. I felt that the ice candy man was a pivotal character in the book, and the earlier title gave him the weight I felt he should be given. He represents so many of the themes in the novel, and continuity is supplied by Lenny the narrator. But I have to say that many readers in India felt that Cracking India was a better title. American readers certainly believe it to be more appropriate. My publisher pointed out that an ice candy man would mean nothing to American readers. With Cracking India as the title, at least those interested in reading about India would pick up the book from the shelves.

So it was a question more of selling the book than anything else?

Yes. One could say that. But I do not think that the changed title makes any difference to the reading of the book. Those who have read it have liked it, despite the changed title.

The label “post-colonial” is much in currency these days. Do you describe yourself as a post-colonial writer?

(Laughs) Yes, I have heard this phrase often. In fact, it has been cited to death. But I still do not know what it means. Do I become “post-colonial” because I am writing after India and Pakistan achieved freedom? The fact is that, as a child, I never considered myself governed by anybody but our own people. I never had that sense. To me the British Raj was already a thing of the past, and today there is no visible legacy of it (as in monuments or statues) left in Pakistan. If a stranger came to Pakistan he would see nothing that would remind him that the British once ruled in Pakistan. So this is one part of our history which does not mean all that much to me. Maybe this is because I have no memory of it, have read little about it. My experiences are mine, and have not much to do with being “post-colonial” or otherwise. I write about my experiences in my particular part of the world.

So you think this is mainly a label coined by critics, and doesn't quite apply to your being a writer.

Absolutely. If it means a lot to critics, it is fine by me. I don't object to it. But I do feel that as a writer such labels put you into very strange slots. There are so many writers who wrote during British rule but did not say very much about the Raj. For instance, there is Ismat Chugtai, and even Khushwant Singh. Their writings, before and after Partition, form one seamless whole. The reality of India and Pakistan does not suddenly become different for them. It remains the same.

I suppose one of the questions the term “post-colonial” raises is the question of English as a language. Do you write only in English?


When you write only in English who do you assume will be your reader? Whom do you consciously or unconsciously think you are addressing?

Definitely, the choice of the language you write in influences your material. When I first began writing I never really thought about my work being published. But subconsciously I must have assumed that I would be read by those who knew the language. So you could say that I always kept in mind the English knowing readers of India and Pakistan. And then, of course, the English speaking western reader in the UK, the USA, and Canada. There is no doubt about the fact that I was nurtured on western writing in English, but I did not always know that the world is dominated by western culture, by the western point of view—the limiting circumstances of my life kept me unaware of all this, and much else also. In India and Pakistan many of us read Little Women and the works of P. G. Wodehouse and other British classics and these do affect our point of view to an extent. In this way, I suppose I would be a “post-colonial.” But the overlying influence in my fiction is, of course, provided by the immediate environment.

But the more important point in all this is that the western world does not know us. And many of us feel that it is time our voice was heard there, that our cultures should be seen by them. I have always been very conscious of this. Here we are, living in huge communities in hidden corners of the world. It is time that these were seen, understood and recognized for what they are. We may be living in other parts of the world worshipping other religions, but we also laugh, cry, and deal with similar issues, have the same notions, and live through similar turbulences.

The western world has become very callous about people from other cultures. For them we are faceless blobs. Westerners have stereotypical images about the Arabs, the Chinese, the Japanese, the Asian etc. It has become very easy to generalize about them, to condemn them. How easily people say that the Arab world is nasty, the Chinese are enemies etc. This becomes a way of annihilating them. And these days we do have weapons that can annihilate whole countries.

This frightens me. I see injustice happening everywhere because of the hegemony of the western world. One of the things a writer can do is speak of the humanity of our people, their poverty and their naiveté …

Naiveté … ?

Yes, naiveté. People in our part of the world—in fact in most of the Third World—are very naive.

You mean they need to be given a voice?

Yes, a voice and a face. It's very important to create images of them which are human.

Wouldn't you, then, count yourself as “post-colonial” in wanting to do this?

Well, if you want to put it this way. The trouble is I never understood what exactly is meant by “post-colonial.” But if this fits the label, it's fine by me!

My next question is: does not the language of English confine you to describing only the middle-class experience of the sub-continent? Do you feel that this imposes a certain strain, certain limitations on you?

I would say that it's not the language that limits me. It is my upbringing and the world in which I grew up which limits me. However, in The Bride I ventured to describe tribal life as well as lower middle class life in Punjab. What I mean by this is where the whole business of family life is given over to the zenana, to women and children and procreation, where the whole atmosphere is permeated by the smell of babies and urine, and where the men just come to eat and sleep and then step out again. This is not the middle-class world in which I grew up, but I wrote of it in The Bride. This world is present in The Ice-Candy-Man in the characters of the slave sister, Ayah and her admirers.

So these people would not be speaking in English?

Not really. But their speech carries the idiom and flavor of their native language in English. This comes to me naturally. I don't have to be deliberate about it.

I would like now to speak of An American Brat where you have tried to negotiate the distance between the First and Third worlds through the central character Feroza who comes to the USA to pursue higher studies. Does this indicate that the whole question of expatriation is going to be a serious concern in your future writing?

These days I am thinking more in terms of personal essays and articles. I am not in the mood for fiction just now. But, since I am living here, and so little is written about our expatriate communities in this country and their interaction with the mainstream, I do mean to focus on the subject and what it augurs for the future of this country.

You are a Parsi, and Parsi life is very overtly a part of your fiction. How does your minority identity in a predominantly Islamic state affect your writing?

Any Parsi living outside of Bombay knows what it means to be marginalized. Parsis in Pakistan are known for their honesty and integrity. But no matter how well you are treated—Parsis are generally lionized in Pakistan—it is the Parsi attitude to themselves that distances them from others. This sense of alienation is very hard to overcome. I realized this when I lived as a young woman amidst a whole lot of relatives in Bombay. That was the time when I found my place in the world, my sense of belonging in the great Parsi diaspora spread over the globe.

I think though, that this experience of marginalization has shaped me as a writer. It creates a continuing sense of tension and conflict. There are some things one feels compelled to express. One does not know immediately what these pressures are, but they emerge in various forms of creativity.

This is true even when you feel that this sense of marginalization is brought on by yourselves as a community?

Yes. It is brought on by ourselves. We have so many rules and taboos distancing us from the people of other faiths. But other external factors also contribute to our marginalization.

Isn't this compelling creativity also a question of trying to preserve the community: i.e. through your writing?

Yes. The Crow Eaters, was quite definitely an act of preservation, although one could say that it is also a very Punjabi book! The Parsis and the Punjabis are very boisterous people. So there is a melding there. But there is no doubt that in this book I was conscious of trying to preserve Parsi charm and humor. As a community the Parsis cannot be sad for too long. The return to buffoonery and the raucous is the sign of their being alive. This is what I wanted to capture.

Yes, your novels have a fine overlay of humor. Would you like to comment on this aspect of your work? Is this very Parsi?

Yes, I think so. Whenever I am trying to create a Punjabi or Parsi character, humor is never far away. Whenever I drift away from them, humor does not stay very long. That is why The Crow Eaters is my funniest book. In The Ice-Candy-Man too, humor enters when the Parsi characters appear. I do think, though, that on the whole I have a gift for irony and humor. You can say the same thing in so many ways. Humor allows you to avoid what is truly tragic. I am tired of reading solemn works, especially by some writers from the subcontinent, which have been so sad that one begins to feel that life is really a sorry business. I am getting a little tired of this misery, misery, misery—especially when most people writing about this misery are sitting very comfortably in their own lives! Their writing becomes descriptive of a kind of generic misery. Often these writers don't even try to particularize it. Humor allows you to suggest more than is actually said. It gives human experience a perspective and a sense of balance: things are not really that grim all the time. There really are so many ways of looking at the world.

Would you say then that humor is integral to the Parsi community as a means of survival?

Yes and no. There have been instances when—say in a particular town where the Parsi community is very small (just a few families) and isolated—they tend to lose their sense of humor, and become quite eccentric. The relationship of a few Parsis to mainstream life is always problematic. Often humor becomes a sort of defense mechanism. I have to say, though, that Parsi humor is often so ethnic and part of its daily cultural habit that it remains hidden from others. Some of it is so crude that few Parsis show it outside the community. It would never be understood in the spirit that it was meant!

I have left the question of gender to the last. To what extent do you, as a woman writer, respond to the predicament of women in your society? What role do you assign to fiction in speaking out against patriarchy and other bonds that confine them in our part of the world?

I have very strong feelings about how women are treated in our part of the world. There is no doubt about this. But I would hate to sit down and rage about this in a novel. I go about it indirectly. I create characters in certain situations, and let them and their circumstances reveal the issues to the reader. I have created empowered women like the godmother in The Ice-Candy-Man, but I have also created women like the bride who have no control over their lives. So I write out of what I have seen and experienced over the years. For instance, many of the women characters in The Ice-Candy-Man, have been inspired by my work with destitute women in Pakistan. Wherever there is poverty, women suffer the most.

This interview is going to be published in a journal called ALIF which is published by the Department of English and Comparative Literature in The American University in Cairo. What would you say to writers, especially women writers, working out of the Arab world?

I think they have a big task on their hands because they have to fight on several counts. They are in perpetual confrontation with the west which has formed stereotypical images of the Islamic world. At another level, they have to fight against their own men. They have to fight against various religious decrees and Khalifats that seem to work against them. I don't know why, but most Islamic societies seem to want their women behind the veil, and this immediately dehumanizes them. As far as I know, this is not demanded by the holy Koran. Other strict religious decrees against women in the past (as in Judaism) are no longer maintained in quite the same way. Muslim women still have to fight against these. The Koran seems to need more careful scrutiny, and new interpretation undertaken by women. So far the males seem to have interpreted it to suit themselves. I am sure when the women interpret the Koran they do so quite differently. Women in other parts of the world are already interpreting it from this perspective.

Jill Didur (essay date July 1998)

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SOURCE: Didur, Jill. “Cracking the Nation: Gender, Minorities, and Agency in Bapsi Sidhwa's Cracking India.ARIEL: A Review of International English Literature 29, no. 3 (July 1998): 43-64.

[In the following essay, Didur examines the discourse of gender and national identity in Sidhwa's Cracking India in terms of feminist postcolonial theory.]

Fictional and historical narratives that portray the rise of the modern nation-state often mobilize the figure of “Woman” in the “construction, reproduction, and transformation of ethnic/national categories” (Anthias 7). Nationalist discourse in South Asia is no exception to this practice. Here, “Woman” has been used as the alibi for colonial and nationalist interventions into the everyday lives of South Asians. Feminist critics have demonstrated that concern about women's status in colonial and postcolonial contexts often has less to do with changing the actual material conditions of their lives and more to do with patriarchal “struggles over community autonomy and the right to self-determination” (Mani, “Multiple” 30). For instance, it is now well established that in colonial and postcolonial representations of sati (widow immolation) in India, “women become sites upon which various versions of scripture/tradition/law are elaborated and contested” (Mani, “Contentious” 115). The women themselves “are neither subjects nor objects, but rather the ground of the discourse of sati” (Mani, “Contentious” 117).

The practice of making women the “ground” in patriarchal debates over community and state identity is the place to begin questioning totalizing notions of the gendered subject, agency, and Pakistan's national imaginary. My discussion stages a confrontation between the structures of meaning that characterize conservative-nationalist discourse and fictional representations of a young Parsi girl, Lenny, and her ayah's (the Hindi word for nanny) “everyday” experience in Bapsi Sidhwa's novel, Cracking India.1 Conservative-nationalist discourse in Pakistan constructs Pakistani citizenship as normatively Muslim, elite, and feudal-patriarchal and pushes minorities, women, and subalterns to the margins of the national imaginary. This notion of citizenship is troubled when it is juxtaposed with the grid of intelligibility that informed the socio-historical context of Partition and the “everyday” experiences represented in Cracking India. The tension between the material and imaginary events inscribed in Sidhwa's narrative suggests how the discourses of gender and nation overlap, converge, and become increasingly restrictive of women's agency as the country faces independence. Whereas before Partition, Ayah2 is able to express her sexuality within her circle of companions in a multiple and fluid fashion, after Partition, her sexuality is exploited, policed, and made emblematic of the national imaginary. Lenny, on the other hand, is figured as gaining an awareness of how her interpretive agency can be used as a means to resist these pressures. Lenny's narrative practice dislocates conservative-nationalist discourse by rendering herself and Ayah as subjects within the “location” of Lahore, India at the time of Partition. Her narrative maps how their desires and discontents “mediate, challenge, resist, or transform discourses in the process of defining their identities” (Canning 377).3 My discussion traces how Sidhwa's fictional, partial, and episodic figuration of events through Lenny's eyes is an analogue for the fragmented, non-linear, and contradictory experience of “independence” alluded to in the “cracking” metaphor of the title.

Agency continues to be one of the most ill-defined concepts of theories of postcolonialism and discourse analysis. Because deconstructive practice has been so successful in making visible the “figurative nature of all ideology” (Poovey 58)—such as the conflation of women's identity with that of the nation—it is easy to forget that this reading practice would be impossible “without the interventions of agents who render them contingent and permeable” in the first place (Canning 377). In other words, it is the situated action of responding to the text that gives the reader, critic, writer or speaker the possibility of intervening in the interpretive processes that mediate the experience of living in the world. Of course, this is a somewhat different notion of agency than the one that has dominated Enlightenment thought, where the individual is supposed to act with full autonomy. This kind of agency has been critiqued, most famously, by Gayatri Spivak in her essay, “Can the Subaltern Speak.” Spivak argues that the subaltern cannot “speak,” or in other words, have access to what is understood as direct agency in liberatory discourse without reinscribing an Enlightenment notion of subjectivity.

In perhaps what is the most controversial contribution to the debate surrounding “voice” in feminist discourse, Spivak concludes this essay with the statement: “The subaltern cannot speak. There is no virtue in a global laundry list with ‘woman’ as pious item. Representation has not withered away” (308). In response to criticism that this argument precludes any possibility of agency for the gendered subaltern, in a subsequent interview that refers to this essay, Spivak stresses that her aim was to problematize, but not dismiss the concept of agency. She cites her conclusion in this essay as a direct response to Bhuvaneswari Bhadhuri's nieces' representation of her suicide as a case of “illicit love” despite Bhadhuri's attempts to displace this motive. Spivak reiterates that, even though Bhadhuri committed suicide while she was menstruating (thus deflecting the interpretation of her death as shame over an unplanned pregnancy) and left a letter explaining her motives, the political “intent” of taking her own life was overlooked. Spivak states,

What I'm saying is that even when, whether showing her political impotence or her political power, she tries to speak and make it clear, so that it would be read one way, the women in the family—radical women—decide to forget it. The rhetoric of the ending [of my essay] is a rhetoric of despair. It was at that moment, right after the story, when I said, throwing up my hands, “The subaltern cannot speak.”

(89; emphasis added)

Rather than suggesting that the subaltern has no agency, Spivak argues that totalizing readings of identity or “voice” (or attempts to read the text “one way”) ultimately require the subordination of the text to the assumptions of the reader. The figurative quality of any “record” of experience, however, requires that the reader be attentive to the multiple and contradictory discourses that shape subjectivities if s/he hopes to provide an ethical interpretation of the text. Moreover, if the unified rather than split subject remains the focus of the reader's discussions of agency, s/he forecloses recognition of everyday resistance that is neither conscious nor direct. Thus Spivak's critique and other examples of feminist deconstructions of the unified subject or agent do not negate or dismiss the concept of agency but rather call for its “critical reinscription and redeployment” (Canning 373).

The logic of women's actions figured in Sidhwa's novel can be better understood if representations of their experience are reinscribed and redeployed as interpretations rather than reflections of “reality.” As Kathleen Canning points out,

This emphasis on construing reframing, and reappropriating [experience] implies that subjects do have some kind of agency, even if the meanings they make “depend on the ways of interpreting the world, [and] on the discourses available to [them] at any particular moment.” Indeed, experience, as the rendering of meaning, is inextricably entwined with the notion of agency, with a vision of historical subjects as actors who … “put into practice their necessarily structured knowledge.”4


Agency in these terms is conceived of as “the site of mediation between discourses and experiences” which “dislodge[s] the deterministic view in which discourse always seems to construct experience but also to dispel the notion that discourses are, to paraphrase Ortner, shaped by everything but the experiences of ‘the people the text claims to represent’” (Canning 378).

Sidhwa's novel is narrated from the perspective of Lenny, a young Parsi girl coming of age at the time of Partition and independence. As the narrative unfolds, it quickly becomes apparent that her subjectivity is mediated by a community identity undergoing a double-edged crisis. The shift in power from a British to the Hindu and Muslim centric states of India and Pakistan respectively signals the end of the Parsis' privileged relation, despite their minority status, to the ruling class.5 The novel dramatizes the confusions and contradictions that face a young girl being initiated into the norms of her community and society just as those very norms are being furtively reconstituted to suit better a new set of conditions of power. In this sense Sidhwa's text offers the reader an imaginary peek into the “location” of the Parsi community of Lahore as a “conjunctural site of indetermination” (Sangari 872) where the discursive meaning of “belonging” is under revision. Sidhwa's text engages with the implications of the end of British rule in India, the rise of competing conservative-nationalist imaginaries and their intersections with the patriarchal power relations that circulate in the “compressed” world (Sidhwa 11) of Lenny's local community. In addition, Lenny's intimate relationship with her ayah and her visits to the Sikh/Muslim village of Pir Pindoo take her outside the bourgeois circle of the Parsi community and make her aware of the heterogeneous cultural context of her society at large. Sidhwa's text figures Lenny exercising agency by questioning the hegemonic structures of meaning that infuse her “everyday” experiences. Her decentred view of the end of British rule within her local community helps to defamiliarize the dominant interpretation of history and nationalism at the time of Partition and discloses its patriarchal and majoritarian underpinnings.

