In an interview, Bapsi Sidhwa insisted that she was not writing “overtly feminist literature” in The Bride; she went on to explain that she wanted the ideas to be embedded in the novel itself and added that she has little use for “didactic fiction.” Certainly, in this book she succeeds in avoiding didacticism and integrating theme with the essential ingredients of plot, character, and setting. The novel is constructed with admirable economy as it unfolds a complex story, introduces and develops numerous characters, and creates settings both exotic and realistic.
Because Sidhwa was writing in English about a non-Western society, she needed to forge new methods of storytelling. First, the story had to appeal to Asian readers of English familiar with the world she was re-creating. Second, the narrative needed to be clear and meaningful to the English-language reader abroad, who might be altogether unfamiliar with Pakistani history and traditions. She could not appear to be condescending to either group of readers by explaining too much, nor could she withhold details from her international audience. The Bride, Sidhwa’s first novel but the second to be published, had a good reception in Europe and the United States as well as in Pakistan and India.
Perhaps that acceptance has been attributable in large part to the simplicity of the prose and the force of the action. A prime example of these qualities is the few pages that cover the violence accompanying the partition of India and the subsequent creation of Pakistan. These historical details also set the plot in motion. At the outset Sidhwa explains how the partition tragedy came about:The earth is not easy to carve up. India required a deft and sensitive surgeon, but the British, steeped in domestic preoccupation, hastily and carelessly butchered it. They were not deliberately mischievous—only cruelly negligent! A million Indians died.
This spare unfolding of events continues throughout in a manner just as vivid as the account of the senseless bloodshed that dominated partition; for example, Zaitoon’s struggle in the mountains is told with a similar narrative force.
The settings, whether the crowded streets of Lahore or the grandeur of the Himalayas, spring to life. The colors, the odors, the shapes, the movement are captured in a word or phrase that suggests more than what appears on the page. For example, when Qasim visits the part of Lahore given over to brothels, the prose conjures up a rich, variegated scene: “the narrow lanes streaming with men, and the tall rickety buildings leaning towards each other . . . the heady smell of perfume, the tinkle of payals on dancers’ ankles, the chhum-chhum of feminine feet dancing.” Equally well realized later in the novel is the stark landscape of the mountains:More and more the Indus cast its spell over her. . . . The strangely luminous air burnished her vision: the colours around her deepened and intensified. They became three dimensional. Were she to reach out, she felt she could touch the darkness in the granite, hold the air in her hands and stain her fingers in the jewelled colours of the river.
While The Bride has much to say about a patriarchal culture where women have little control over their fates, it does so without forsaking the demands of effective storytelling. Sidhwa has succeeded in embedding ideas within a novel that is breathtaking in its action, engaging in its characterization, and exotic in its rendering of place.