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A title such as The Bride at first might suggest a happy story, but it soon becomes evident that it contains an ironic twist. The novel opens with the wedding of the central character, Qasim, and an account of his and his bride’s shared humiliation on their wedding night. He is only ten, and his father has married him to a woman twice his age. The novel records with swift movement his maturation, the developing relationship between husband and wife in spite of their age difference, the deaths of his wife and children, his move from the Himalayan mountains to the Punjabi plains, and his life as a bank guard in that unfamiliar territory. Then what little security Qasim has found during his four years in the Punjab vanishes when independence comes to India and the subcontinent is divided into India and Pakistan. After murdering a man who has humiliated him, Qasim decides to flee India and take his chances in Pakistan; he boards a train loaded with refugees bound for Lahore, one of the major cities given to the newly created nation.

At the border, a group of marauding Sikhs attacks the overcrowded train and murders most of the refugees. Qasim manages to escape, and in the chaos he rescues a young girl whose parents have been slaughtered. With the help of Nikka and Miriam, a couple he meets in a refugee camp, he settles in Lahore and rears the child, whom he has named Zaitoon for his dead daughter. Mothered by Miriam—who has not borne children and thus is something of an outcast—Zaitoon rehearses the role for which she is destined: to become a bride. As well as receiving instruction from Miriam, Zaitoon spends much of her time in various zenannas—women’s quarters—where “the benign squalor” draws her, “as it did all its inmates, into the mindless, velvet vortex of the womb.” Some zenannas are inhabited by brides who have entered plural marriages. Bound by tradition, all the women acquiesce to their own subjugation, and Zaitoon learns this lesson well.

The scene shifts to another bride, an American woman named Carol who has married a Pakistani man in the United States and then moved home with him. Unaccustomed to the subordinate role of women at all levels of Asian society, Carol rebels against the restrictions, against her husband’s jealousy and suspicions, and against the sexual repression that hinders free exchange between men and women. Carol is in turn flattered, fascinated, and revolted by the sexual innuendos constantly directed toward her by Pakistani men.

A meeting between the two unlikely brides, Zaitoon and Carol, occurs when Qasim promises his sixteen-year-old adopted daughter to a tribal man. Father and daughter travel from the bustling city of Lahore to the sparsely populated Himalayas, where the marriage is to take place, and spend a night at the government house that Carol and her husband are visiting. When the two women meet, even with backgrounds so contradictory, they feel a kinship as brides in a land where women are considered chattel no matter what their social status may be.

Once Zaitoon has been married and left by Qasim in the primitive mountain village, the young bride soon realizes the absurdity of her romantic illusions about marriage. Unaccustomed to so harsh a life, Zaitoon rebels, and her husband Sakhi, goaded on by the other men, sets out to tame her. In constant fear of his beatings and his sexual force, she runs away from the village and spends days lost in the mountains as she searches for the government house where she can find refuge....

(This entire section contains 693 words.)

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Zaitoon does reach safety after experiencing terrible physical privation and rape. Even though she is rescued, she remains a marked woman who can never return home, for she has failed as “the bride.” Moreover, she has been raped and will always bear the stigma of this physical violation, for which she can hardly be held responsible.

Thus the simple title of this novel lies heavy with irony. To be “the bride” in a patriarchal society that demeans women translates into bondage—sometimes subtle, other times total.


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There is no tradition of women’s literature in Pakistan; in fact, the country has no tradition of English-language literature. Sidhwa can only be considered a pioneer in both areas. Whether The Bride has had any dramatic impact on the treatment of women in Pakistan remains doubtful, for it is altogether possible that each bride represented in the novel still exists, whether in the zenanna, in the mountains, or in the drawing rooms of wealthy, Westernized Pakistanis. Perhaps, though, a woman—Western or Asian—reading the novel might realize at last that she need not acquiesce, that she need not accept her victimization.

Sidhwa’s work was somewhat slow to establish itself internationally. Once The Bride has been fully discovered abroad, however, it will certainly find a place in women’s literature. In the 1990’s, plans by the Ivory-Merchant company to film the novel seemed likely to win for it a wider readership.

Sidhwa based The Bride on an actual story she had heard about a Punjabi girl like Zaitoon who had entered into an arranged marriage with a Himalayan tribal man, attempted to escape, and after fourteen days of wandering in the mountains was found by her husband; he cut off her head and threw her body into the river. That Sidhwa allows her heroine to escape is significant. By altering the original story, Sidhwa sends the message to women that they must rebel no matter the consequences. Further, through the voice of the American bride she denies the male excuse expressed by Carol’s husband that women “ask for it”: “Women the world over, through the ages,” Carol thinks with sarcastic disgust, “asked to be murdered, raped, exploited, enslaved, to get importunately impregnated, beaten-up, bullied and disinherited. It was an immutable law of nature.”

Sidhwa herself exemplifies the rebellion against this false “immutable law.” After a sheltered childhood in a wealthy Pakistani home, she entered an arranged marriage at age nineteen, soon became the mother of three children, and succumbed to the demands of her role as wife of a successful businessman. Like Zaitoon, she escaped, in her case by writing fiction, secretly at first lest she be thought pretentious by her family and friends. After a long struggle to get published and recognized, her work—four novels in all—at last began to gain attention both in Asia and abroad. In 1991, Cracking India (1991) won the Liberatur Prize, a German award presented annually to a non-European woman writer. In 1994, she received one of nine Writers’ Awards of $105,000 given by the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund. Sidhwa became an American citizen in 1992.

Certainly Sidhwa’s stories, always about women who dare to go beyond the limits set for them, along with her own story, can only raise the awareness of women—and of men as well. Although the men in her novels may often be weak, unreasonable, and cruel, Sidhwa sees them caught in the webs of another so-called immutable law that needs to be reversed. They, too, must rebel against the role in which tradition has placed them. In Sidhwa’s view, only when this dual rebellion takes place will the story of “the bride” be a happy one.


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Afzal-Khan, Fawzia. “Bapsi Sidhwa.” In International Literature in English, edited by Robert L. Ross. New York: Garland, 1991. Provides a detailed biography of Sidhwa. Focuses on The Bride and Cracking India (referred to by its original title, Ice-Candy-Man). The writer takes a strong feminist view and through a detailed discussion of the two novels concludes that they both stress the “anti-victim stance that Sidhwa advocates for women.”

Collins, Larry, and Dominique Lapierre. Freedom at Midnight. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1975. Presents a clear, readable, and detailed account of the events leading to the 1947 partition of India and its aftermath. Excellent background reading for The Bride.

Jussawalla, Feroza, ed. “Bapsi Sidhwa.” In Interviews with Writers of the Post-colonial World. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1992. In this interview, Sidhwa recalls her life in Pakistan, including her partition experiences during childhood. Discusses the subordinate place of women in Pakistan and the way those conditions influence her fiction, which she does not see as “overtly feminist.” Talks about how she views the art of writing and the role a postcolonial novelist plays in the international literary picture.

Ross, Robert L. “Revisiting Partition.” The World & I 7 (June, 1992): 369-375. Focuses on Cracking India, but also looks at Sidhwa’s work in general. Provides historical background material on the partition of India; examines the narrative voice of Lenny, the novel’s thematic aspects, and the role of Ice-Candy-Man; and discusses the novel’s adept use of history.


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