Lenny's use of narrative as a form of agency can be tracked in and through the novel's preoccupation with the rhetorical and literal implications of representation at a linguistic and thematic level. The conventional relation between the figurative and the literal becomes a thematic concern of Sidhwa's text when the normative distinction between these two things becomes a counter-intuitive preoccupation for Lenny. Repeatedly, she is figured as struggling to separate the literal from the figurative meaning of Partition in order to grasp the “reality” of its consequences. For instance, when Lenny overhears discussions about the partitioning of the nation she wonders how this is materially possible: “There is much disturbing talk. India is going to be broken. Can one break a country? And what happens if they break it where our house is? Or crack it further up on Warris Road? How will I ever get to Godmother's then?” (101). Later, when Lenny hears her Aunt Mini talk about “the Mountbatten plan to tear up the Punjab,” (121) she comments: “And the vision of a torn Punjab. Will the earth bleed? And what about the sundered rivers? Won't their water drain into the jagged cracks? Not satisfied by breaking India, they now want to tear up the Punjab” (124). Lenny's (mis)recognition of the metaphorical use of the images of cracking, breaking, and tearing as literal, highlights the tension between (rather than distinct usage of) the figurative and literal aspects of language and by extension, the thoroughly mediated nature of representation. The creation of two new nation-states may not have been accomplished by the material act of “digging a canal” as Ayah suggests elsewhere (101); nevertheless, the discursive construction of two different monolithic national imaginaries is shown to have other substantive material implications.

Lenny's naive narrative perspective also dramatizes the way the tension between text and context opens up a space for interpretation, rather than the search for “T”ruth, in literary representations of “everyday” history. The act of narration gives Lenny the opportunity to intervene in the various struggles over the meaning of historical events. As the country moves toward independence, Lenny's narrative tracks the increasingly constricted and gendered definition of nationalist discourse. For example, it becomes apparent that despite the nation's expression of concern for “abducted” women's safety and happiness, women like Ayah are neither subjects nor objects of the discourse, but what Lata Mani has called the “ground” or “currency” (“Contentious” 118) for nationalist struggles.6 Lenny's narrative, however, counters this practice; when the Recovered Women's Camp is first established in the servants' quarters behind their neighbour's house, Lenny assumes “it's a women's jail, even though they look innocent enough” (201). The manner in which the women are kept under guard, separated from the community (“There is a padlock the size of a grapefruit on the gate, and a large key hangs from the steel bangle around the Sikh's wrist”) (201), and the way “[t]he servants evade questions as if there is something shameful going on” (201), leads Lenny to think that the women must be guilty of some crime. Indeed, while this may not be the way the women's treatment is justified, Lenny's naive observations point to the anxiety surrounding their sexual “contamination” by the “Other” community. Ayah's replacement, Hamida, who has just been released from the camp and sees herself as a “fallen woman,” tries to explain that the women are “fate-smitten,” but this does not satisfy Lenny who recalls: “I've seen Ayah carried away—and it had less to do with fate than the will of men” (226). When she asks Godmother to clarify what Hamida means by calling herself “a fallen woman,” Godmother explains that “She was taken away to Amritsar. Once that happens, sometimes, the husband—or his family—won't take her back” (227). Lenny is outraged at the scapegoating of the women. “It's monstrously unfair” she thinks, but also notices “Godmother's tone is accepting” (227). Lenny's interrogation of the normalized assumption that inform “abducted” women's treatment helps to make visible the way patriarchal conservative-nationalist interests produce their identities as victims. Moreover, her off-centre view highlights how the women's suffering is both a product of their abduction from and rejection by their original families and communities and the state's effort to erase their history.

At the time of Partition, the patriarchal construction of women's identities, and in particular, their sexual purity as symbolic of community honour and integrity, made them subject to particularly gendered and humiliating acts of aggression as India and Pakistan sought to establish their sovereignty. The physical suffering and displacement “abducted” women experienced at the hands of individuals, their families and communities confronted the two states with one of the first challenges to the seamless presentation of the modern-nation as a universally accessible and equitable expression of the social contract. Public outrage over the presence of “abducted” women living in the communities of the Other in India and Pakistan in 1947 and after, placed social pressure on the state to intervene and “recover” them on behalf of the (masculine) citizen-subject. Regardless of their own wishes, Hindu women were “recovered” to India and Muslim women were “recovered” to Pakistan.

Despite the state's and community's combined efforts to contain “abducted” women's agency, they appear to have had some say in the determination of their “fate”—if only in isolated cases. Women like Ayah, for instance, who were aware of the “multiple subject positions they occupied at any given moment,” were the most successful in contesting their objectification in and through these patriarchal legal interventions (Canning 384). Sidhwa's text opens up a narrative space that resists this objectification, where Ayah and Lenny are portrayed as neither “heroines” who rise above the patriarchal conservative-nationalist struggles that engulf their communities nor are they complete “victims” of its physical and discursive violence. Instead, they are figured as negotiating their subjectivities within the interstice of experience and interpretation and shaping the outcome of material events as they do so. Moreover, Sidhwa's narrative practice helps to imagine the kind of complex and contradictory power relations that exist between social structures and individual agents. Her novel engages with the material and discursive implications of Partition and makes visible the “conjunctural sites of indetermination” where “agencies slip through structures in new situations, at transitional moments or in liminal areas” (Sangari 872). Where women like Ayah or Lenny question the interpretation of their identities by patriarchal community and state interests, they perform an act of resistance that destabilizes the dominant order. Cracking India figures Lenny as conscious of Ayah's strategic use of her multiple subject-positions as a means to subvert the discourses that inscribe her body in multiple and contingent ways. In what follows, I will explore the reception, contestation, and multiple meanings of these interpretative acts in the epistemological context of postcolonial Pakistan in order to “resist the tendency of discourse analysis to displace the subject or to reduce her ‘to mere bearer of systemic processes’” (Canning 384).

The question of what would count as transformative agency in this conservative-nationalist temporality of struggle is a difficult one to answer when agency is understood only as direct. The concept of direct agency refers to the actions of individuals that are public, self-conscious, collective and unfettered by social structures—actions taken by the autonomous subject I mentioned earlier. None of these things can be said to characterize women's agency in Cracking India; on the contrary, their actions are generally isolated, in the private sphere and mediated by restrictive social discourses that are not necessarily “self-conscious” in Enlightenment terms. This, in turn, makes it difficult to imagine how women's agency contests the structures and practices of subordination in everyday material and discursive practices. Because examples of direct agency are unlikely in representations of women's everyday experience, there is the danger of interpreting their behaviour as passive or dictated by “ruling ideology.” “What one needs to keep in mind,” however, as Sumit Sarkar suggests, “is a vast and complex continuum of intermediate attitudes of which total subordination and open revolt are only the extreme poles” (273). In order to account for “inventionary possibilities adequate to a thoroughgoing politics of change” (Sarkar 273) the critic must problematize the division between the public and private and recognize their co-implication.

Indirect agency could thus include, as Kumkum Sangari argues, any “range of actions which take forms that are difficult to fit into commonly understood typologies of organized political activity” (868) but nonetheless, impact on the flow of power. Gyan Prakash and Douglas Haynes attempt to account for this “range of actions” in their book, Contesting Power. Here, they call for a notion of resistance that “can be applied to a much wider range of sociocultural practices and takes into account the ways in which the subjectivity of the dominated is constrained, modified and conditioned by power relations” (2). This nuanced understanding of resistance or agency rethinks power as “constantly being fractured by the struggles of the subordinate” (Prakash and Haynes 2). “Social structure” Prakash and Haynes argue “rather than being a monolithic, autonomous entity, unchallenged except during dramatic instances of revolt, appears more commonly as a constellation of contradictory and contestatory processes” (2-3). In this context, there is no “pure form” of domination or resistance because “the two are so entangled that it becomes difficult to analyze one without discussion of the other” (Prakash and Haynes 3).

The entanglement of domination and resistance is apparent in Lenny's observations about her experiences in her family home and community. Here, Sidhwa illustrates how the exercise of indirect agency can used to reinscribe or displace the norms of women's subjectivities. From the outset of Cracking India, Sidhwa represents Lenny as internalizing a sense of inferiority and subsequent lack of autonomy as a girl located in the hierarchy of family power relations. One of Lenny's major preoccupations are the differences she perceives between her brother and herself. Physically, she compares herself unfavourably to her brother: “I am skinny, wizened, sallow, wiggly-haired, ugly. He is beautiful. He is the most beautiful thing animal, person, building, river or mountain that I have seen. He is formed of gold mercury” (32). Lenny's apprehension of her brother's favoured status in the family is conveyed in this passage through her choice of comparing him with “gold mercury” and contrasting him with her own “ugliness.” The gendered nature of Lenny's perception of herself as ugly as compared to her brother is evident in the derogatory connections she makes between femininity and shame. She explains,

His name is Adi. I call him Sissy. He is too confused to retaliate the first few times I call him by his new name. At last: “My name is Adi,” he growls, glowering.

The next day I persist. He pretends not to notice. In the evening, holding up a sari-clad doll I say, “Hey Sissy, look! She's just like you!”


Lenny's internalized hatred of her gender identity is exemplified in this passage by the taunts she directs at her brother and the hyper-feminine connotation of the doll she goads him with. Her sense of inferiority in relation to her brother is compounded by her racial identity: Lenny's skin colour is noticeably darker than her brother's, who is able to “pass” as “British” in the playgrounds around Lahore. Ayah demonstrates pride over this fact, calling Adi her “little English baba” and enjoys the assumptions strangers make about his racial heritage being white. Lenny notes,

Ayah is so proud of Adi's paucity of pigment. Sometimes she takes us to Lawrence Gardens and encourages him to run across the space separating native babies and English babies. The ayahs of the English babies hug him and fuss over him and permit him to romp with their privileged charges. Adi undoes the bows of little girls with blue eyes in scratchy organdy dresses and wrestles with tallow-haired boys in the grass. Ayah beams.


This quote emphasizes the racial and patriarchal privilege that Adi shares with the white boys when he literally and metaphorically crosses “the space separating native and English babies.” Trading on assumptions about his racial heritage, he is able to harass the young white girls without reproach and compete as an “equal” with the “tallow-haired boys.” Lenny, on the other hand, expresses anxiety about the consequences of her dark skin. She recounts how

Every now and then Slavesister serves Godmother strong half-cups of tea which Godmother pours into her saucer and slurps. I too take an occasional and guilty sip. Drinking tea, I am told, makes one darker. I'm dark enough. Everyone says, “It's a pity Adi's fair and Lenny so dark. He's a boy. Anyone will marry him.”


As a girl, Lenny's surplus of pigment is considered a double liability. Her inferior status in a racist and patriarchal society places pressures on her to negotiate patriarchal patronage through marriage and identification with the white colonizer.

Despite this internalized sense of inferiority, Lenny's narrative suggests that she learns how to exercise indirect agency from witnessing and participating in the negotiations of power relations between her parents. Though Lenny figures the dominance of her father in all matters including finances, favour and family harmony, on several occasions, she also carefully records the way her mother negotiates her needs with her father, thus exercising some agency (albeit, highly individualized) in how matters will be resolved. On one particular morning, for example, Lenny reports,

Father is in a good mood. So, Mother too is in a good mood. She gives me a hug. She puts toothpaste on Father's toothbrush. She tells me to take Father's empty cup and saucer to the pantry. But Father latches on to me with such a show of speechless anguish and consternation at the thought of being parted from me that Mother says, “Let it be. Yousaf will take them.”

She smiles indulgently: as if she could cross my father if she had a mind to.


This scene exemplifies Lenny's awareness of how her father's disposition dominates any situation where decision making occurs. Lenny articulates the way her mother's mood hinges on her father's in the opening sentence of this passage by linking the two sentences in terms of their meaning; her mother's “good mood” and the reason for it is inscrutable in this sentence without reference to her father's mood in the previous sentence. When Lenny's father refuses to release her to perform a task that her mother requests her to do, Lenny notes how her mother quickly retracts her order—but not without first indicating that she could contradict his will if she wanted to: “She smiles indulgently: as if she could cross my father if she had a mind to.” The contingency that the phrase “as if” adds to this statement promotes the sense of uncertainly that Lenny associates with her mother's will as a woman subordinated to the patriarchal privilege of her husband.

In general, it appears that Lenny's mother uses her agency in a consensual fashion—in the interest of maintaining her patriarchal patronage—and thus contributes to the perpetuation of elite patriarchal practices. “Patriarchies,” Kumkum Sangari argues, “are resilient not only because they are embedded in social stratification, divisions of labour, other political structures, religious/cultural practices, institutions and categories, but also because of the contractual and consensual elements in them” (868). Rather than confront her husband about the various inequities in their relationship, Lenny's mother uses indirect agency to get what she wants without seriously challenging the basis of her subordination. It becomes apparent, however, that even these privileges are not without their costs. The negative effects of this unequal but mutually constitutive relation of subjection are not lost on Lenny who represents the “games” her mother and father engage in over the distribution of the family finances as a playful, but ultimately degrading activity. She depicts how her mother chases her father around the bedroom attempting to get money from him for some household expenses and comments:

Mother's voice teeters between amusement and a wheedling whine. She is a virtuoso at juggling the range of her voice and achieving the exact balance with which to handle Father. Father has the knack of extracting the most talented performances from us all—and from all those who work for him.


Lenny's perception of the different positions of influence which her parents occupy in this negotiation process is evident in the analogy she draws between this “performance” and the theatre—as well as the employer/employee relation this relationship mimics. While her mother is the performer, “juggling the range of her voice,” her father is the director, “extracting the most talented performances from us all.” Though there is an underlying fluidity to the circulation of power in this “game,” ultimately, her father is in the dominant position. Even though a playful mood pervades the scene, Lenny's understanding of the way this process demeans her mother is conveyed through her description of the events; like an animal her mother “scrambles across the mattress on all fours” as she tries to catch her husband. When she “warns” him of her determination, Lenny describes her voice as “tearfully childish” (76). In this scene, Lenny's mother is figured as exercising consensual agency to shore up her access to middle-class domestic security rather than intervene or displace the patriarchal and class conventions that govern her marital relation.

The gendered, unequal and yet agonistic qualities of this power struggle take on a darker significance for Lenny, who finds that she is increasingly complicit in her mother's struggle for favour with her father. Hints are given in the narrative that Lenny's father is involved with another woman and that he beats his wife; Lenny comments: “But there are other things they fight about that are not clear to me. Sometimes I hear Mother say ‘No, Jana; I won't let you go! I won't let you go to her!’” (224). One day Lenny reports: “I surprise Mother at her bath and see bruises on her body” (224). When she reflects on their daily ritual of greeting her father when he returns home from work, she is acutely aware of how her mother monitors her father's reaction to her stories, redirecting the conversation to maintain a positive response. When her father expresses annoyance over her brother's behaviour, Lenny reports how “[s]witching the bulletin immediately, Mother recounts some observation of mine as if I've spent the entire morning mouthing extraordinarily brilliant, saccharine sweet and fetchingly naive remarks” (88). After being called upon regularly to repeat or invent these kinds of remarks Lenny figures herself as internalizing her simpering performances: “As the years advance, my sense of inadequacy and unworth advances. I have to think faster—on my toes as it were … offering lengthier and lengthier chatter to fill up the infernal time of Father's mute meals” (88). The hellishness Lenny associates with these interactions between her parents is a far cry from the playfulness connected with the earlier scene discussed above. During these lunch time performances, Lenny's awareness of her inferior status as a girl in a patriarchal society, the different and unequal expectations her parents have for her and her brother, her mother's subordinate position in the marriage and her own complicity in its production telescope, and are only deferred by her act of storytelling. In one of the rare retrospective and self-reflexive narrative moments in the novel, Lenny asks: “Is that when I learn to tell tales?” (88). With this move, Sidhwa emphasizes Lenny's growing awareness of how her use of discourse has the potential to be either complicitous or resistant to the definition of her identity and actions within the terms of the unequal relations of power that circulate in her home and community.

Where Lenny's mother's actions often result in “overly individualized private resolutions” (Sangari 867) to her subordination, Ayah's use of indirect agency becomes a source of inspiration for Lenny. The difference between these two examples of indirect agency in terms of their transformative potential seems to hinge on Ayah's intimate relationship with Lenny and her “unregulated” expression of desire. In other words, Ayah and Lenny's relatively unsupervised time together allows them to build a bond of unmanaged intimacy that challenges patriarchal, racial, and bourgeois conventions. Lenny's admiration of the influence Ayah's sensuality gives her over British and native (male) Indians is established from the outset of the novel. As Ayah pushes her in a pram along Jail Road, Lenny comments,

The covetous glances Ayah draws educate me. Up and down they look at her. Stub handed twisted beggars and dusty old beggars on crutches drop their poses and stare at her with hard alert eyes. Holy men, masked in piety, shove aside their pretenses to ogle her with lust. Hawkers, cart drivers, cooks, coolies and cyclists turn their heads as she passes, pushing my pram with the unconcern of the Hindu goddess she worships.

