Cracking India takes the form of a Bildungsroman, a novel of education. It also offers a multicultural reading experience. As the book opens, the narrator presents a rich acocunt of a childhood in an exotic Asian city during the early 1940’s. Part of the book’s interest lies in this faithful rendering of Lenny’s daily life with her nuclear and extended family, as well as her adventures with Ayah. Even though Lenny belongs to the upper class, she experiences all levels of society, and being an astute observer, she provides a variegated account of life in the homes and on the streets of Lahore. Also interesting are her revelations about the Parsis, an Asian community of 200,000 or so people who are descended from Persian immigrants and whose faith is Zoroastrianism. As the story progresses, though, the specter of partition disrupts this cozy life, and Lenny’s education gets under way.
First, Lenny watches Ayah’s circle of admirers dissolve. Once a number of Hindu, Muslim, Christian, and Sikh men were drawn together by Ayah’s beauty, but not even her feminine allure can overcome religious intolerance. Lenny learns, too, that the little Muslim boy she had played with during her trip to the countryside was the only survivor when a marauding band attacked his village, massacred the men, and violated the women. From the roof of their house, she and her brother watch parts of Lahore burn. They listen to the weeping of women who had been raped and then, rejected by their families, were relegated to rehabilitation centers where few would be restored. Finally, she watches the kidnapping of Ayah by a gang that Ice-Candy-Man leads.
Moving from innocence into grim reality, Lenny ends her account on a positive note. Caught up in history, the naïve, spoiled, and fortunate little Lenny gains knowledge about the larger world: It is full of deception, injustice, hypocrisy, religious enmity, and cruelty. At the same time she has witnessed the resilience of the human spirit and the power of individual courage. She has also realized the role women can play, women such as Godmother:You cannot be near her without feeling her uncanny strength. People bring to her their joys and woes. Show her their sores and swollen joints. Distilling the right herbs, adroitly instilling the right word in the right ear, she secures wishes, smooths relationships, cures illnesses, battles wrongs, solaces grief and prevents mistakes.
These revelations and the knowledge she has gained from them will serve her well as she enters an uncertain world.
Some reviewers have complained about the narrative voice, observing that Lenny is too precocious for her age. In making such a criticism, they seem to ignore the second narrative voice, that of an unidentified adult who reveals herself rarely. This other narrator stays in the background until Lenny has established her own authority firmly, and she speaks for the first time when Lenny tells how her mother repeats clever remarks the child has made. This scene closes with the line, “Is that when I learn to tell tales?” This “I” is not little Lenny, but an adult Lenny looking back on a moment in childhood. Such a fictional technique seems all wrong: Here is a novel, written at times in an almost lyrical fashion, a historical account told in the present tense, viewed from a child’s perspective except when an adult adds her comments. Yet the technique, however odd, works. The narrator is not a child after all, but the child in the adult.
When the novel was originally published in London, it appeared under the title Sidhwa had intended,
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When the novel was originally published in London, it appeared under the title Sidhwa had intended,Ice-Candy-Man. In the 1991 American edition, the title was changed to Cracking India, because the publishers thought Americans would misunderstand “ice candy” and confuse it with drugs. Unfortunately, the new title diminishes Ice-Candy-Man’s centrality and blurs his symbolic role. In an interview, Sidhwa said that this character represents what she considers the “icy,” unstable quality of politicians who determine the fate of those they rule. In fact, at one point in the novel the second narrator comments, after Lenny relates how her mother took her to see Mahatma (Mohandas K.) Gandhi, “It wasn’t until some years later . . . that I comprehended the concealed nature of the ice lurking deep beneath the hypnotic and dynamic femininity of Gandhi’s non-violent exterior.” Other political figures of the time—Jawaharlal Nehru, Louis Mountbatten, J. C. Bose, Mohammed Ali Jinnah—do not fare much better in the novel, identified as they are with Ice-Candy-Man. As Lenny realizes, it is the ordinary person, a woman like Godmother, who “battles wrongs,” not the remote, icy men in power.
This exquisitely written, tightly constructed novel offers an engaging glimpse into Asian life and a vivid record of a dark chapter in history. At the same time, it follows a child’s education, which prepares her for entry into an adult world whose vilest side she has witnessed at first hand. Finally, the novel presents a vision of a place where feminine values will rule and, in Lenny’s words, where Ice-Candy-Man becomes “a truly harmless fellow,” and where “the guard lets down his guard.”