Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

When India gained independence from Great Britain in 1947, the subcontinent was divided into separate nations: India, the Hindu homeland, and Pakistan, the Muslim homeland. To carry out this political solution to long-standing religious conflict, millions were forced to move, and this mass migration soon turned into slaughter. While exact numbers are not known, it is estimated that hundreds of thousands died. Those who survived also suffered—becoming refugees, losing fortunes and homes, succumbing to hunger and disease. Countless women were raped, then punished anew when their husbands and families rejected them as polluted. Much of the bloodshed and anguish took place on the Punjabi plains in northern India, a rich farmland intersected by five rivers. Lahore, a major city in the Punjab once known as “the Paris of India,” was given to Pakistan. Because of the city’s strategic position, it turned into a massive refugee camp and the site of some of the worst partition violence.

This is the historical background for Cracking India. The novel’s first-person narrator is an eight-year-old named Lenny. At first consideration, this young girl from Lahore might seem to be a strange voice to tell such a story, for at the outset she admits, “My world is compressed.” Taking full advantage of this limited view, however, Bapsi Sidhwa relates through the eyes of her child narrator the partition story from a domestic standpoint and, more...

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(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

In this retelling of the partition story, the role of women emerges paramount: first as victims, then as saviors. Historical reports show that during the rage of partition violence, women were paraded naked through the streets before mass rapes; their children were thrown into the air and caught on swords as they watched; and their bodies were mutilated, their breasts chopped off. At the same time, women like those portrayed in Cracking India performed heroic deeds and possibly brought some order to the chaos. How often this story has been repeated in place after place, century after century. Although nonstrident in tone, the novel focuses squarely on the victimization of women and on their resilience.

Much of Cracking India was drawn from personal experience. Sidhwa grew up in a Parsi home in Lahore during the 1940’s, suffered from polio as does Lenny, had her own “ayah” (nursemaid), watched the horrors of partition unfold, and must have realized, like Lenny, that in her shaken world she would find the greatest solace among women.

Cracking India is widely admired in Asia and abroad. It was named a New York Times notable book for 1991. During the same year it received Germany’s Liberatur Award, a prize given annually to a non-European woman writer. In 1994 Sidhwa was one of nine authors to receive the Writers’ Award of $105,000 from the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund. This prize acknowledged all of her work, which includes three other novels: The Crow Eaters (1980), a comic novel about Parsi life in colonial India; The Bride (1983), a powerful story of a Pakistani girl’s subjugation and rebellion; and An American Brat (1993), an account of a Pakistani immigrant to the United States who struggles to blend dual cultures and thereby to discover herself.

That Sidhwa, Pakistan’s only internationally recognized novelist, repeatedly examines the role of women in a patriarchal society makes her not only a significant figure in women’s literature but a singular one as well.


(Great Characters in Literature)

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. The chapter on 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 the aftermath. Excellent background reading for Cracking India.

Jussawalla, Feroza, and Reed Way Dasenbrock, eds. “Bapsi Sidhwa.” In Interviews with Writers of the Post-Colonial World. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1992. 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 what 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. 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.

Tharoor, Shashi. “Life With Electric-aunt and Slavesister.” The New York Times Book Review, October 6, 1991, p. 11. Tharoor, a major Indian novelist himself, praises Sidhwa’s ability to illuminate the immense tragedy of partition through the portrayal of a few ordinary lives, and discusses the book from that standpoint. Concludes that Cracking India confirms Sidhwa’s “reputation as Pakistan’s finest English-language novelist.”