(12; emphasis added)

The “education” that Lenny refers to in this passage is a central feature of her interactions with Ayah, and can be read as an example of an undisciplined affectionate relationship between a servant and child that Ann Stoler terms an “education of desire” (109). An “education of desire” is Foucault's phrase for the process though which the subject learns about the “correct” expression of his/her sexuality. Correct, in this sense, refers to the epistemological assumptions that inform any discourse of sexuality in a given culture. In her book Race and the Education of Desire, Stoler takes Foucault's argument one step further to argue that an “education of desire” could also refer to the cultivation of emotional ties between children and their nannies. These ties can be seen as potentially subversive, as in Lenny and Ayah's case, when the “cultivation of the self” they involve crosses “carefully marked boundaries of class and race” (Stoler 191).

Sidhwa's representation of an affectionate relationship between Lenny and Ayah that goes unmonitored by her parents demonstrates the subversive potential of desire. This relationship gives Lenny insight into the contradictions and the potential for resistance to her society's dominant codes. The relatively unsupervised relationship between Ayah and her charge allows Lenny's “education of desire” to unfold without the usual injunctions against her developing too much familiarity with her nanny. Her narrative figures her growing awareness of the links between the power relations she experiences as a girl growing up in a patriarchal, minority community and the pressures Ayah negotiates as a female Hindu servant living in colonial India and postcolonial Pakistan.

Clearly, the fascination that Ayah holds for Lenny is related to her ability to exercise agency despite the subordinate social position she occupies. In the pre-Partition world of Lahore, Lenny perceives Ayah's “chocolate chemistry” as allowing her to negotiate her desire for sexual intimacy with a variety of men from diverse cultural backgrounds and thereby subvert the patriarchal expectations for her behaviour. Lenny notes, for instance, the “subtle exchange of signals and some of the complex rites by which Ayah's admirers co-exist” (29). Once Ayah has made a decision about who she will spend her time with, Lenny remarks how the other men, “[d]usting the grass from the clothes … slip away before dark, leaving the one luck, or the lady, favors” (29). Ayah's ability to displace the codes of monogamy and chastity suggest an alternative to the patriarchal relationships that govern Lenny's mother's life.

Lenny likens Ayah's hold over the men in her social circle to “the tyranny magnets exercise over metals” (29). The type of agonism this metaphor suggests is repeatedly associated with Ayah's influence over the men: “Ayah's presence galvanizes men to mad sprints in the noon heat” (41; emphasis added). From the naive perspective of a child, Ayah's negotiations with Ice-candy-man and others take on the semblance of a military action in which Lenny learns to participate in order to extract attention, treats and favours for herself:

Things love to crawl beneath Ayah's sari. Ladybirds, glow-worms, Ice-candy-man's toes. She dusts them off with impartial nonchalance. I keep an eye on Ice-candy-man's toes. Sometimes in the course of an engrossing story, they travel so cautiously that both Ayah and I are taken unawares. Ice-candy-man is a raconteur. He is also an absorbing gossip. When the story is extra good, and the tentative toes polite, Ayah tolerates them.

Sometimes a toe snakes out and zeros in on its target with such lightening speed that I hear of the attack only from Ayah's startled “Oof.” Once in a while I preempt the big toe's romantic impulse and, catching it mid-crawl or mid strike, twist it. It is a measure to keep the candy bribes coming.


This passage depicts how Ice-candy-man's seduction of Ayah through story telling is coupled with a military-like strategy (suggested by the words “target” “attack” and “strike”), that occasionally leads to the reciprocal expression of desire between them. As Lenny points out, Ayah sets conditions on the manner and circumstances in which she is willing to entertain Ice-candy-man's advances (“[w]hen the story is good, and the tentative toes polite”). In all cases, the emphasis in Lenny's figuration of these encounters is on the unequal but not unmanageable relations of power between Ayah and the men in her social circle.

While Ayah's body is inscribed as a symbol of India by conservative-nationalist rhetoric, her desires continue to subvert and remake that imaginary at the local level; she holds the group of her admirers together and diffuses conflict among them, at least temporarily, despite the intensification of racist and patriarchal discourse at the time of Partition. A case in point here occurs when the men in Ayah's social circle engage in divisive racialized rhetorical attacks against the Hindu and Muslim communities alternately. Lenny comments on how it is Ayah who redirects the conversation by changing the topic of the discussion to the character of the British Viceroy and his wife. Lenny notes: “She, like Mother, is an oil pourer” (99). As a symbol of India (initially, all the men co-exist peacefully and productively in her presence), and target for patriarchal struggles for power, the subversive effects of Ayah's bodily expression of desire articulate a more permeable and heterogeneous definition of the national imaginary than the narrow, restrictive one that eventually prevails in Pakistan.

If Ayah's bodily experience of desire as agency represents a challenge to conservative-nationalism, it is this same site that becomes the focus of scrutiny in the struggle for power that unfolds. The fluid and liminal discursive configuration of community identity that Ayah's pre-Partition interaction with the group of men exemplifies, is shown as gradually eroded as the country moves toward independence. When political events portend the prospect of Partition, it becomes apparent that her heterogeneous experience of day to day life is being undermined. It becomes increasingly difficult for Ayah to negotiate her autonomy in the group of men. The intensification of women's discipline of the self according to community and national patriarchal codes is illustrated in Sidhwa's text when Lenny observes how Ayah's relations with the men in her social circle become circumscribed by a more rigid definition of her racial, gender and sexual identity. One of the first hints of this occurs when Ice-candy-man provides Lenny and Ayah with a run down of the latest “news of the world” (38). After he reports how Chandra Bose has stated that “If we want India back we must take pride in our customs, our clothes, our languages … And not go mouthing the got-pit sot-pit of the English!” (38), Lenny recounts how

Finally, narrowing his focus to our immediate surroundings, he says to Ayah, “Shanta bibi, you're Punjabi aren't you?”

“For the most part,” Ayah agrees warily.

“Then why don't you wear Punjabi clothes? I've never seen you in shalwar-kamize.”


Ayah's response that ayahs who wear saris (and thus mimic that stereotype of more formally educated Goan ayahs) earn more money than those who wear Punjabi clothes, discloses that she is not unaware of the identitarian politics that prevail in her contemporary surroundings. She deflects Ice-candy-man's attempt to pigeon-hole her identity as narrowly “Punjabi” by responding to his question about her “identity” with dismissive assent: “For the most part” (38). In this brief scene, Sidhwa weaves together the micro and macro-political discursive contexts of the Punjab in 1943 to disclose how women “are being redefined as semiotic objects on which the actions of the state are to be inscribed” (Das 70). Here, however, the elaboration of the practices of the bio-political nation-state are shown as dialogically informed by the everyday practices of self-representation.

In this and other key moments in the narrative, Ice-candy-man is cast as both synecdoche and supplement to the patriarchal power relations in Lahore at the time—simultaneously enforcing and elaborating definitions of national identities as they relate to the traffic of women's bodies and practices of living. Later, as the conservative nationalist political rhetoric intensifies in the discursive realm, Lenny becomes “aware of religious differences” for the first time:

It is sudden. One day everybody is themselves—and the next day they are Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Christian. People shrink, dwindling into symbols. Ayah is no longer just my all-encompassing Ayah—she is also a token. A Hindu. Carried away by renewed devotional fervor she expends a small fortune in joss-sticks, flowers and sweets on the gods and goddesses in the temples.

Imam Din and Yousaf, turning into religious zealots, warn Mother they will take Friday afternoon off for the Jumha prayers. … Crammed into a narrow religious slot they too are diminished, as are Jinnah and Iqbal, Ice-candy-man and Masseur.


Lenny's account of the changes in Ayah's and her followers behaviour emphasizes the way the narrowing and shoring up of community identity diminishes the vitality and complexity of social relations in the community. Ayah and the others reconfigure their self-presentation when they sense their interests are in danger of being marginalized—or conversely, elevated to a privileged position—within the shifting relations of power pervading the country.

A direct relation between the intensification of these patriarchal nationalist discourses and the disciplinary pressures on women's subjectivities can be traced in Sidhwa's rendering of the escalation of gendered sectarian violence at the time of Partition. As tensions within Ayah's group of followers intensify, they engage in arguments about the future of each community in what will become Pakistan. In their debates, images of emasculation are linked with the identity of the minority community on each side of the boarder. In one such discussion, the local “restaurant-owning wrestler” proclaims: “Once the line of division is drawn in the Punjab, all Muslims to the east will have their balls cut off!” (139). The subjugation of the Other nation/community is repeatedly associated with a feminization of the men and the violation of the women. When the first reports of the riots begin to trickle in, Ice-candy-man reports how “[t]here are no young women among the dead! Only two gunny-bags full of women's breasts!” (159). The fact that women are singled out as special targets for torture and abduction is not lost on Ayah. When Ice-candy-man takes Ayah and Lenny up to the roof to witness the burning of Lahore, Lenny recalls how Ayah begins to withdraw from the group in a defeatist attitude: “Ayah moves away, her feet suddenly heavy and dragging, and sits on the roof slumped against the wall. She buries her face in her knees” (147). As the violence against women increases, Ayah begins to lose her ability to negotiate her desire in an on-going fashion.

Ayah's effort to displace the increasingly constrictive patriarchal nationalist discourses that intersect in her body, of course, eventually fails. When her current lover, Masseur, is found butchered in the street Lenny notes how “[t]he glossy chocolate bloom in her skin is losing its sheen” (188); what was once a seductive tool fades in the dualistic logic that pervades community identity. The moment of her subjection to dominant patriarchal logic comes when, led by Ice-candy-man, some of the local Muslim men, exuding “surety and arrogance” (191), take Ayah from Lenny's parents' house by force:

They drag Ayah out. They drag her by her arms stretched taut and her bare feet—that want to move backwards—are forced forward instead. … The men drag her in grotesque strides to the cart and their harsh hands, supporting her with careless intimacy, lift her into it. Four men stand pressed against her, propping her body upright, their lips stretched in triumphant grimaces.


The emphasis in this rendering of Ayah's interaction with the men is on the use of force and her effort to resist physically; she is “dragged” and “forced” and “pressed” into submission. Discursive efforts to define her identity are abandoned and brute force is deployed to resolve the ambiguity of her position. As Dipesh Chakrabarty suggests, the triumph of discourse “has always been dependent on the mobilization, on its behalf, of effective means of physical coercion” (2). Within the constricted patriarchal logic of the modern-nation state, Ayah's body is recouped into a subordinate role, dependent, at least temporarily, on the patronage of Ice-candy-man for her protection from the violent crowd.

Prior to the escalation of Partition tensions, Ayah is able to negotiate the unequal relations of power with the men in her community around issues such as the expression of her sexuality and community affiliation. After Partition, she is more constrained and eventually her body becomes a fulcrum for the power struggles between the warring communities. As Veena Das argues in relation to the treatment of women during Partition violence: “[t]he woman's body … became a sign through which men communicated with each other” (56). Nevertheless, though Ayah's body is inscribed with competing patriarchal conservative-nationalist discourses, Sidhwa's text suggests that she is not just “the systemic bearer of process.” On the contrary, my reading of Cracking India suggests that Ayah is also able to resist and rewrite those inscriptions through the expression of her own desires, however imperfectly it may seem. The tension between the material and imaginary in and through these inscriptions points to the possibility of indirect agency as desire that evades the normalizing process of power and brings the concept of the unified subject to crisis. Lenny's “education of desire” in her close relationship with Ayah takes her out of the confines of the bourgeois Parsi community and exposes her to the heterogeneity of socio-cultural perspectives that make up a “temporality of struggle” representative of Lahore at the time of Partition. Her narrative discloses the “conjunctural sites of indetermination” that characterize experience, the relationship between text and context, the entanglement of the public and private, and figures how agency (or interpretation) can shape the outcome and understanding of historical events. Though the nation and community are “broken” through the events of Partition, it is clear that Lenny has “cracked” the patriarchal-nationalist code that (re)asserts itself in the aftermath.


  1. This novel was originally published under the title Ice-Candy-Man in 1988. My references are to the 1991 publication. My understanding of “everyday” experience derives from Joan W. Scott's essay, “The Evidence of Experience.”

  2. Lenny identifies her ayah as Ayah throughout the novel. Her actual first name, Shanta, is mentioned only once, by Ice-candy-man (Sidhwa 38).

  3. “Location” in this sense refers not to a fixed point but rather a “temporality of struggle” “characterized by multiple locations and nonsynchronous processes of movement ‘between cultures, languages, and complex configurations of meaning and power’” (Mani, “Contentious” 26).

  4. The definition of discourse that informs this understanding of agency is what Canning describes as a “modified Foucauldian one of a convergence of statements, texts, signs and practices across different, even dispersed, sites” (379).

  5. The history of the Parsi community in colonial South Asia is shown as fraught with contradictions in that they, like the rest of South Asians in India, were subject to colonial rule, but at the same time enjoyed a privileged relationship with the colonial administration and often expressed outright admiration for British colonial culture. Questions regarding the positionality and identity of the Parsi community at this time and, subsequently, in postcolonial India have been investigated by Tanya Luhrmann in her recent book The Good Parsi. In this study, she tracks assumptions about racial and cultural superiority that characterized the dominant Parsi community identity under colonial rule and its consequences for their postcolonial situation in India. “The Good Parsi,” in Luhrmann's analysis, is a trope for the ideal Parsi colonial subject in colonial India. This trope characterized Parsis as “charitable, truthful, racially pure, and as like the British as a native community could be” (100). It was invoked to support claims that “the moral qualities of the Parsis must be classified as more European than Indian, and, like the British, as Superior to the moral qualities of the native Indian” (100). See especially pages 100-10.

  6. The phrase “abducted” women refers to women displaced from their families and communities during the migrations and sectarian violence that accompanied partition. From 1948 to 1956, these women became the object of “recovery operations,” in India and Pakistan “which sought to recover those women who had been abducted and forcibly converted during the upheaval, and restore them to their respective families and countries where they ‘rightfully belonged’” (Menon and Bhasin WS2). The scare quotes that Menon and Bhasin place around the phrase “rightfully belonged” suggest the questionable legitimacy of this judgment. What qualified as the “rightful” communities, families, and countries for these women appears to have been a particular construction of their identity determined by the state-sanctioned Central Recovery Operation. See articles by Ritu Menon, Kamla Bhasin, and Urvashi Butalia for an extended discussion of these activities. See my recent essay “Fragments of Imagination: Rethinking the Literary in Historiography through Narratives of India's Partition” for a discussion of how fictional partition narratives can be a resource for unpacking the patriarchal and majoritarian power relations that inflect India's national imaginary.

Works Cited

Anthias, Floya. Woman, Nation, State. Houndmills: MacMillan, 1989.

Butalia, Urvashi. “Community, State and Gender: On Women's Agency during Partition.” Economic and Political Weekly 24 Apr. 1993: WS12-24.

Canning, Kathleen. “Feminist History after the Linguistic Turn: Historicizing Discourse and Experience.” Signs 19.2 (1994): 368-404.

Chakrabarty, Dipesh. “Postcoloniality and the Artifice of History: Who Speaks for ‘Indian’ Pasts?” Representations 37 (1992): 1-26.

Das, Veena. Critical Events. New Delhi: Oxford UP, 1994.

Didur, Jill. “Fragments of Imagination: Re-thinking the Literary in Historiography through Narratives of India's Partition.” Jouvert: A Journal in Postcolonial Studies 1.2 (1997): 27 pp. 10 Jan. 1998.

Luhrmann, Tanya. The Good Parsi: The Fate of a Postcolonial Elite. Boston: Harvard UP, 1996.

Mani, Lata. “Contentious Traditions.” Recasting Women: Essays in Colonial History. Ed. Kumkum Sangari and Sudesh Vaid. New Delhi: Kali for Women Press, 1989. 88-126.

———. “Multiple Mediations: Feminist Scholarship in the Age of Multinational Reception.” Feminist Review 35 (1990): 24-41.

Menon Ritu, and Kamla Bhasin. “Recovery, Rupture, Resistance: Indian State and Abduction of Women during Partition.” Economic and Political Weekly 24 Apr. 1993: WS2-12.

Poovey, Mary. “Feminism and Deconstruction.” Feminist Studies 14.1 (1988): 51-65.

Prakash Gyan, and Douglas Haynes. “Introduction: The Entanglement of Power and Resistance.” Contesting Power. Berkeley: U of California P, 1992. 1-21.

Sangari, Kumkum. “Consent, Agency and Rhetorics of Incitement.” Economic and Political Weekly 1 May 1993: 867-82.

Sarkar, Sumit. “The Conditions and Nature of Subaltern Militancy: Bengal from Swadeshi to Non-cooperation, c. 1905-1922.” Subaltern Studies III Delhi: Oxford UP, 1985. 274-93.

Scott, Joan W. “The Evidence of Experience.” Critical Inquiry 17 (1991): 773-97.

Sidhwa, Bapsi. Cracking India. Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 1991. Rpt. of Ice-Candy-Man. 1988.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. Ed. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg. Illinois: U of Illinois P, 1994. 271-313.

———. “Interview: Gayatri Spivak on the Politics of the Subaltern.” Socialist Review 90.3 (1990): 81-97.

Stoler, Ann Laura. Race and the Education of Desire. Durham: Duke UP, 1995.

Ambreen Hai (essay date summer 2000)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 18257

SOURCE: Hai, Ambreen. “Border Work, Border Trouble: Postcolonial Feminism and the Ayah in Bapsi Sidhwa's Cracking India.Modern Fiction Studies 46, no. 2 (summer 2000): 379-426.

[In the following essay, Hai discusses Sidhwa's Cracking India in terms of the rubric of border-crossing in postcolonial literature.]

Borderlands […] may feed growth and exploration or […] conceal a minefield.

—Margaret Higonnet, Borderwork: Feminist Engagements with Comparative Literature

It is the intersections of the various systemic networks of class, race, (hetero)sexuality, and nation, then, that position us as “women.”

