Friday, March 29, 2013

When Colours Turn Muddy

Is Holi really the festival of colours? Well, in some imaginative, idealistic notions, it must be. However, as a non-participant on Holi festivities, yesterday I saw less of an iridescent display of colours, and more of black faces, muddy water and police patrol-plus-barricading, enough to give a feel of an imminent curfew. Is that what the festival of Holi has come to mean and symbolise?

Within the comfort of my house, I smeared colours on the faces of a handful of neighbours. Not for once did I feel like stepping out. Not alone, at any cost. Why? Because Holi has come to mean a threat to me and my body. I am sure a lot of girls would agree with what I am trying to convey here. There are so many outstation girl students I know, who, if devoid of a large and protective friends’ circle, lock themselves up in their rooms, too scared to venture out till late afternoon, when the Holi festivities have subsided. What kind of a festival is it which restricts a girl’s mobility or makes her feel unsafe ?

It doesn’t start (or end) on the Holi day. It begins much before. A week in advance, suddenly, the guys of your city get a free licence to accost your bodies with water-balloons, often also filled with colour dyes. Now, I am not saying that girls are their only target, but perhaps my exposure has only been limited to that aspect of their festive mischiefs. An innovation I recently came to know off, via troubled rantings of a college friend is stuffing water balloons with eggs and then using them as a harmless Holi weapon. How cool? Right? No. It is not. It is harassment, to say the least. On our way from college to an all-girl’s market trip, I and two other friends of mine were hit by two water balloons in a moving auto. I know the pain and the impact it created on my arm, and can only imagine how my other friend, who was hit on the cheek, would have felt. All this in the name of festival fun. Needlessly said, the girl’s day out had to be cut short, for who would want to roam around in market places with wet clothes, clinging to one’s body. The world is not short of ogling men now, is it? Oh, and it was not some innocent five year-olds who had played Holi with us in their own twisted way, but lanky teenaged lads. I wonder where do they adopt this tradition from, if it can be called that. One more water-balloon assault later, I decided to stay away from travelling to college till Holi gets over.

What perhaps I have dictated is a minor ordeal, if one may even call it that. The pain my arm experienced subsided in no time. There are, however, many hideous tales of Holi molestations I have heard from here and there, which stay on to pain girls till years later. Holi is a licence for men to touch, run and even maul a female body. Have you ever felt a male hand touching you at inappropriate places under the pretext of colouring you up because that is what the tradition demands? Have you ever seen men, ostensibly your family members, first drench you in front of a crowd, and then admire the shape of your body as the intoxication of bhang strengthens? I am not claiming this is the rule. I am only saying that this happens too. I have been lucky it never did with me. But many of my acquaintances have not been so fortunate. Even worse, many, I am sure, are not aware how an excuse of Holi is used by men to intrude into what is their space, the threshold of which should only be crossed upon gaining consent.

All these thoughts came running to my head after I saw a large gang fight break out in a slum dwelling visible from my house. All faces were painted black, the only difference perceivable being in the shape of bodies distinguishing men from women. Intoxication and loud music perhaps gave a fillip to whatever the argument was about and fight of the muddied faces kept on getting stronger. What caught my attention in this madness was a woman caught in the exchange of blows, who could only manage to wriggle free when she was thrown outside the fighting group to land on her haunches on the wet ground. The next I noticed was a police van hauling up the ruffians (that’s how they all looked) and dead silence returning to the field of frenzied celebrations.

May be this is not the way the civil classes celebrate Holi. They have their other civil ways of making this a festival of fun, amusement and entertainment. Holi is said to be the festival which is a great leveller. All faces, coloured in similar hues, are made free of distinctions of caste and class. The one distinction that does remain, however is that of gender. Perhaps that is the reason why a DU girls’ hostel had to seek a ban on a Holi procession, alleging obscenity in the all-male parade taken out in Delhi University’s North Campus every year. The girl residents claim that crude remarks and indecent gestures made by those boys amount to harassment, and this despite being accompanied by police each year. This is the condition of our education eden, infiltrated, of course, by some who are labelled ‘anti-social elements’.