—Chandra Mohanty, “Cartographies”

In Rudyard Kipling's short story “On the City Wall,” the border between city and country, between British control and Indian resistance, and between colonizer and colonized is occupied by the fantastical figure of Lalun, the “exquisite” courtesan, entertainer, and artist, on whose hospitable grounds men of all races and religions amicably meet.1 Literally located on the border of Lahore (now a border city of Pakistan), Lalun's house and body function emblematically as border spaces, sites on the “city wall” where sexual, political, and cultural capital is traded and lines of division crossed. This border status is, however, unexpectedly subversive, for it is Lalun's ingenious deployment of her seemingly non-aligned position in between many camps that enables her to hoodwink the narrator into helping a captive Indian revolutionary escape from British guards. Kipling, as the narrator, ruefully concludes: “I had become Lalun's Vizier after all” (243). While hybrid figures—such as interracial “Eurasians” or western-educated “Babus” in British India—were habitually derided in colonial discourse, this atypical colonial moment in “On the City Wall” seems more knowing of the strategic doubleness of borderhood, and of the radical potential of the in-between, or the unbelonging. As such, it might be read as a beginning, from which, more recently, postcolonial literary and theoretical writings have altogether re-valorized hybridity and begun to consider the paradoxical powers—despite difficulties—of many kinds of border crossers and border inhabitants.

In recent years, the problems and possibilities of borders and boundaries—of questioning, crossing, transgressing, reconfiguring, dismantling, and indeed inhabiting borders and border spaces—have become an increasing preoccupation for theoretical discourses in a wide variety of fields.2 In such emergent fields as feminist, queer, race, postmodern, and postcolonial theories (as well as cultural and canon studies), examining the configurations of difference and the related task of rethinking disciplinarity provide the impulses for activating boundaries as lines of demarcation. In recent postcolonial work a focus has emerged that considers not only boundary crossing (which takes the border to be a signifier of division, constraint, or limitation), but also border inhabitation—on the “interstices” between, or the spaces of overlap—which regards the border itself (and the subjectivity of those positioned on the border) as a critical if ambiguous site of vital reconstruction, a position replete with contradictions and difficulty, but also with regenerative promise. Thus Homi Bhabha describes the border space as the productive “tenebrousness” of the “interstitial,” or the in-between: “These in-between spaces provide the terrain for elaborating strategies of selfhood—singular or communal—that initiate new signs of identity, and innovative sites of collaboration, and contestation, in the act of defining the idea of society itself” (1-2). “It is the space of intervention emerging in the cultural interstices,” he continues, “that introduces creative invention into existence” (9). Border work, then, as undertaken by the in-betweens, by those who both belong and unbelong, who can offer crucial perspectival shifts, can have liberatory potential, because it can undo binaristic and hierarchical categories of opposition, offering useful critique and reconceptualization of either side of an opposition—be it cultural, political, or intellectual. Abdul JanMohamed, for instance, describes Edward Said as such a border intellectual, enabled precisely by his doubleness of belonging and not-belonging, and his ability to question as an insider/outsider in, for example, both “East” and “West” (97-118). Thus his “homelessness” (defined as a courageous refusal to ally oneself with a dominant ideological or political position) is useful as a form of Socratic challenge to either side.

Analogously, Emily Hicks's argues that “border writing,” which arises from the heterogeneity of multiple cultural effects, “must be conceived as a mode of operation rather than a definition,” because ultimately it promotes in its readers a “psychic healing.” This writing is located in border regions or heterogeneous cultures, bearing the marks and carrying the benefits of historical overlay. Speaking in many voices and to many audiences, it can have the political effect of “ultimately undermining the distinction between original and alien culture” (xxiii-xxxi). Indeed, I would add, not only does it offer “multidimensional perception” (the ability to see from both sides of a border) but in fact throws the very idea of “sides” into disarray. In Trinh Minh-ha's words:

The moment the insider steps out from the inside, she is no longer a mere insider (and vice versa). She necessarily looks in from the outside while also looking out from the inside [… and] she also resorts to non-explicative, non-totalizing strategies that suspend meaning and resist closure. […] Whether she turns the inside out or the outside in she is like the two sides of a coin, the same impure, both-in-one insider/outsider.

(When, 74-75)

Recent feminist and postcolonial work in particular has turned to the crossing and inhabiting of borders by third world women writers in an effort to reconsider their strategies of survival as they negotiate—often subversively—the contradictions of cultural heterogeneity, modernity, nationalism, or diasporic identity.3 It is not, of course, the fact of marginality per se (of gender or otherwise) that assures a border positioning, either for the critic or writer. Indeed, as I will discuss in more detail below, marginality is to be differentiated from borderhood because the former rests upon a binary opposition between a presupposed strong center and weak margin, while the latter suggests a third or non-aligned space between and unsettling to binarisms. Rather, perhaps because inequity tends to build upon Manichean dichotomies, a feminist or liberationist strategy seeks border spaces, the in-between that challenges the very structure of those oppositions. In discussing the usefulness of deconstruction for feminism, Mary Poovey has urged the notion of the “middle voice” or the “in-between” (53) as a politically useful strategy for “dismantling binary thinking” (59).4

Gloria Anzaldua's first book can be seen as an eloquent example of such an effort, taking the literal Mexican/U.S. borderland to articulate and assess the psychic borderlands of culture and ethnicity, historic dispossession, and gender and sexuality: “To survive the Borderlands / you must live sin fronteras [“without borders”] / be a crossroads” (195). To “be a crossroads” is to be in-between, the site of salutary exchange, questioning and pushing both oppositions beyond their limits. Indeed, if as Heidegger suggests, “a boundary is not that at which something stops, but […] that from which something begins its presencing” (208), being a border zone or a boundary can be difficult but also enabling, the inscription of a limit that yet poses the possibility of transgression, and novelty. If the crossing of borders can be a form of transgression, resistance, and subject-formation, and the inhabiting of borders a difficult but productively destabilizing political endeavor, then the border work of both crossing and inhabiting borders performed by postcolonial women writers—confronted with a variety of historic constraints and situated between polarized oppositions of gender, ethnicities, and ideologies—is surely a complicated and crucial endeavor.

It is in this double context of self-conscious border positioning on the part of such writers and a critical climate that sometimes too hastily valorizes this work under the rubric of border crossing that I would like to read Bapsi Sidhwa's novel, Cracking India, a postcolonial feminist text that can be seen both as a border crosser and border inhabitant as it explores the gendered pitfalls of the national construction of borders. Now beginning increasingly to be read (and taught) in the western academy, the novel creates a double feminist lens for the bloody history of 1947—the partition of British India into modern India and Pakistan. It offers both a self-narrated account of the growing consciousness of a little girl, a member (like the author) of a minority ethno-religious community, and a focus on the—until recently untold—experiences of the scores of women (of various ethnicities) who were raped, abducted, or mutilated in the ensuing violence. Implicitly it foregrounds its own position as border writing, and hence its capacity to intervene in male nationalist discourse and historiography via the belated remembering and retelling of this collective trauma.

However, while indeed creating a recuperative space—both politically and narrativally—upon the border, the text predicates its border status upon implicit assumptions of gender, class, ethnicity, nationalism, and sexuality that, I will argue, reveal contradictions and ambivalences that fundamentally undermine its project. I will distinguish border work (ideally both deconstructive and constructive as described above) from border trouble, where the aspiration to cross or inhabit some borders runs aground upon other unforeseen limits that throw that professed border work into disarray. A concurrent goal of this essay, then, is to show how a reading that focuses on the specificities of a particular kind of border politics can unravel problems that remain invisible under the rubric of a more generalized celebration of borderhood.

While I am committed to the radical potential of border work, I would also contend that this needs to be re-examined and deployed with caution in contemporary academic discourse, where the crossing or breaking of borders has begun to carry an automatic, ipso facto resonance of laudability. Critics who have recently sought advisedly to build transnational alliances among women writers in different locations and positions, who are concerned with both the urgent, recently learned needs for specificity and the imperatives of cross-cultural and cross-national alliances, or who seek to explore the increasingly complex and contradictory positionalities of diasporic and gendered subjects, sometimes revert to relatively uncomplicated notions of border-crossing, as if all border-crossing were in itself something deserving of approbation.5 Maggie Humm, for instance, generalizes across all women writers when she argues that because “the condition of patriarchy presupposes the reality of borders” (of language, genre, gender, sexuality, for example [1]), “women must make border crossings in order to use language at all” (3). Further, a recent special issue of the South Asian Review, entitled Crossing Borders/Finding Homes, implies in its very project, as do many of the papers, that the crossing of borders is congruent with heroism, and is to be rewarded teleologically with the settling happiness of a home.6

This conceptualization of border crossing is problematic on at least two counts: first, in some cases, as JanMohamed has argued, “home,” literal or otherwise, may precisely not be as desirable as “homelessness”;7 and second, as we will see, the crossing of borders does not preclude the concomitant enactment of other forms of violation and victimization. Moreover, an unquestioning celebration of a generalized “border-crossing” can either, as Minh-ha puts it, “empty it, get rid of it, or else […] let it drift” (“Acoustic” 2), or, as Aijaz Ahmad has pointed out, occlude crucial differentials of power, “gender, class, identifiable political location,” and directions of movement (“Politics” 287). Some border crossers (for example, third world cosmopolitan elites) can assimilate and celebrate their hybridity, while others (for example, migrant workers) cannot, while still others, such as travelers from first to third world areas, have no equivalent imperative or need to “assimilate.”8

The problems of boundary crossing that have usually been recognized tend to fall into two very divergent categories: either the troubles that befall the hapless, the displaced, the economically and politically disenfranchised border crossers such as refugees, or the homeless;9 or the pitfalls that await “first world” scholars in their well-intentioned efforts to represent subalternity.10 Thus Chandra Mohanty and Rey Chow, for example, crucially analyze, respectively, the strategies of feminist scholars (Mohanty, “Under” 51-81) and of “anti-colonialists” who seek to subjectivize the “native” but only to make themselves visible (Chow, Writing 37-38). Margaret Higgonet rightly cautions “border feminists”: “The trope can become hazardous when it conveys the claim that work on the margin brings an immunity to critique or a moral superiority; it then turns into an excuse that conceals the privileged status of most academics […]” (4).

In light of such vital arguments about the need for scholarly self-reflexivity and the examination of the politics of knowledge construction, I would like to shift attention toward critical self-questioning of a slightly different sort: as literary critics who valorize postcolonial women's border writing—imaginative, autobiographical, or auto-ethnographic—are we not also bound to examine their (as well as our) strategies of border work? A question that is not often considered is how such writers (often “cosmopolitan celebrities,” in Tim Brennan's words) can predicate (and unwittingly self-sabotage) their border work upon exploitative and exclusionary strategies.11 Thus by “border trouble” in my title I mean not just the trouble that afflicts the figure of the border-crosser/inhabitant/narrator, but the trouble that is occasioned by her.

An understanding of border work that is too general can preclude an examination of the specific ways in which what we celebrate—in the work of writers—may itself be culpable of questionable practices. It may be time to ask: what kinds of exclusions and exploitations accrue in different types of border writing to underpin and undermine what are indubitably laudable goals? In what ways can literary border work be ideologically problematic? What are the costs of crossing or inhabiting borders if that is predicated upon, or achieved by, the reinforcement of other invisible borders along other lines of difference? And what are the costs of critical and pedagogical valorizations of border work that fail to recognize or question such moves?

Through intensive readings of a writer who purports to be a border crosser, and who is read currently in the western academy as such, I would like to tease out some of the nuances of specific narrative strategies and suggest ways to rethink our postcolonial or transnational feminist critical approaches to and assessment of border work. In reading a non-canonical Anglophone Pakistani woman writer's fiction in the light of these concerns, the issue I would ultimately like to address, then, is this: as postcolonial feminist readers and teachers of postcolonial feminist writers, surely our proper stance in reading and interpretation is not only to be explicatory or celebratory.12 As someone who grew up in Pakistan, who was educated in the U.S., and who now works and teaches in the American academy, I find myself at once in the border position of being expected to bring third world texts to the “appreciation” of first world readers, and, in all honesty, wanting to critique both that expectation and the texts that I find problematic. The reading that follows assumes that both Sidhwa and I are not situated on either side of an east/west “divide,” but that both, to use Chow's terms, are “precisely because of the history of Western imperialism, already ‘Westernized’” (Woman xi). As a Pakistani woman with Muslim parents who also migrated from India in 1947, I find Cracking India both compelling and importantly interventionist, but at the same time I also cannot read it without certain qualms, without pausing over its contradictions and ambivalences. This is not to say that any of us are exempt from ideological blindness, but as critics and teachers we are surely obligated to take into consideration what we might see as the implications of a certain narratival disingenuity or conflict between purported goal and undermining counter forces. Besides, regardless of our various “subject positions,” rigorous analysis should still be possible for all texts, and that indeed to read any text with an eye to its contexts, histories, and goals, and yet also to its troubles, is finally to pay it the best compliment that we can.

It is rarely noticed that in the recent explosion of South Asian postcolonial and diasporic writings in English, there is a dearth of women writers from Pakistan.13 The numbers of male writers in English with links to Pakistan have begun to grow (in addition to Tariq Ali and Zulfikar Ghose, a new, younger group would include Aamer Hussein and even Hanif Kureishi); while increasing numbers of Indian women writers from Britain, North America and the Caribbean, and East and South Africa (such as Jhumpa Lahiri, Meera Syal, Suniti Namjoshi, Chitra Divakaruni, and Arundhati Roy) join the ranks of well-known ones such as Anita Desai and Bharati Mukherjee. However, although a fair number of middle- and upper-class women are educated in English in Pakistan (and some abroad), the paucity of women writers associated with Pakistan is perhaps inevitable given its dismally parochial and discriminatorily gendered systems of education, opportunity, modes of acculturation, and general devaluation of the arts. Sidhwa is one of the first women from Pakistan to be writing fiction in English and publishing internationally now.14

In addition to the characters she constructs in her fiction, Sidhwa herself occupies several border positions. She has always lived in Pakistan (where she wrote her first three novels, though she now lives in part in the U.S.), and she belongs to the minority Parsee or Zoroastrian community (to which Bhabha, the major proponent of hybridity in our times, also belongs). This community is historically diasporic (exiled from Persia since the seventh century), ethnically distinct, and founded upon an ancient religious tradition independent of both Judeo-Christian-Islamic monotheism and Hinduism.15 Thus it could be said that while Sidhwa has had different constraints imposed on her than have most middle-class Muslim women,16 she is enabled by her positioning to craft a unique critical lens: addressing (English-speaking) audiences within Pakistan and India and in the “West”; an “insider” to Pakistan by nationality and historical experience, but an “outsider” to the Hindu/Muslim divide; at once seeking to represent a minority (Parsees) and the national aggregate.17 Sidhwa thus faces the tricky position of having at once to justify speaking for—and to—the nation, and to build a critique of the Muslim nationalism that includes non-Muslims as citizens but in fact grants them only second-class status.

Sidhwa's first novel (though the second to be published), The Bride (1983), describes the multiple displacements of a young peasant girl who loses both her parents in the atrocities of cross-ethnic border-crossing of 1947, is adopted by a “tribal” man, raised in the city but then subjected to an arranged marriage amongst his hill-people (who live beyond the jurisdiction of Pakistani law), and finally escapes, despite rape and brutality, to a dubious urban freedom.18 Her second and fourth novels, The Crow Eaters (1978) and An American Brat (1993), more notable for their humor, both focus on family dramas within the diasporic Parsee community in Pakistan. The former describes a community split between Karachi and Bombay, the latter explores the possibilities and dangers of cross-ethnic marriage for a Parsee girl migrant to the U.S. It is, however, her most ambitious third novel, Cracking India (originally published as Ice-Candy-Man in 1988 in England and Pakistan), that has deservedly drawn the most attention, primarily in the context of postcolonial and border studies, and that will be my subject here.19

This semi-autobiographical-historical fiction recounts—in a discourse of immediacy and personal experience—the widespread bloodshed, raping, looting, and arson amongst Muslims, Sikhs, and Hindus, the displacement of over ten million people, and the massacre of at least one million crossing in both directions over new national borders.20 Sidhwa is by no means the first South Asian writer to address the events of a bi-national trauma that is only now beginning to be historicized.21 What distinguishes her account is that it locates itself at the nexus of a number of intersecting contemporary concerns: gender, violence, nationalism, cross-class representation, and ethnicity. Written at a time when questions of nationalism and gender were only beginning to be theorized, Cracking India is among the first (of a new wave of second-generation writing) to address an event that still remains shrouded in silence. If, as Linda Hutcheon has argued, postcolonial narrative is a form of trauma narrative, then its function is to reclaim agency both by remembering belatedly, and by trying to heal, to undo that trauma by recalling in a public venue—but in the mode of the personal—the violence of nation formation. To do this, this text situates itself upon various borders (generic, discursive, ethnic, political), while it also examines and celebrates—often by enactment—the inhabitation of such borders.

There are at least five ways in which the text can be read as doing what I will call border work. (I use the term here not as Higonnet does with respect to feminist and comparative critics, but rather, as the work done by the fictive text itself.) First, self-consciously locating itself in Pakistan's border city of Lahore, Cracking India explores the traumatic event of Partition and the construction of geographical borders (which “cracked” British India into two unforgiving enemies, modern India and Pakistan) to reflect on borders as sites of postcolonial national formation. It questions and ironizes the arbitrary and hurried imposition of borders via a child's anxious naiveté:22

There is much disturbing talk. India is going to be broken. Can one break a country? And what happens if they break it where our house is? Or crack it further up on Warris Road? How will I ever get to Godmother's then? (101) […] Playing British gods […] the Radcliffe Commission deals out Indian cities like a pack of cards. Lahore is dealt to Pakistan, Amritsar to India. […] I am Pakistani. In a snap. Just like that. […] Did they dig the long, long canal Ayah mentioned?


The novel asks analogous questions: how will it cross those new borders to maintain earlier (familial) ties? How is such a division to be imagined, maintained, and policed? Indeed, as families were split and people assigned new identities, in a very literal sense neither the Pakistani nor Indian state could address the social and ethical problems of muddied boundaries: of children born of mixed Muslim and Hindu parentage as a consequence of rape and abduction, unwanted by either side and assigned in confusion either to the dishonored and reluctant mother or to the imputed father's country; or of women first raped and separated from their families, and then forcibly “rehabilitated” according to their religious affiliations, deprived by the Inter-Dominion Treaty of 1947 of their right to choose national citizenship.23

A second way that the novel can be read as doing border work is as a self-consciously Parsee and self-problematized (because not Muslim) Pakistani narrative. Cracking India intervenes in dominant Indian nationalist historiographies, but ruptures the Hindu/Muslim binarism by producing a third perspective that allies itself to a nation and yet not to either dominant group. Although it cannot claim nationalist neutrality, it insists on ethnic neutrality as a basis for contesting both Indian and Pakistani nationalist discourses founded upon religious identity. In a subtle reminder, for instance, Sidhwa inserts the story of the beautiful Parsee wife of Jinnah, Pakistan's Muslim “founding father,” who broke his wife's heart by neglecting her for the nation—that in turn broke his (170-71). Yet this serves also to rupture the Muslim nationalist amnesia that idolizes Jinnah but erases his cross-ethnic alliances. Implicitly it reminds its readers that like Jinnah's marriage, Pakistan's secular nationalism was attached at its very foundation to non-Muslim minorities. Thus, to recall Hicks's terms, Sidhwa's border writing indeed undoes the distinction between “original and alien culture” since it too speaks at once from within and without, producing simultaneously a novel voice addressing Pakistanis from within yet questioning the homogeneity of “within,” and a voice addressing Indians from without that overturns the presumption of “without” as Muslim.

Third, Cracking India challenges the centrality and exclusivity of Pakistani and Indian masculinist master narratives by impudently locating its narratival perspective in the figure of a female child of a minority community. By refracting national history through a gendered consciousness, Sidhwa shifts historiographic perspective to those not usually regarded as central to that history. Also, as we will see, by choosing a (relatively) unsexualized child as opposed to a woman as narrator, Sidhwa creates a border or alternative space to the binarisms of adult sexuality—though this is not sustained.

Fourth, in its very form and discursive choices, the text confounds the generic divisions between fiction, history, and autobiography, and between public and private space. Recalling “real” events experienced by the author herself in a fictive form (the narrator Lenny bears a strong resemblance to Sidhwa herself, including details such as a childhood illness of polio, and the discovery of a body in a gunny sack), it blurs the distinction between memory and fictive (re)creation, between personal and national experience.24 Although it relies on a conventional stylistic mode of narrative realism and fictive personal reminiscence, it sets itself up quite self-consciously as a text on and about borders.

And finally, what is also potentially powerful and novel about this narrative is that Sidhwa offers the beneficial powers of a new kind of postcolonial feminism, what we may call “border feminism,” embodied in the Parsee women of the narrator's family: they cross class and ethnic borders (to rescue the “Ayah,” a Hindu servant woman both sexual and political victim to the antagonisms between Muslim, Sikh, and Hindu men), and they themselves inhabit a “neutral” and regenerative political identity. By analogy, Sidhwa's narrative suggests that it too—as a narratival border feminism that undoes binary oppositions and that locates itself in the space in between—can describe, restore, and heal some of the damage done by what it represents as male neo-nationalistic discursive and political violence. Indeed, by constant parallels between the positioning and work of narrator and narrative, the text implies that its own work may be reconstitutive and salutary in revising national history and identity, or in working through collective trauma.

The main problem begins, however, with perhaps the most critical figure of the narrative, who is not, after all, the Parsee Lenny, but rather, her Hindu nanny or “Ayah,” the female domestic servant who is abducted, gang-raped, and forced into prostitution by an erstwhile Muslim admirer, and who becomes the sole representative figure of female violation in this text.25 The nanny, always called the “Ayah”—as if she were no more than her function (she is named only once as Shanta)26—indeed functions in many ways: as the center of fascination for the upper-class child narrator, for whom, in the first half of the novel, she acts as both an idealized self and other—beautiful, desired (before Independence) by men of all religious and class backgrounds—an adolescent body through whose adventures the narrator vicariously acquires dangerous knowledge from a safe distance. But the ayah's sexuality also has other functions that become more problematic for the text: in the second half, in a strange conflation of political and sexual violation, the ayah's ethnic, gendered, and class position enables her body to become the displaced figure for a nation that is brutalized and ravaged for telling a story otherwise too traumatic to be told.

Sidhwa's narrative thus attempts to draw attention to the consequences for all women as casualties of decolonization (her self-proclaimed goal, according to Graeber), to render the ravages of the history of decolonization as the ravages of a female national body, suggesting that some (border) women can succeed—at high risk—at healing the damages wrought by men. Nevertheless, as the next section will show, this narrative ends up rendering the class- and ethnically inscribed figure of the ayah both expendable and usable for its own purposes. One form of border trouble that this potentially productive border writing runs into is, finally, that it actually remains quite ambivalent about the borders of class and ethnicity it purports to cross. The border—as limit—then becomes literalized as the body of a female Hindu domestic servant, the only site upon which the unspeakable can be permitted to happen, and questions of boundary-crossing be posed and played out. In fact the work that this working-class woman does in the narrative is to become the epitome of absolute otherness, the “‘other’ of the other” (Chow, Woman 15). (In an increasingly tightening circle, Ayah is the only Hindu, while the narrator and her family are Parsee in the predominantly Muslim city of Lahore.)27

As the multiply othered victim, Ayah serves finally as a tool to emphasize the goodness of the ethnically neutral and upper-class Parsee (border) women who volunteer to save her and others like her.28 But as they try to find her a “home” they can only send her beyond the borders of Pakistan to an India that has no assurance of welcome—just as the narrative can only place such a figure of marginality finally beyond its own boundaries, within which she cannot find a home. Thus, as we will see, the Hindu ayah becomes the ground upon which the text can forge a Parsee-Muslim alliance, and the figure from which all duly sympathetic Pakistani middle-class readers may finally distance themselves. Hence, despite its good intentions, the narrative gets caught in its own ambivalences, fettered by its own inability to cross the boundaries of class, ethnicity, and religious nationalism. The Ayah ends up embodying the margin (finally opposed to a dominant center), at the expense of whom the narrator can construct her own border position.

Cracking India faces a strange problem: in a postcolonial separatist nation like Pakistan, how is a Parsee writer to represent at once Parsees within the nation as unique and separate from other ethnicities and religious identifications (not-Muslim, not-Hindu, not-Punjabi, not-Christian, not-colonizer, and so on) and represent the nation as a cohesive entity constituted also by a variety of non-Muslims? Given the historic vulnerability of the Parsee community—an endangered political minority—how is a writer from that community to at once assert distinctness from dominant (Muslim) culture and yet also assert its belonging to a nation upon which depends its survival (particularly when that nation justifies its own founding upon the logic of separation of Muslim minority from Hindu majority in India)? Who or what must become the ritual scapegoat for this text? To counter such difficult problems, however, this text finds a dubious solution: structurally, it sets one ethnic minority against another in a perilous move that reconciles one (the Parsee) at the expense of the other (the Hindu), as if implicitly arguing for rightful belonging based upon the dubious logic of class sameness rather than of ethnic difference. (It could be said that Sidhwa's plot device of expelling the Hindu Ayah could just as easily be read as an indictment of the political and cultural exigencies that allowed no place for such a figure in the new Pakistan. Yet the novel offers no discursive distance or critical attempt to point out the limitations of such a national logic. I am not suggesting that there is no sympathy with the Hindu ayah. But as the ayah becomes allegorized, the text does not seem to know how to reconcile the desire to build heterogeneous gender alliances across class and international boundaries with the conflicting need to construct an intranational homogenous Pakistani feminism.)

Indeed in both The Bride as well as Cracking India, Sidhwa uses ethnically alien figures as a mode of asserting belonging for the relatively less alien dominant narrative voice by establishing its reassuring sameness to a dominant middle class: using the opposition of urban versus tribal in one novel, and Parsee versus Hindu in another.29 Thus I suggest that precisely because it is a text that makes such important interventions Cracking India is also worth reading against its own grain: questioning it for the ways in which it goes about its ends and tracing the boundaries that limit its own project. What follow then are critical readings of this text in terms of the problematics of border-work outlined above: my purpose here is to read theory and text contrapuntally, examining the implications of reading each for the other. This is then not a critique of either classism, or ethnic bias, or indeed of Sidhwa's proto-feminist nationalist discourse per se, though it includes the intersections of all of those; rather, I seek to examine the problems of a border positioning and practice that is founded—and that founders—upon a limited understanding of gender solidarity and an ambivalence about crossing more difficult borders of ethnicity and class.

Sidhwa's narrative constitutes itself on a peculiar triple displacement: first, a temporal shift of narrative subjectivity (self-confessedly autobiographical) to a pre- (and later) pubescent child; second, a mediation of this child's discovery of sexual and political violation via the story of her servant Ayah; and third, the construction of a gendered national allegory whereby territorial violence is deemed representable only via a Hindu servant woman's ravaged body. My reading begins with certain questions regarding all three: what narratival needs impel these shifts? What is too unspeakable to be rendered except via these obliquities? What advantages—and costs—accrue to these narratival displacements? And what is the role of displacement itself in a text deeply fascinated with borders?

The first displacement shifts the tension between Sidhwa's own childhood experience of Pakistan's turbulent, sanguinary early days of independence and her adult hindsight onto the uncomfortably, unrelentingly circumscribed vision of Lenny, the polio-afflicted child-narrator. At times, this shift creates an unease and awkwardness in the disingenuous disjunction between child and adult, rupturing the seamlessness of the naive perspective. If Lenny's innocence supposedly functions as a strategic tool for a fresh exposé of adult politics, then that conflicts with the narratival need to render what a child cannot know, leading to jarring moments such as a five-year-old ingénue commenting on white slave traffic or pubic hair (68-69). This is not resolved technically by the use of the usual autobiographical disjunction between experiencing and narrating consciousness. More importantly, the incapacitation of the child suggests a metaphor for the self-positioning of the narrative itself.

“My world is compressed,” Lenny begins the novel, in an unwittingly emblematic opening sentence (11). Indeed, this novel reveals itself to be self-imprisoned, struggling against the self-imposed bandages of a pre-pubescent discourse that jars against unexpected insertions of adult knowledge, as if suggesting with some complacency that such constraint might be an advantage. The first scenario of the novel, offered as four-year-old Lenny's earliest memory, presents Lenny in a perambulator pushed by her Ayah, abruptly stopped by an officious, “short, middle-aged, pointy-eared” Englishman, who demands to know why “such a big girl” is not yet walking by herself (12). Nonplussed by Ayah's broken English and Lenny's silent disclosure of her emaciated, leather-and-steel-strapped leg, the Englishman still insists (ironically) on the efficacy of self-reliance. But then, Lenny says: “Ayah and I hold our eyes away, effectively dampening his good-Samaritan exuberance […] and wagging his head and turning about, the Englishman quietly dissolves up the driveway from which he had so enthusiastically sprung” (12).

This opening scenario can be read as a fantasy suggestive of Sidhwa's postcolonial feminism: the British male's colonizing interference that first misreads ailment and then misdiagnoses treatment, is abashed and dispatched by his confrontation with two marginalized female figures. Sidhwa's rather undue optimism suggests that it is their silence and averted gazes in the face of his absurdity that sends him scuttling—as if independence were so easily to be gained or that the predicament of double marginality had so much power. This rather dubious paradigm of female resistance, then, is based on a solidarity built upon the faltering language of one and the speechless revelation of her weakened female body by the other.30

But such alliance between the incapacitated child and her Ayah is not easily drawn, for this opening episode also suggests how the child narrator can become oddly aligned with the figure of the colonizer. In this episode, the Englishman is indicted as much for his harmful officiousness31 as for his self-serving desire, his covert captivation by Ayah's “stunning looks,” her “rolling bouncy walk that agitates the globules of her buttocks […] and the half-spheres beneath her short sari-blouses” (13). Yet this salacious vision is mediated through and shared by the child-narrator, who remains unaware (as indeed does the narrative) of her replication of what she indicts. Indeed, her language suggests that she projects onto him her own vision of the Ayah. “The Englishman no doubt had noticed,” she hypothesizes, what she saw. This narratorial complicity becomes paradigmatic of the novel's strategic modes: it illustrates in the very beginning how Ayah's heavily sexualized servant body will become available not only for multiple masculine desires, but also for certain budding feminine ones. Yet female desire for this other female body will always, in this text, forbid itself knowledge of itself, camouflaging itself in a castigation of what it will see insistently as exclusively male violation. Already within the discourse of personal affection and child's innocence, class difference seems to allow Sidhwa to take liberties, to render with some prurience a vision of available female sexuality that she will forbid herself in applying to women of a higher class. The ayah's female body will thus become both the site upon which this narrative of feminist recuperation will see fit to ground itself, and a defining limit for what will be censored in her narrative.

Lest it appear that my reading unwarrantably equates the perspective of child narrator and author, let me clarify that I do take Sidhwa's frequent separation from and displacement of point of view upon the child as a narratival choice. It clearly serves at least a couple of functions: one, educationally, to build a reader's awareness and understanding of an unfamiliar world via the child's; and two, somewhat self-servingly, as we will see, to allow the avoidance of certain issues via a coyness of childlike innocence that remains unrevoked by adult retrospection. It is never clear at what age Lenny is telling her story, since the temporality of narration is not located as it is, for example, by Saleem in Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children. Nevertheless, as in the reading above, I do interpret as congruent certain narratival strategies and effects that are created both by the child and by the narrative. (I hesitate to over-assign authorial intention and prefer to focus on the strategic moves made by the narrative as well as by the child-narrator in the narrative.) Certainly Sidhwa builds in a certain irony at the child's expense (when, for example, Lenny does not understand adult sexuality); but the double irony of this irony is that authorial choices and unselfconsciousness become congruent with narratorial ones, especially when they require making use of the Ayah. On such occasions, the level of the narrative echoes the level of the narrator, while the text lacks markers that might indicate some reservation or distance between the two.

The narrator Lenny frequently presents herself as marginal and “abnormal,” both incapacitated and privileged by her painful polio (by implication, the narrative also presents itself as analogously disabled and enabled).32 Yet I would argue that instead of being marginal (the lesser of two), she is a borderer (an in-between third). She has the power of what Victor Turner has called a liminal figure (94-130): as a not-yet-sexual, not-fully-classed being, she gains access as an observer into realms of adult politics, village life, and servant sexuality that would otherwise be denied to an adult of her class or gender. While such liminality enables her to produce her distinctive narrative, Lenny's embodiment of this privilege prevents her from becoming the “crossroads” “sin fronteras” that Anzaldua describes. As Turner remarks, the transitional, “betwixt and between” (95) condition of liminality “implies that the high could not be high unless the low existed, and he who is high must experience what it is like to be low” (97). But, he continues, in a dialectical move, “men are released from structure (heterogeneity, hierarchically ordered society) into communitas (homogeneity, liminality) only to return to structure revitalized by their experience of communitas” (129). Thus the temporary disenfranchisement of the liminal figure only prefigures a return to reaffirm the status quo. This seems precisely the function of Lenny's (and by extension the narrative's) liminality, which does not dismantle or re-order the hierarchies that she/it inhabits—but reaffirms class/religious/ethnic hierarchies in the uses it makes of a lesser figure.

In Lenny's fondly evoked colonial childhood, the ayah functions as the romanticized center of fascination for the middle class child narrator at first because she is a beautiful object desired by men of all religious and class backgrounds, and as the instrument through which Lenny acquires a vicarious knowledge from a safe distance. This surrogation of Ayah is by no means simple, for Ayah is at once Lenny's double and her antithesis. Lenny's adoration for her beautiful servant, and her voyeuristic pleasure in Ayah's various sexual encounters, become continuous with the tale of her own growing understanding of sexuality and politics, so that the servant-woman in many ways becomes the “subject” of Lenny's story, the object-lesson of her own (bisexual) adolescence. Indeed, her Ayah is for Lenny simultaneously both intensely desired self and other: she embodies a desirable adult femaleness that Lenny herself both ardently desires and desires to be. Her repeated descriptions of Ayah's warm, fragrant, curvy body, her “chocolate softness” (104) and her beautiful “kohl-rimmed eyes,” testify to a double vision that sees Ayah as the object of her own desire and as the object of desire of the men that Lenny observes. It is perhaps Lenny's desire for this body for which this body will later be punished, and Lenny's desire subsumed by accusations of male violation. Of course, this is a complex form of desire: it is at once both desirous of the projected sameness of the “other” body and also relieved at its difference, relishing the distance which allows Lenny as subject to watch Ayah become object—to violation.