Amid all these harrowing feelings about Holi, what gives me pleasure is the soft touch of my ten-year old nephew’s fingers applying variegated hues of gulal on my face. It gives me pleasure to see sweet gujias being exchanged among neighbours and relatives who scarce find an opportunity to meet in their otherwise hectic schedules. It also gives me pleasure to see the sweet playfulness dissolve and dissipate, for one day, hierarchies within families. And the best piece of news I heard was from Benaras, where the widows this year celebrated a floral Holi. Radha and Krishna, whose Holi celebrations shade our legends and folk songs, would be happy to see a dash of colour in the lives of those consigned to colourlessness. It were the sufi peers who saw Holi as the coming together of communities and smearing on each other not just gulal, but love. I wonder where the spirit of Radha Krishna, of the sufi traditions of Holi is lost.

Still, I do hope you all had a wonderful Holi, which was safe, vibrant and full of mirth!

Image Source - Photographs by the hugely talented Snigdha Manoli Menda. Used with permission. 

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte - A Classic I Love!

“Charlotte Bronte’s story of a plain orphan girl whose superior qualities are finally acknowledged and who gains the reward of love and power has become the modern version of the Cinderella tale; for Jane not only wins her Prince Charming but does so by steadfastly asserting her independence, becoming thereby not only his consort, but his queen.” – Margaret Bloom

There is something extraordinarily unique about Jane Eyre. Not only was it an extremely
popular text at the time of being first published, but it continues to revel in its popularity and readability around a century and half later. And this, despite being subjected to harsh tones of criticism, for not one, but many of its aspects. Jane Eyre is a text for a winter morning – to run warmth through a cold atmosphere. It is a text which girls read and re-read, and snuggle with in their quilts, losing themselves completely to the travails and passions of the eponymous protagonist. It is a text invariably occupying a position of pride in a confessed literature lover’s library. It is not just a text which is read and appreciated; it is one which is absorbed.

Having said that, what is it about Jane Eyre that makes the book relevant till date, not just for literary aficionados, for the average common lover of fiction? It has got something to do with Charlotte Bronte’s ability to convey the most personal emotions in a vivid and touching manner, and then to convert that personal into universal. In her own words, Charlotte Bronte is known to have said that she did not believe in the surface imitation of life. She was interested in unravelling the deeper human nature, by exploring its depths. “I want to voice the inner tragic experiences of human beings”, said Charlotte Bronte. She was interested in the ‘inner photography’ of life. It was thus, quite natural, for the story of this headstrong, independent and lonely girl to strum the chords of familiarity in every reader’s heart. Charlotte Bronte’s passionate narrative made this story transcend the border of specificity and become a general sketch of a woman’s life in Victorian England.

Jane Eyre is today deemed a classic. It is a canonical text, loved by generations of readers. It primarily belongs to the bildungsroman genre, because it follows the journey of Jane till her adulthood. It has for its heroine a woman plain and ordinary, but only in so far as her looks are concerned. Charlotte Brontë herself described Jane Eyre as "small and plain and Quaker-like". She is a passionate, headstrong young woman, confronting the world with her morals, integrity and ideals firmly in place. She is a woman who undertakes a lonely adventure against patriarchy, and also against oppressive existing notions of love. Bronte advertised it first as an autobiography. The title page of first edition says - ‘Jane Eyre: An Autobiography edited by Currer Bell’. Currer Bell was, of course, the pseudonym adopted by Charlotte Bronte. Curiously, this adopted name is gender neutral, for in the Victorian market, the gender of the author was an important determinant of the saleability of a novel. It goes without saying that female authors’ works were read lesser than those of their male counterparts.
The whole novel can be demarcated into five distinct stages – Jane’s time as a child at Gateshead; her experiences of oppression, as well as friendship and affection at Lowood; her job as a governess and her tryst with love at Thornfield; her time spent at Moors with Saint John Rivers and his sisters; and finally, her union with Rochester, back at Thornfield
Charlotte Bronte was revered for her characterization. She has given the world two extremely memorable characters in Edward Rochester and the eponymous, Jane Eyre. And, in bringing them together, Bronte has gifted to the world an amazing, passionate, intense, unconventional and cherishable love story. Jane’s love for Rochester, and his for her, manifests in the many walks they take together. Jane is influenced so much by Mr. Rochester’s company that she finds her "blanks of existence were filled up; bodily health improved; [she] gathered flesh and strength." For her, Rochester’s "presence in a room was more cheering than the brightest fire". Now, why would any romantic heart not sigh at such emotions, which are also emoted so well! It is said that envy is one of love’s most intrinsic facets, especially in the initial stages of an affair, when passions are smouldering hot. In Jane Eyre, envy manifests as a sure-shot sign of love held in Jane’s heart for Rochester. In fact, Rochester exploits this particular fallibility of lovers to help Jane discover her true emotions for him.