At first, as if allowing her to learn heterosexuality by example, Ayah's body mediates Lenny's own sexual awakenings. A secret sharer in Ayah's adventures, Lenny shadows her sexual arousal: as one lover murmurs to Ayah, “something happens in (Lenny's) stomach” (128). Or, as Lenny gazes at the “radiant, amber eyes between bushy lashes” of Ayah's Pathan lover gazing at Ayah, she reports:

Something happens within me. Though outwardly I remain as thin as ever I can feel my stomach retract to create a warm hollow. “Take me for a ride—take me for a ride,” I beg and Sharbat Khan, tearing away his eyes from Ayah, places me on the cycle shaft. He gives me a turn round the backyard. […] He smells of tobacco, burnt whetstone and sweat. He brings me back and offers Ayah a ride. […] and with a great show of alarm Ayah wiggles on to the shaft in front […].

(86; emphasis added)

Such thinly disguised sexual metaphoricity does not require psychoanalysis—the point to be noted here is that Lenny demands service not only from Ayah's lover, but also from Ayah herself, desiring Ayah to redirect her lover's attentions to Lenny herself. (It is clear from the beginning that Ayah is able to consort with her admirers—while taking her young charges to the park—by depending upon Lenny's indulgence and silence, bought by “candy bribes” [29]). Thus Ayah's servant body and her sexual accessibility make her available not only to surrounding men—over whom she can exert some semblance of power in coquetry and refusal—but also to Lenny's desires (which Ayah cannot withstand), and indeed, to Sidhwa's narrative, which, bound within Pakistani neo-Victorian class decorum, can thus more comfortably adumbrate Lenny's budding (hetero)sexuality. Here the narrative functions in a parallel relation to the narrator, as it calls upon Ayah's pliable class and ethnically inscribed body for analogous service(s).

But another point to be noted here, if we read this text yet more closely, and against its grain, is that Lenny identifies not only with her Ayah in this sexual scenario, but also with Ayah's lover. Like the incident with the Englishman earlier, this is another occasion of triangulated desire (to adapt Eve Sedgwick's adaptation of René Girard's theory of male homosocial desire), in which the female narrator's fascination for her servant's body is catalyzed by her intense observation of male fascination for the same—as if both Lenny and Ayah's men were rivals for Ayah. But this is not a compulsion that this text will allow itself acknowledgment of—in fact, I would argue, it is precisely in attempting to repress this knowledge of cross-class, cross-ethnic, same-sex tension that this text will displace upon the cliché of male desire/violation its own unknowing desire/appropriation of Ayah's body.

Before the onset of violence that bursts upon Lenny's fondly nostalgic evocations of childhood and pre-Partition, Ayah is rendered, rather like Kipling's Lalun, as the magical goddess of racial harmony, the locus of convergent desire, the border terrain that neutralizes ethnic or religious difference. Surrounded by her circle of admirers in the park where she takes Lenny every evening, Ayah reigns under the presiding shadow of Queen Victoria's statue over an ethnic spectrum of working-class males: cooks, gardeners, masseurs, traders, butchers, wrestlers, and Ice-Candy-Man (the popsicle vendor). As their massaging fingers and toes darting under Ayah's sari inculcate the watching Lenny in the mysteries of bodily odors and servant sexuality, their political talk filters into her absorbent attentiveness. Then change, a disintegration into communalism, is tangible in the air at Queen's Garden: “And I become aware of religious differences. It is sudden. One day everybody is themselves—and the next day they are Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Christian. People shrink, dwindling into symbols. Ayah is no longer just my all-encompassing Ayah—she is also a token. A Hindu” (101). For a while Ayah still seems sacrosanct, safe: “Only the group around Ayah remains unchanged. Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Parsee are, as always, unified around her. I dive into Ayah's lap” (105).

The fall from this child's paradise of colonial harmony occurs when political and sexual violence bursts not upon Lenny, but upon her Ayah. As borders are struck to “crack” mother India's body into India and Pakistan, and the outbreak of religious and ethnic genocide follows upon decolonization, racial harmony crosses into racial murderousness—which translates into sexual atrocity. While on both sides villages are plundered and burnt, men and women are mutilated and sexually tortured, and trains of migrants crossing in opposite directions arrive full of dismembered bodies and gory sacks containing sexual organs, the Hindu Ayah is kidnapped from her protected domain of domesticity and servitude, raped, and forced into prostitution by her former Muslim devotee, the Ice-Candy-Man.

Sidhwa's attempt to render this history of a grotesque national boundary crossing itself treads strangely the boundaries between what can and cannot be said, between what cannot be (re)covered by her language and what can be forced upon the reader as the disconcertingly sensationalistic and gritty—as if some kinds of bravely fervent naming could become alibis for other kinds of not-naming, or as if crossing some boundaries could make up for the refusal to cross others. As she watches Ice-Candy-Man's mob of angry men drag Ayah away, Lenny reports: “The last thing I noticed was Ayah, her mouth slack and piteously gaping, her disheveled hair flying into her kidnappers' faces, staring at us as if she wanted to leave behind her wide-open and terrified eyes” (195). With this central image, the dismemberment of Ayah into body parts, into empty spaces, is begun—both in and by the narrative—as her speechless mouth underscores the unspeakability of what she will undergo, and her eyes can report only that they wish themselves absent.33

In this central passage in the novel, Lenny depicts her own position as helpless—but complicit—observer: in a literal betrayal, it is she who gives away the Ayah's hiding place. But Lenny—or any woman of her class—cannot even be allowed to function as witness. And like Lenny, the narrative cannot report what will happen to Ayah; it directs the imagining of horror in her direction but refuses to follow, redirecting attention instead to its own stance of separation. As it conflates rape and prostitution into the unspeakable, it shrinks from the scene of the rape into a child's disingenuous innocence, leaving a gap at the center of Lenny's narrative, from which, at this key moment, Ayah emblematically drops out.

When finally Ayah is found, that silence is never recovered. (In the few sentences that Ayah utters, she can only beg Lenny's godmother for help in escaping her tormentor and insist upon being returned to her “folk” [275]). It is Lenny's Godmother who fiercely confronts Ice-Candy-Man: “‘Why don't you speak? Can't you bring yourself to say you played the drums when she danced? Counted money while drunks, pedlars, sahibs, and cut-throats used her like a sewer?’ Godmother's face was slippery with sweat” (262). The power of speech, of making oneself subject, is shifted both from the victim and the perpetrator (the Muslim lower-class man, who also cannot speak) to rest finally with the self-righteous upper-class rectifier of violence. (As the narrative courageously indicts Muslim violence upon non-Muslims in this Muslim country, it also ends up appeasing its Pakistani readers by shifting that blame onto seemingly unreasoning lower-class male culpability.) As Ayah becomes the silent representative of female violation in this text, what, we may ask, is the role (central, peripheral, or self-distancing) of the narrator who can only represent in one sense (as reporter) but not in any other (as representative)?

In narrating the self-congratulatory, fantasized recovery and restitution of the ravaged Ayah via the intervention of a grandparental matriarch, Sidhwa's belabored focus on the graphic details of that over-used body deflects attention from and substitutes for what could not be imagined about upper-class female bodies, allowing proximity only by expending its indignation upon the permissible distance of class and ethnic difference. It becomes a decoy that disallows the surfacing of other issues—such as the rapes and abductions of Muslim women by Muslim men, or of upper-class women—that may be perhaps much more disturbing to Pakistani readers. The motor force behind the ultimately unspoken, the unspeakable and censored horror is the possibility that “respectable” female bodies may be equally vulnerable—or rapable by lower-class men.

Let me distinguish here between at least two kinds of silence: one, the silence of the victim—about what happened—who cannot or will not tell her own story, or whose story can only be adumbrated but not told within this narrative; and two, the silence of the narrative—about what else happened—that in its very structure and obsessive focus on lower-class victims, telling (their) stories as victims, renders impossible the generalization from lower- to (our) upper-class women. The former kind of silence, as I discuss below, may be legitimate for certain reasons, but the latter, I would suggest, which creates a dichotomy of “us” and “them,” is not.

To begin with the silence about what else happened: first, on its own terms of historical accuracy, if Sidhwa's narrative seeks to correct earlier omissions by representing the violence perpetrated upon women as a casualty of decolonization, then why does it halt at representing only lower-class violence? While valuably drawing attention to subjects ignored by national histories, why does it still erase the effects upon other women? Historically, rapes of upper- or middle-class women did of course occur, but such possibilities seem not permissible within the bourgeois imaginary of this text, which reflects the still prevalent classed cultural silence about families owning to the rape of their women. In describing the accounts of survivors or social workers, Butalia acknowledges the absence of class markers in these accounts, though, she adds, that violence did not recognize class divisions, even though upper-class women were more protected since they traveled by car, air, or ship instead of by foot (246). If the official estimate of abductees (which does not include those killed) was 50,000 Muslim women in India and 33,000 Hindu and Sikh women in Pakistan (Menon and Bhasin 71), then surely not all could be peasant or working-class. From the records, Menon and Bhasin quote a Civil Surgeon who reluctantly testified in revealing language: “even the ladies of the most respectable families had the misfortune of having undergone this most terrible experience” (41). In Sidhwa's novel, at best Lenny can be allowed to play sexual games with a manipulative older cousin, or her parents can be daringly portrayed as enjoying conjugal sexuality, but its imaginary cannot—or will not—allow any but rural or working-class women to be violated within its bounds.34

The issue here is not to insist on the telling of one or another kind of story, or to pose a rivalrous comparison between the violations of privileged or under-privileged women. Rather, it is to explore the manifold troubling implications of this narratival unspeakability. This silence about certain kinds of violation, for one thing, acquiesces to, indeed, reinforces, the cultural system that dictates that rape signifies a woman's shame and the dishonor of her male protectors. Moreover, it suggests that the dishonor of upper-class women is somehow more disturbing, or qualitatively different from and greater than that of lower-class women, and that therefore, it cannot be touched. More importantly, in terms of the work and politics of representation, if a narrative constructs its world as divided into lower-class rapable victims and upper-class rescuers, then it results in the intensification of the very distances it seeks to breach. It ultimately creates stultified roles for both these artificially created, hermetically sealed groups of women: one must remain eternal silent victim while the other may have the sole privileges of subjectivity and heroic agency.

The text's silence about Ayah's story, moreover, has other ramifications. The rape of Ayah—absent and untold—occurs structurally at the center of the text, the point from which the narrative separates Lenny (in every way) from her erstwhile double. In fact, upon her disappearance, it shifts unexpectedly to a segment entitled “Ranna's Story.” Ranna, a Muslim village boy and Lenny's cook's great-grandson, arrives suddenly to give his harrowing account of his escape from the mass violence perpetrated upon his family by Sikhs. While perhaps the most graphic section of the novel, it is structurally set aside from the main narrative. The only part of the novel not told in Lenny's voice, this oddly juxtaposed, artistically awkward device bespeaks a desire perhaps to bring in the horror in some other way, but not to bring it too close. Ranna and his lost women relatives appear briefly only to vanish quickly from the main narrative, as if their only function was to substitute for what happened to Ayah, who substitutes for Lenny. Interestingly, Lenny acquires another “ayah,” who is a lower-class peasant Muslim woman in turn a victim from the other side. While the narrative's inclusion of Hamida here suggests an impulse to render equally the violence enacted upon Muslim women too, it does not attempt to grant her even the agency or centrality given to Ranna. Moreover, it solidifies the illusion that rape is a lower-class affair and serves to enhance the rehabilitatory generosity of the family that takes her in.

Again, it is important to note the valuable feminist border work underlying Sidhwa's attempt to empower and exhort a notoriously apathetic middle-class society of Pakistani women to forge cross-class, cross-ethnic gender alliances, and to undertake—at risk to themselves—the responsibility of helping less privileged women. Even though such an alliance is imagined in bourgeois terms, Cracking India urges action, of a kind, and prescribes a politically active role for its readership. However, it remains unconscious of the problematic ways in which that work remains insufficient, or conflicts with its narratival strategies and self-contradictory ideologies.

In her important essay “Life after Rape: Narrative, Rape and Feminism,” Rajeswari Sunder Rajan insists that, in addition to a “thematics of liberation, […] feminist texts of rape must also engage in textual strategies to counter narrative determinism” (73). She notes two features of narrative determinism that occur even in proto-feminist rape narratives such as Samuel Richardson's Clarissa or E. M. Forster's A Passage to India. The first feature, she argues, is the replication of the centrality of the rape in the very structure of the narrative: “literary representations of rape have difficulty in avoiding the replication of the act in the very movement of the narrative” (76). “The moment of rape is made the center, virtually the exact structural center, […] so that the plots describe a graph of climax and anticlimax around that point” (74). Instead, focusing on survival and continued existence after rape may be a narratival and political mode of diminishing the power of rape to define subjecthood, because to continue to define a woman as a rape victim is to maintain the rape as definitive of her being. To center the narrative elsewhere is to disallow rape from being the single shaping force of the subject and of the narrative itself.

Second, Rajan explains the silence of even these narratives, and the ensuing absence both of the scene of rape and of the raped woman (via death or disappearance) as emanating from a conformity with the very system of cultural misogyny from which rape as an act of violence gains its power: “their reliance upon, and doubts about, the woman's ‘unsupported word’ about her ordeal are the symptoms of a deep underlying male fear that rape could be a female lie, or fiction” (75). Feminist texts, on the other hand, Rajan concludes, “counter narrative determinism” in several ways, including “representing the raped woman as one who becomes subject through rape rather than merely one subjected to its violation, […] structuring a post-rape narrative that traces her strategies of survival, [… and] counting the cost of rape […] in terms more complex than the extinction of female selfhood in death or silence” (76-77).

Rajan's argument is useful in helping us see how Sidhwa's narrative may also—despite its “thematics of liberation,” or feminist desire to indict sexual and political violence—end up reifying instead of undermining that cultural system by its unwitting choice of narratival structure and strategies. As Lenny describes the search for Ayah, the narrative turns to silence and unspeakability after rape, positioning the absent Ayah as no more than the victim, the one who must be recovered by the subject of the narrative, but who cannot be the subject herself. However, in this case, the silence and double disappearance of Ayah (after her abduction and after her recovery) are based not, I think, upon male fear of a woman's word.35 Rather, that textual uninterest in Ayah's consciousness seems based upon a need to separate the Hindu servant-as-victim from the Parsee upper-class subject-as-rescuer/storyteller, foregrounding the latter at the expense of the former, to forestall the danger that the two may collapse into one.

It may be said in defense that Sidhwa's effort is precisely to mark the real silence that still haunts the violence of Partition and to represent the reality where such women were silent, and continue to be so. Even survivors' accounts such as those included by Butalia and Menon and Bhasin describe murder but do not acknowledge rape. Indeed, many rape victims may not wish to speak of the rape precisely as a strategy of survival, in order to put it behind them.36 Furthermore, I certainly would not want to suggest that speech alone (and not silence) can be a form of agency or resistance. Nor am I arguing that it is incumbent upon a feminist novelist to represent rape in order to break the silence that shrouds it in shame, since that would produce the opposite problems of replicating the violence or sensationalizing its impact.

Granting this, however, I still have a couple of responses to this defense. First, we need to distinguish between the kinds of silence we are talking about and the various motivations for them: if silence about rape is a strategy of survival, or a decision not to replay the violence, it should command our respect; but if the silence is an acquiescence to the system that regards the event as a woman's humiliation, or if it results from a desire to foreground the rescuer at the expense of the victim, it might be called into question. Hence, the problem lies not in representing silence but in being the agent of silencing in the very mode of representation. One problem of silencing in Sidhwa's narrative is not that the Ayah fails to speak of what happened to her, but that the narrative disallows any entry into her mind or feelings or consciousness, or her construction as a sentient subject. Her fate after rape is to be found or to be packed off by other women, not to act but to be acted upon. There can be no “life after rape” or accession to subjecthood for Ayah in Sidhwa's text.

Second, surely the effort—or hope—of fiction or of visionary border work is not only mimetically to represent or correspond to reality, but also to construct and imagine alternatives or alternative modes of representation. As Said has cautioned in describing orientalism, the issue at stake is not one of verisimilitude or (mis)representation, of falseness or truth, but rather, of the complex relation between power and representation. “Orientalism is more […] valuable as a sign of European-Atlantic power over the Orient than as [the] veridic discourse […] it claims to be” (Orientalism 6). Analogously, postcolonial representations too must consider their responsibilities in implicitly reaffirming or challenging the power structures that condition what they represent. In analyzing the reports of the “communal” crimes against women, Menon and Bhasin identify three specific features of the violence: “their brutality, their extreme sexual violence and their collective nature” (43). The collectivity of the violence suggests a cultural logic of precisely non-individuated, non-class differentiated vengeance visited upon women defined as the belongings of other men. However, in Sidhwa's narrative, the violence upon Ayah is singular, almost as if she were selected and separated especially from women of a higher class or other ethnicities. While this serves to individuate the victim, it also suggests that there is only one kind of over-determined lone victim, or, that certain others could only be agents of rescue. Instead, what would be the implications if Sidhwa's novel attended as much to the rapes of upper-class or Muslim women, or if it juxtaposed other narratives of differently situated women to explore the contrasts and imbrications of ethnic and class positioning? Perhaps it could then introduce a less self-exculpating and fatalist discourse and historical memory in order to re-think national and communal responsibilities. It might then also not provide its Muslim readers with the escape hatch of imagining the victim of political violence as after all only a servant and a Hindu.

As Lenny shadows Ayah's adventures earlier, by the end Ayah's violation becomes a shadow of Lenny's—but it remains an approximation from which the text retreats, for rape is always distanced by the uncrossable boundaries of multiple lines of difference. And thus, in a way, the text articulates another desire, a gladness at the difference that allows Ayah to be the attackable one, instead of Lenny or women from the circle of her family or friends, who must always be kept safe from the possibility of lower-class disrespect. As Lenny becomes the real subject, she casts both Ayah (reduced repeatedly to “eyes” and “diminished flesh” [272]) and her lover/betrayer into stereotyped roles: “When I think of Ayah I think she must get away from the monster who has killed her spirit and mutilated her ‘angel's’ voice” (276). Ayah becomes an inhabitant of Lahore's famed “Hira Mundi,” or “Diamond Market,” a euphemism for the same red light district dating back to Mughal times where Kipling's Lalun also resided. But unlike Lalun, Ayah becomes altogether the marginalized victim, not a border inhabitant with any agency. The ability to deploy one's in-between status is reserved for her savior, the storyteller and her family.

Moreover, the text also turns to the comfort of positioning lower-class men (of any ethnicity) as always and only sexually threatening figures—a potential rapist in every one. (Whereas ethnicity and class are used to separate those [women] yoked by gender, with gender and class difference there appears no need for ethnic differentiation.) Early in the narrative, it is made clear that men like Ice-Candy-Man could never be allowed within the precincts of bourgeois households. “Mother would have a fit! He's not the kind of fellow who's permitted inside, […] thuggish, […] shady, […] disreputable” (37). Of course, Ayah must meet him outside those clear boundaries, here briefly herself a boundary figure who travels between the inner sacrosanct domain of the respectable middle-class women and the outside world of “thuggish” men. Ironically, to delineate those lower-class men, Sidhwa resorts to the stigmatizations of nineteenth-century colonial discourse which produced the notion of “thuggee,” associated with bodily violence and theft. Not only is Ayah used as a figure of the lower-class and therefore rapable woman, but also, lower-class men are insistently and silently positioned as the collective sexual enemy, the implicit threat that cannot be permitted to materialize in any form other than towards Ayah.

The contrast between Kipling's representation of Lalun's borderhood as threateningly subversive (to colonial authority understood as selfhood) and Sidhwa's representation of Lenny's borderhood as empathetic but self-distancing (as a model for postcolonial selfhood) is telling: for us as critical readers, at the very least it disallows a priori political validation. Kipling's Lalun is unquestionably an orientalist, masculine projection and fabrication of feminine guile, and perhaps a mode of self-exculpation for lapses in colonial authority, but it reveals an uneasy acknowledgment of the potential of border work to which Sidhwa's Lenny and her narrative aspire. That her narrative becomes entangled in another problem is not to suggest that Kipling's account is unproblematic, but my concern is with the former, not the least because it is productive of different expectations.

As herself an advocate for women's rights in the increasingly tightening milieu of Pakistan, Sidhwa draws upon a certain variety of postcolonial nationalist feminism as a project for Cracking India.37 First, writing in the context of a bedeviled postcolonial nation whose reactionary clergy have recently sought to oppose colonial heritage by imposing “Sharia” or so-called “Islamic” laws that legally seek to disenfranchise women, (particularly rural and lower-class urban women), Sidhwa attempts through her fiction to increase recognition of women's victimization by male rivalries and bids for political power.38 She has said that her aim was to show that “women suffer the most from political upheavals,” that “victory is celebrated […] and vengeance is taken on a woman's body […] in [her] part of the world” (qtd. in Graeber 11). Second, in its very form of personal, autobiographical narration, the novel strives to substitute one dominant kind of historiography (masculinist, totalizing, exclusivist, (neo)colonial, impersonal, national) with an alternate one (partial, multiple, non-teleological, grounded in collective experience).

Third, the novel also implicitly addresses a recurrent question that has beleaguered postcolonial feminists: what modes “feminism” may adopt in specific postcolonial contexts, and how feminism may question or locate itself within a heavily gendered nationalism.39 The novel exemplifies the restorative work performed by women of the Parsee community, border women who seek to heal the painful cracks in this partitioned Indian land-as-body. Deploying their ethnic border status, and, of course, their upper-class economic and social privilege, Lenny's mother and aunts construct a refuge for “fallen women” of all religious affiliations—peasant women or domestic servants raped or abducted in the aftermath of Partition—and try to restore them to their families or to find homes and work for those who, seen as shamed and “defiled,” cannot return.40 Or, they smuggle petrol to help their Hindu and Sikh friends with cars cross “the Border” safely to India (254). It is such a Parsee collective that seeks and finally finds Lenny's Ayah—a collective force of matriarchal power embodied in Lenny's Godmother. “Over the years, Godmother has established a network of espionage with a reach of which even she is not aware. [… She] can move mountains from the paths of those she befriends, and erect mountainous barriers where she deems it necessary” (222-23). Godmother determinedly breaks many codes of decorum when she takes Lenny to visit Ayah in the red light district, and then extracts her from the hands of Ice-Candy-Man—by commanding a posse of armed men.

Thus the text suggests by analogy that its own postcolonial feminist work is that of both crossing boundaries and of occupying borders. It crosses the bounds of Pakistani fictive decorum and national discourse in settling both on a minority (Parsee) community and on women's and servant communities as sites for refracting and recasting history. As a Parsee Pakistani woman's writing contingent upon belonging/unbelonging it attempts to build a usefully skewed national identity and suggests new modes of creating trans-ethnic and trans-religious alliances. It thus upholds the power of border feminism (as emblematized by Parsee women) to redress the casualties of neo-colonial history.

Yet what is interesting about Sidhwa's version of postcolonial feminism is precisely the mix of contradictions that it evokes and the ambivalences it reveals. It also raises a problem for us as readers and teachers of such texts; namely, how an incautious prioritization of “otherness” may occlude the complex ways in which these writings too may participate in the questionable ideologies they seek to challenge. As a text that is now being taught not only in literature but also in history and women's studies courses in the Anglo-American academy, Cracking India is often appropriated as an authentic subaltern voice or as witness to trauma without recognition of its inadequacies. It might be more usefully taught if it could also be problematized for its discursive and political strategies, and historicized in relation to its goals and contexts versus ours. In building a nuanced reading, we might consider how (to use Raymond Williams's terms) promising but problematic “emergent” texts still bear the “residual” dominance of other systems (121-27). How are we critically to assess such fiction? How are we to account (in Rajan's apt phrase) for the “ways in which (feminist) resistances also enter into the processes by which structures of domination persist or renew themselves” (4-5)?

Critics such as Aijaz Ahmed have warned against the myopia of many celebrated third world writers to class difference and to their own socioeconomic privilege in representing a part as the whole (In Theory 73-94). While giving Sidhwa due credit for even broaching the taboo issue of rape, we must also recognize how her writing might be insufficient—how it will only allow the possibility of rape and prostitution when enacted upon “other” bodies. At best the possibility of sexual assault on “us” can only be hinted at—but then distanced and mediated through “their” bodies. How, in the act of drawing together “women,” are women divided into “us” and “them”? And how are men, both upper and lower class, rhetorically positioned by this feminist narrative?

While Sidhwa's narrative seeks to celebrate both border-crossing and border inhabitation, it is hampered by its own invisible boundaries, border troubles that seem to me concentrated in at least three areas. First, in locating the work of postcolonial feminism in terms of traditionally understood and clearly demarcated roles of healing and restoration, Sidhwa leaves intact and unquestioned the binarism that insists that men are agents of violence, politics, and history, while women are either victims, witnesses, or healers, bound within the limits of domesticity. The original title, Ice-Candy-Man, is more revealing, for its male eponymous hero, despite Lenny's central consciousness, remains the agent of violation, and perhaps, of the novel. (Cracking India ends not with Ayah or with Lenny but with Ice-Candy-Man, now romantically and guiltily devoted to his victim, sorry for his part in the madness, contriving pathetically to follow her across the border.) It is surely telling that in this long narrative, Ayah herself has no voice of agency or independence of purpose—her story is told by Lenny, as Lenny's story of her fall into knowledge.

In one scene, Sidhwa herself mourns the disappearance of “women” from the scene of postcolonial politics. When Lenny returns to her old playground, the Queen (Victoria's) garden, she finds a paradigmatic absence: “I cannot believe my eyes. The Queen is gone! The space between the marble canopy and the marble platform is empty. […] Bereft of her presence, the structure looks unwomaned. The garden scene has depressingly altered. Muslim families who added colour when scattered among the Hindus and Sikhs, now monopolize the garden, depriving it of colour. […] There are fewer women. More men” (249). The shift from British imperialism to Muslim nationalism cannot be regarded as altogether joyous when it seems also to have dictated a monopolistic takeover of the “playground” by men, and the elimination of “women,” either as ruling powers or as players in the field, irrespective of racial or class difference. Yet, despite this vital recognition, the imaginative boundaries of Sidhwa's postcolonial feminism cannot reconfigure this queen's garden beyond a trimming of its edges. Indeed, it remains surprisingly uncritical of the inequities and tensions already present in this hypothetically harmonious “garden.”

Hence this feminism actually remains quite Victorian (and colonial) in its understanding of gendered spheres, its essentialization of male violence, and its reassertion of class divisions. It sees lower-class men as an uncontainable, unanalyzable problem—as a collective rabid mob inherently prone to unreasoning violence—and the middle class as not in any way implicated in the problem. It remains oblivious to the socioeconomic circumstances and inequities that may in fact produce those tensions. Ice-Candy-Man's behavior is presented as unmotivated, inexplicable, and irrational. By contrast, Arundhati Roy's powerful account of child molestation in The God of Small Things, also artfully playing upon a child's perspective, does not excuse or explain away the motivations of the Lemon-Drink Orange-Drink Man, but it does offer a more complex understanding of the colonial histories and class resentments that structure his grotesque assault on an English-speaking affluent child.

Second, Sidhwa's continuous conflation of the political and the sexual produces another set of problems. That Lenny's awareness of the violent repercussions of political independence is equated with both her own arrival at sexual awareness and with Ayah's sexual violation suggests a troubling conceptualization of female sexual maturity as a fall into political knowledge and, furthermore, an equivalence between political victimization and sexual relations. Lenny's painful puberty, for instance, becomes a symbol for Pakistan's gory coming of age, and her understanding of rape is entirely coincident—and coterminous—with that of Pakistan's emergence as a new nation (252).41 Again, what wistfully nostalgic imagining of colonialism as protected chastity underlies this tropology? Why after all must political violence continue to be understood as sex, and vice-versa? What may be the unimagined consequences—for both—of liberating the two from each other? But this is not a boundary crossed by Sidhwa's writing. As it deplores the parochial forms of thinking that demand that political rivalries be enacted sexually on women's bodies, or that nations be imagined as rapable women, her narrative reifies these concepts and tropes in its own symbolic structure. Jenny Sharpe has shown how colonial rhetoric such as Mutiny narratives of rape cast native insurgency against colonial authority as a sexual threat to white women. Not only did this serve to justify repressive colonial counter-measures, but it also depoliticized subaltern revolt by representing it as sexual attraction to and violation of the colonizer's women. Analogously, in postcolonial discourse, if male/ethnic peasant or working-class protest is essentialized and seen consistently as exclusively sexual violence, then we also risk depoliticizing and dangerously misapprehending the complex forces that underlie such historical collective movements.

Finally, perhaps the most serious constraint to Sidhwa's border feminism is her narrative's invention of a national allegory of border crossing that also depends upon the reification of gender, ethnic, and class divisions.42 As national borders are drawn to define postcolonial nationhood, the Hindu Ayah becomes the embodiment of the border that is crossed by men of all sorts, the site of transgression itself. Where there was once no border, and traffic in either direction was unquestioned, in this postlapsarian universe of postcoloniality, that very same body has now become a forbidden and thus transgressible border. When the history of the violent generation of Pakistan is mapped with such relentless literalism upon Ayah's ravaged body, we need to ask: what psychic needs demand that this national history be thus metaphorized (and deflected?) through this particular prism? What psycho-narratival needs demand that Ayah's body be cast as an allegory for India/Pakistan, or for Hinduism as a victim of Muslim nationhood? If the birth or death of a country must be figured as female violation, how can we read this replay of the colonial and neo-colonial nationalist metaphor of land as female body, victimized this time not by white oppressors, but by decolonized men who run amok in the deranging liberty of independence? Does this not run the danger of nostalgically fabricating colonial harmony and reaffirming the colonial prognostication that decolonization could only prove disastrous?

One danger of gendered national allegories is that they work in a circular fashion: drawing on culturally available gender prescriptions (of both masculinity and femininity) upon which to construct nationhood, they then reinforce those norms. As the editors of the collection Nationalism and Sexualities assert, the colonial and neocolonial “trope of the nation-as-woman […] depends for its representational efficacy on a particular image of woman as chaste, dutiful, daughterly or maternal” (Parker et al 6). The “Mother India” trope has been used in Indian nationalist rhetoric also to interpellate men: to marshal civic-as-filial loyalty, and to cast secessionist (Pakistani) nationalism as matricidal betrayal. Examining the rhetoric of one newspaper, Butalia indicts the equation of “manhood and nationalism” and the imagined “purity of Mother India, the motherland which gave birth to the Hindu race,” offering a striking example: “One issue of the Organizer (August 14, 1947) [Pakistan's Independence Day] had a front page illustration of Mother India, the map of the country, with a woman lying on it, one limb cut off and severed with Nehru holding the bloody knife” (141). When Sidhwa re-uses this trope of India as ravaged body subject to (incestuous?) male violence, she ends up reaffirming this logic which, incidentally, also serves to idealize motherhood as a prescriptive norm of femininity for female citizens.

Another problem, as Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak puts it, is that “when the woman's body is used only as a metaphor for a nation (or anything else) feminists correctly object to the effacement of the materiality of that body” (In Other Worlds 257). The problem is not with allegory in itself; but with the implications of the particular allegory used. For one thing, the allegory of Ayah as national body is not sustained throughout the novel, nor is it supported by a corresponding political vision (as in Midnight's Children or Shame) or empathy for the Hindu nation. More importantly, however, Sidhwa's allegory of Ayah replicates without questioning another aspect of the symbolic violence it deplores. Menon and Bhasin describe and analyze this as follows:

The range of sexual violence […]—stripping; parading naked; mutilating, and disfiguring; tattooing or branding the breasts and genitalia with triumphal slogans; amputating breasts; knifing open the womb; raping of course; killing foetuses—is shocking not only for its savagery, but for what it tells us about women as objects in male constructions of their own honour. […] Tattooing and branding the body with “Pakistan, Zindabad!” or “Hindustan, Zindabad!” [or symbols like the crescent moon or trident] not only mark the woman for life, they never allow her (or her family and community) the possibility of forgetting her humiliation. [… T]hey became the respective countries, indelibly imprinted by the Other.


The logic of such symbolic (and material) violence reduces women to the sites of reproduction upon which each side could target its desire both to vanquish and to eradicate the other. It positions women as objects of possession and vehicles of communication between men. And then it also allegorizes the nation as such a terrain. For Menon and Bhasin, “the trope-of-nation as woman further secures male-male arrangements and an all male history” (109). Sidhwa's well-intentioned replication of that symbolism seeks emotively to arouse moral indignation about violence against women, but in replaying the trope it then consolidates—instead of questioning—the gender assumptions of that symbolism.

Moreover, I would argue that such a selective national allegory has yet another function: it allows for what Huma Ibrahim has called “evasion” in partition literature. It reveals a narratival inability to recuperate a national and ethnic past too violent, shameful, and traumatic to be told except through the distancing of a child's censored vision, and the displacement of national history to a female body rendered multiply other. In turn, the Ayah's body becomes an allegorical figure (and indeed reduced to only a figure) for a nation that is brutalized and ravaged, in a narrative that seems unable to (re)cast that history in an alternate discourse.

Mohanty has made a powerful case against certain kinds of “reductivist Western feminist” constructions of “third world women” as a monolithic object of study. Importantly, she adds, this may equally pertain to middle- or upper-class African or Asian feminist scholars who study rural or working-class women. Such orientalist and neo-colonialist moves, she argues, ultimately build a self-enabling self-construction (as subject) at the expense of a conveniently constructed otherness (“Under” 51-80). By analogy, I suggest, Sidhwa's narrative unfortunately perpetrates across lines of class and national/ethnic difference what Mohanty reprehends in some feminist work across political lines. Just as the lower-class Hindu Ayah became a surrogate for the obsessive exploration of sexuality for an upper-class child so, as a figure, she also becomes the impassable boundary—the limit—for this narrative's self-positioning as border work. The triumphalism of the narrator's (and narrative's) position, which, after the rape, identifies with Godmother and not Ayah, may be a good example: “The long and diverse reach of Godmother's tentacular arm is clearly evident. She set an entire conglomerate in motion immediately after our visit and single-handedly engendered the social and moral climate of retribution and justice required to rehabilitate our fallen Ayah” (285; emphasis added).

Lenny's (and the text's) ambivalent borderwork stops short of crossing into Ayah's dangerous terrain: indeed, it presents itself as successful border-crosser only by requiring the figure of Ayah to become its marginal site, an icon of absolute other as victim, against which irrecoverable otherness Lenny's subalternity can define itself. It is an example of what Spivak has described as the “token subaltern” (who is taken to be a “spokesperson for subalternity”), but it is even more than that because it positions itself as the paradigm of the subaltern by capitalizing upon the subaltern for whom it purports to speak (“Subaltern” 292).43 Sidhwa's narrative constructs upper-class Pakistani womanhood and its power to cross borderlines parasitically upon the status of Ayah as a scapegoat for its own anxieties and guilt. It fabricates a solidarity of gender that in fact quite simply relies upon class and ethnic difference to tell the story of the otherwise unspeakable, the—otherwise—unthinkable.