In the preface to the second edition of Jane Eyre, Bronte had asserted ‘conventionality is not morality’. An iconoclast, she then set out to demolish many of the set ideals and norms of caste, class, gender and occupation which the Victorian society was mired in. One of the myths she broke was that of love. She succeeds in propounding and concretising the New Love ethic, which endures till date as a state to aspire for. Though a story of immense struggles faced and braved by the protagonist, romantic union comes as a succour for the readers who are drawn to empathetic depths in this tale. The classic notion of subsuming of two lovers into one as an essentiality towards consummation of love is challenged throughout the novel by vehement assertions of independence, but Bronte does a flip towards to end when Jane is seen as perfectly blissful in becoming a part of Rochester’s being. However, this Cinderella-esque ending does well to give a sense of closure to the continuous tribulations Jane faced in her life. There is no need to rate a classic, but still, even among classics, I have books I hate. Since this is one I love, I think 4 stars on 5 is what I will give it, and I will end this review with quote reflecting Jane's marital bliss - 
“I have now been married ten years. [...] No woman was ever nearer to her mate than I am: ever more absolutely bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh. I know no weariness of my Edward´s society: He knows none of mine, any more than we each do of the pulsation of the heart that beats in our separate bosoms; consequently, we are ever together.”

Monday, March 25, 2013

Revenge of the Naked Princes by Oswald Pereira - A Review

Just when you thought its over, the best deal, it is not! It leaves you craving for more, by giving you thrill, adventure, blood-curdling details and by closing at a point you least expected. These were my first thoughts as soon as I shut the book, and raced into my blogger account to type out this review.

Author and veteran journalist Oswald Pereira had already entered my list of favorites with his debut novel - The Newsroom Mafia, published in late 2011, which I had the amazing fortune of reading and reviewing. I was bowled over by the author's prowess at story-telling and engaging his audience. What Mr. Pereira has done with his second book - The Revenge of the Naked Princess - is that he has concretized and validated his position on my list of authors to reckon with, or to look forward to. Why am I more impressed this time is because while the earlier novel's premise drew from his field of expertise - journalism - this book's plot is one which focusses on his creative imagination and dedicated research to churn up story which is haunting, and extremely engaging.

Revenge of the Naked Princess is a period thriller, set in the 16th century, around the time when Christian missionaries had begun coming to India to pursue their goal of adding numbers to Christ's kingdom. Drawing from this premise, the novel sketches the story of the tribe of Yehoorwada, which was subjected to the brutal madness of conversions by a Portuguese mission led by Brigadier Braganca and his ecclesiastical partner, Father Francisco. Together, in the name of Christ, they unleashed on the locals a reign of indescribable cruelties, combining acts of physical, psychological and sexual violence to make them toe the holy line. The tribals of Yehoorwada were fighters, led by their able and fiery princess, Darshana Kamya Kathodi, a skilled archer, who is subjected to the worst kind of humiliation at hand hands of Braganca and his men - she is stripped and raped till she dies, and her wounded spirit ascends to heaven only to return one day in her macabre form to wreck revenge on all those who brutalized her community, her body, and her soul. What unfolds then is a tale of fury, of corruption, of hypocrisy, of exploitation and of fantastic adventures which make this book an absolute page-turner.