The young Lenny's participant observer's complicity in betraying Ayah quite literally then is no minor detail in her story. Tricked by Ice-Candy-Man, she gives away Ayah's hiding place to the waiting crowd of men, for her guilt mirrors the text's repressed complicity in the traitorous use it makes of Ayah. While Lenny's complicity is acknowledged within the story at the level of plot, that complicity is not acknowledged by the text as a mirror of its own strategies at the levels of narrative strategies or representation. In order to construct itself as a narrative of the relief-giving powers of border-inhabitation, this narrative seems to need to push figures like Ayah beyond its own borders. Quite literally, there is no recuperation for Ayah within the bounds of Sidhwa's text—or her Pakistan; the only solution to the ruptures in and of this narrative is to convey Ayah across the border into India—to a hypothesized other space, to a supposed safety beyond. In a grotesque parody of Anzaldua's words, Ayah indeed becomes a “crossroads,” but hers is not a narrative of survival: it is a casualty of the self-positioning as feminist of Sidhwa's narrator/narrative, that seeks to cross borders without considering the other border lines it draws. It may be well to recall then Diana Fuss's caution in another context: the “delimiting of boundaries […] becomes a problem when the central category of difference under consideration blinds itself to other modes of difference and implicitly delegitimates them” (116).

It is in this sense that the ayah's rape becomes an alibi—a misleading distraction from, and a clue for—the text's own guilt at the self-promoting use of the very figure whose victimization at the hands of male violence it decries. The production of an alibi (as proof of innocence) presupposes accusation in a context of suspicion. Yet often the strongest alibi is the best cover-up, a declaration of innocence precisely as an act of self-exculpation. I use the term “alibi” as such an act of covering up—as a form of substitution and a deflection of responsibility. By producing an excess of outrage over the rape of the Ayah, the psychic mechanism of this text deflects attention from the strategies by which it in fact is also exploitative. Like the most unexpected culprits in detective stories, who as narrators serve as implicit guarantors of innocence, the feminist impulse of Cracking India presumes its own innocence as it looks about for others to blame. But the very act of seeking elsewhere and focusing attention on one kind of outrage becomes the alibi that obstructs the discovery of its own collusion, its own private satisfaction at being exempt.

If all representation brings with it the politics of violation, it may well be asked, what, if any, is the solution? In the postmodern era, we have learned that there is no unburdened or unmediated representation, but that there are degrees of difference. The intrusiveness of representation may be mitigated by a foregrounding of the problems of that representation, and by an insistence on a responsible and self-aware self-positioning. Anthropologists following James Clifford have come to recognize that if one must be a participant observer, one could at least examine the forms of one's participation and effects on what one “observes.” As Spivak concludes: “finding the subaltern is not so hard, but actually entering into a responsibility structure with the subaltern with responses flowing both ways: learning to learn without this quick-fix frenzy of doing good with an implicit assumption of cultural supremacy which is legitimized by unexamined romanticism, that's the hard part” (“Subaltern” 293). Aware of living in and writing about an ethnically and “class-structured society,” Sidhwa manifests still a certain oblivion to her own position within it. In an interview with Feroza Jussawalla and Reed Way Dasenbrock she has announced that she is “on the borderline of a few cultures [… and] that […] gives [her] a certain objectivity” (214), while Rushdie, by not living in Pakistan, has “Britishized biases” (216-17). The border feminism of Cracking India seems equally unselfconscious of its own positionality and desires as it demarcates the violation of Ayah as exclusively the province of a rabid lower class maleness. It fails to acknowledge its own complicated fascination for and repudiation of that figure—the very figure that it seeks to ally itself with but needs to differentiate from. As such, this contradictory text reveals both its good intentions and its myopias, its aspirations and its insufficiencies: as a border worker, it depends upon the use of a figure that finally becomes its own site of limitation and occasions its greatest troubles.


An early version of this essay was delivered as a conference paper at the MLA in Toronto, 1997. I would like to thank my audience there and the friends and colleagues who have offered comments at various stages of the manuscript: Margery Sabin, Helen Elam, Randy Craig, Michael Gorra, Josna Rege, Sadia Abbas, Kevin Rozario, and the anonymous readers of MFS without whose insightful and incisive questions this would have been a much lesser piece.


  1. For an analogous reading of this tale, see also Rushdie's essay “Kipling” in Imaginary Homelands.

  2. A glance at the titles of some recent notable examples across a range of fields is illuminating: Mae Henderson, ed., Borders, Boundaries, and Frames: Cultural Criticism and Cultural Studies; Homi Bhabha, ed., “Front/Lines/Border/Posts,” Special Issue of Critical Inquiry; Stephen Greenblatt and Giles Gunn, eds., Redrawing the Boundaries: The Transformation of English and American Literary Studies; John C. Welchman, ed., Rethinking Borders; Henry Giroux, Between Borders: Pedagogy and the Politics of Cultural Studies; Hector Calderon and José David Saldivar, eds., Criticism in the Borderlands: Studies in Chicano Literature, Culture, and Ideology; Emily Hicks, Border Writing: The Multidimensional Text; Martine Reid, ed. Boundaries: Writing and Drawing. Yale French Studies; Maggie Humm, Border Traffic: Strategies of Contemporary Women Writers; Laura Doyle, Bordering on the Body: The Racial Matrix of Modern Fiction and Culture; Margaret Higonnet, Borderwork: Feminist Engagements with Comparative Literature; and a somewhat earlier piece, Jacques Derrida, “Living On: Border Lines.”

  3. Given that “feminism,” in the contexts of both the Anglo-American academy and the “third world,” is itself a contested term, I draw upon Chandra Mohanty's useful definition of an “imagined community,” where despite differences there is a non-essentialist commitment to “the way we think about race, class and gender—the political links we choose to make among and between struggles” (“Cartographies” 4). I also use the term “third world” as Mohanty does (while cognizant of its problems) to designate not a unitary group but a “political constituency” (7). Its historic connotations as politically “non-aligned” to first or second worlds also ties in well with the sense of a third or alternative space that marks the border zone.

  4. This is to be distinguished, she insists, from the often essentialist appropriation of the middle voice as a feminine voice in some French feminist approaches. See also Maggie Humm on the various strategies of border crossing by women writers.

  5. For two recent examples of excellent analyses that work against this tendency, see Grewal and Caplan, and Ghosh and Bose.

  6. Jussawalla's introduction reads: “Crossing borders both literal and metaphoric has become the condition of postmodernity and of postcoloniality” (vi). Papers (such as Gravely-Novello in the same issue) that find border-crossing “dangerous” do so on the grounds that the border-crossing is either fatal, or does not change the subject's marginality because it fails to produce a home in the new space entered. For an astute critique of Bharati Mukherjee's Indian-American immigrant fiction, and her uncritical celebration of the Indian immigrant's “crossing” into the refuge of American as modern space, see Koshy.

  7. However, even JanMohamed, in delineating the “specular border intellectual,” notes the “pleasure of border-crossing and transgression” (114; emphasis added).

  8. Edward Said reminds us of the “perilous territory of not-belonging […] of refugees and displaced persons” (“Mind” 51). Even Homi Bhabha acknowledges the difficult work involved in constructing hybridity, which requires continuing negotiations with shifting boundaries, and the construction of the “unhomely,” the defamiliarizing, unsettling, and shifting border spaces created by such artists as Toni Morrison and Nadine Gordimer (Location 9). Aijaz Ahmad, however, writes more scathingly: “History does not consist of perpetual migration. […] Most migrants tend to be poor and experience displacement not as cultural plenitude but as torment” (“Politics” 289).

  9. For an illuminating discussion of this category see Merewether.

  10. This would suggest not a biological or racial category, but a location that would include, for example, third world scholars in the Anglo-American academy.

  11. Ahmad's essay on Rushdie's Shame is an important exception (In Theory).

  12. It would be well to recall Sara Suleri's timely warning against the dangerous “iconicity” often granted in the western academy to the combination of “postcolonial” and “woman” (“Woman” 758).

  13. In the jubilant celebrations of India's fiftieth anniversary of independence, such publications as the special issue of The New Yorker (June 23 & 30, 1997) on Indian-English writers did not include even one article by a Pakistani, Bangladeshi, or Sri Lankan writer (thus uncritically conflating British and modern India).

  14. This does not include of course the work of Pakistani women journalists or scholars, or of the women writing in Urdu or other Pakistani languages. Notably, one would add Sara Suleri, who is better known for her critical work and for her memoir, Meatless Days. As Sidhwa herself has documented, “we don't have a strong publishing industry in Pakistan, and it's almost non-existent where English fiction is concerned” (Jussawalla and Dasenbrock 215-16). Sidhwa and Suleri are also the only two Pakistani writers to be included by Rushdie and West in their recent anthology on Indian English writers in celebration of fifty years of independence. (Though it is interesting that the extract chosen from Sidhwa's Cracking India is the only segment not narrated by the female child-narrator—it concerns the horrific testimony of the rape and massacre of his family by a village boy. Yet it remains a rather ironically telling choice considering that the novel is emphatically concerned with focusing on the neglected experiences of women!) Some new British-Pakistani women writers beginning to publish now include Mona Alvi, who has two collections of poetry and a memoir on her life in and between Pakistan and Britain, and Rukhsana Ahmad, who has just published her novel The Hope Chest. Oxford University Press in Pakistan has also just published a new anthology edited by Muneeza Shamsie that includes earlier, lesser-known writers as well as more recent ones.

  15. For a brief contextualization of Sidhwa's work within Parsee tradition, and an account of the Parsees' historic migration from Persia to India, see Jussawalla, “Navjote.” This increasingly fragmented diasporic community is now mainly located in Bombay, Karachi, and Lahore, and in various metropolitan centers in Britain and North America. See also Sidhwa's somewhat self-ironic comic version of the community's originary tale of migration from Persia and assimilation into India, as the parable of a “teaspoon of sugar” (the minority) that would melt into and “sweeten […] a glass of milk” (the majority) (Cracking 47-49).

  16. Sidhwa has described the initial difficulties of writing as a Pakistani woman expected to prioritize her children and coffee parties (Dhawan and Kapadia 27-34). Yet she still has had the benefits of belonging to a middle-class and a Parsee community unusual for its commitment to equal education and social activism.

  17. Pakistan was founded upon a perhaps contradictory secular ideal—although demanding a separate country for Muslims, the original founders imagined a secular legal and constitutional system, civic equality, and religious liberty for all. Pakistan's flag symbolizes this original ideal: a large green space with star and crescent for Muslims, coexisting with a smaller white space for non-Muslims. It was only later that Pakistan was declared an “Islamic” state, and discriminatory practices towards non-Muslim “minorities” instituted.

  18. The Bride is more uneven but similar to Cracking India in that it also attempts to address the debilitating effects of Partition on a female child and is marred by its unselfconscious attempts to represent a lower-class and ethnically alien figure. It is perhaps yet more problematic for its orientalizing representations of what it terms “tribal” culture. I say this not because I subscribe to any notions of “authenticity,” or to ethnic belonging as endowing some “rights” of representation (for example, the territorialism that insists that only a member can write about a group), but rather because it presumes to represent to western readers a remote ethnic group via a primitivist and denigratory discourse based solely upon an authority of cultural proximity. Thus the tribals are atavistic and brutal, all their women are oppressed, and escape lies in the dichotomized civilizing urban space. While such condemnation may arise from a laudable desire to change gender politics, the novel still re-inscribes colonial rhetoric and constructs a bourgeois nationalist discourse that prescribes a norm for those who do not fit.

  19. Sidhwa wrote this novel while she held the prestigious Bunting Fellowship at Harvard (1987). Since then, she has taught at Columbia University, the University of Houston, and Mount Holyoke College. Attention to Sidhwa's work is beginning to grow, though with the exception of the collection by Dhawan and Kapadia, there is little published criticism of her work. For two of her more accessible published interviews, see Montenegro, and Jussawalla and Dasenbrock.

  20. See Wolpert 346 and 348 and Menon and Bhasin 35. For a detailed historical account, see also Butalia.

  21. In English, Khushwant Singh's Train to Pakistan (1956) remains the most important precursor. See also Menon and Bhasin (recently published oral narratives), Bhalla, and Cowasjee and Duggal (selected stories in translation). For recent scholarship, see also the second special issue (forthcoming) of the new postcolonial journal, Interventions (Menon).

  22. Urvashi Butalia describes the Boundary Commission, chaired by Sir Cyril Radcliffe, a new arrival from England, who was given only five weeks to demarcate the boundaries without further research or familiarity with the histories or issues (63-66).

  23. See Menon and Bhasin 65-130 and Butalia 134-38 and 187-220.

  24. Sidhwa suffered from polio as a child and could not attend school until she was fourteen (Graeber). She also witnessed much of the carnage of Partition—fires, riots, bodies spilling out of gunnysacks—that she describes via Lenny (Montenegro 518)

  25. The translation of “Ayah” as “nanny” is of course inadequate, since it does not imply the cultural equivalence of authority, discipline, or privilege associated with a British or American nanny. An ayah is very much a servant and a drudge—poor, illiterate, homeless, with no rights or recourse to any higher court of appeal, and vulnerable to all forms of abuse, sexual or otherwise. In reality she would sleep on the floor in the children's room, attend to all their needs, be clothed in cast-offs, and have little time of her own. The ayah's contrast with such a picture in Sidhwa's novel only highlights the degree to which she is romanticized and exoticized in her narrative.

  26. She is named on a telling occasion: when she draws her upper-class mistress's attention to a physically abused servant child in the family compound (20-21)—that is, when she herself functions as a mediating agent of rescue for another victim.

  27. There is a male Hindu gardener, who converts to Islam and is circumcised (172).

  28. Interestingly, Deepa Mehta's 1999 film Earth, based upon the novel, omits this dimension of the novel—suggesting that the politics of the film resist the self-aggrandizement of this middle-class womanhood.

  29. By contrast, we may compare the Indian Parsee writer Rohinton Mistry's fiction, particularly A Fine Balance (1996), which takes a very different tactic: it interweaves stories of Parsees of different class backgrounds with those of “Chamaars”—an untouchable caste—insistently to refocus attention on the reintegration of all as citizens of that nation. This may in each case be related to different national cultural discourses and imperatives: Pakistan's ethno-phobic religio-political conservatism versus India's secularism and much stronger leftist political traditions. My thanks to Sadia Abbas for suggesting this difference.

  30. Later, Lenny's doctor belligerently declares that polio was introduced to India by the British—as if the ailment that assails Lenny's childhood were colonialism itself (25).

  31. This officiousness can be read as analogous to colonial attempts at “rescue” that infantilized “native” women, such as in the controversial abolishment of sati in 1832.

  32. By contrast, in Rushdie's The Satanic Verses, the position of victim is seen as much more complex, complicit, and self-disabling. When Saladin Chamcha metamorphoses into a devilish horned satyr, emblematic of an immigrant's internalized self-image upon encounter with British racism, his friend remarks: “Ideologically, I refuse to accept the position of victim. Certainly, he has been victimized, but we know that all abuse of power is in part the responsibility of the abused; our passiveness colludes with, permits such crimes” (253).

  33. Mehta's film makes the stunning choice of ending at this point—making this the climactic conclusion of Lenny's story—emphasizing the absence that will permanently mark her life, and refusing to tell the subsequent tale of the Parsi women's efforts to recover her.

  34. The rape of upper-class or high-caste women is by no means unknown in South Asian literature, particularly in contemporary women's writing—witness Anita Desai's Fire on the Mountain (1977), which concludes with the brutal rape and murder of lla Das by the villager whose young daughter's arranged marriage to a rich dotard she is trying to prevent. Even there, however, the raped woman is an old, shrunken, comic figure, who is not allowed to survive to tell her story—and is thus differentiated from the central, dignified female character. However, that text at least is more self-knowing in its incorporation of the possible punishments of heroic intervention.

  35. Paradoxically, in a South Asian context, an abducted woman is automatically dishonored: the burden is not on her to prove rape, but if anything, to disprove it, since she is automatically assumed to have lost her chastity.

  36. My thanks to Josna Rege and Sadia Abbas for raising these tricky problems, and for forcing me to think them through to clarify my argument.

  37. Interestingly, on a number of occasions Sidhwa has denied affiliation with feminist causes. She did not join the Pakistani group Women's Action Forum because of their attention-drawing methods of protest: “They burn their veils or shout on the road,” she explained (Montenegro 40-41). She has also said that she prefers to have her gender “buried” and “gender does not come into [her writing] in a very big way” (Jussawalla and Dasenbrock 221). However, she has also claimed that many of her novels, in particular The Bride and Cracking India, are concerned with protesting women's oppression, and she has herself been read as feminist on many counts (Dhawan and Kapadia 176-86).

  38. For recent discussions of the Sharia in Pakistan and the discriminatory effects particularly on lower-class women, see Suleri (“Woman”) and Jahangir and Jilani.

  39. See, for instance, Peterson, or McClintock.

  40. It should be noted, of course, that not all Parsees are middle class, though Sidhwa's narrative only describes affluent families.

  41. Like Saleem Sinai's midnight birth in Rushdie's Midnight Children, Lenny's birthday and sexual awakening coincides with Pakistan's birth (140-44).

  42. It would be well to invoke Ahmad's critique of Fredric Jameson's statement that all “third world” texts are to be read as “national allegories” (“Jameson's”). Clearly, while all third world texts are not to be read as such, many third world texts, as I think Ahmad would agree, particularly those made available in the “first world,” published and popularized by western publishing circuits (possibly as a materialization of their own desire for certain kinds of third world texts), often present themselves precisely as national allegories. Of these Sidhwa's is evidently one, as suggested by the recent republication and retitling of her novel in the U.S.

  43. In this interview, discussing the ways in which her essay “The Subaltern Cannot Speak” has been misapprehended, Spivak explains that the “subaltern who cannot speak” refers to the one who cannot be heard even when she does speak (“Subaltern” 292).

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