The book begins with action - hooking on a reader from the word go. Then falls the great onus on a writer of sustaining his audience's interest as the story progresses. This is an area in which Oswald Pereira does not disappoint, because with every new chapter you start, the story just keeps getting better. The tale makes you writhe in anger at the kind of atrocities which in the name of religion are perpetrated on indigenous tribes, not sparing even women and children. While most of the novel is full of gory details of conversion rituals, and the exploitative culture which is established by the so-called devout Christians, the book also does have its amusing moments, captured in the realm of fantasy, to which the novel travels during the latter half. That is the beauty of this work - it is where facts and history meet imagination and fantasy.

Mr. Pereira is excellent, yet again, at creating characters which persist in your imagination. Whether it is the two-faced Father Francisco, the ruthless Brigadier Braganca, of the traitor-convert Joseph Lawrence Pereira, all glow in their distinct characterization. And how can one ever forget the picture of naked protagonist, dark but radiant, coming back to seek her revenge, whose eyes are full of both, innocence and fury. By focussing on her nakedness, the author, I believe, has done his bit to make naked the ugliness which persists below the shiny veneers of religiosity. That religion is not something to be imposed from above or to be practised in rituals is a theme repeated in the novel time and again. It is something to be cherished and observed at the deepest level, for God resides not in external relics but in the observer's heart.

This book is a 3.5 star book for me. It has all the makings of a perfect read. Easy language. Short chapters. Lucid narration. Thrill inducing episodes. Extremely engaging plot. Freshness of concept. And so much more to discover when you actually pick it up from the stands. Strongly recommended!

Monday, March 18, 2013

Reflections on Mahesh Dattani's Tara

Mahesh Dattani’s is one of India’s foremost playwrights – someone who takes keen interest in wading through the tempestuous waters which our society finds itself struggling with, by adhering to ideas, notions and practices which scarce are servants to reason or logic. Dattani sees in society what others conveniently ignore. He calls them the ‘invisible issues’ of our society, permeating our culture, affecting our daily existence; yet, people somehow collude to maintain a tacit, steadfast silence on them. It is once in a while, that a voice like that of Dattani is heard, who in his own, carries the voice of many other voiceless characters nature has given birth to and society has destroyed. “Giving Voice To The Voiceless” is the title of one of the works referred while writing this paper, and how apt does it sound in terms of describing Dattani and the essence of his works.

Tara, earlier published as Twinkle Tara, is one of Dattani’s plays, which deals with notions and conditions of gender. In a poignant story of two Siamese twins, this play unearths the many dishonourable tendencies which exist in the underbelly of our society even today when we have come around to fooling ourselves into believing that we celebrate womanhood. Tara also does well to depict the dynamics of a family which is dealing with a situation society does not define a precept for. It is a unique situation – bringing up twins, who were conjoined at birth, separated after a surgery and who now live with one artificial limb each and extremely fragile health conditions. With ease, yet with force, Dattani depicts the bizarre, but universally accepted philosophy of women playing second fiddle to men. Woven into the narrative of the play are issues of class, of conflict between the modern and traditional lifestyle, of the inexpressiveness of filial love, and the clash between new and old value systems.

In an interview with Lakshmi Subramaniam, Dattani had himself made a statement – “I see Tara as a play about male self and female self, and the male self being preferred in all cultures. The play is about the separation of self and the resultant angst.” In these lines of Dattani, it becomes amply clear, that this play is being enacted as a microcosm of the practices and psyche of the society. History has been witness to a cruel and inherent bias against its female members since ages. Societies have come and gone, but the politics of gender have never been completely erased from its face. Invariably, it is the society which assumes a deterministic role over the life (and body, as we will discuss in later paragraphs) of a girl, which ordains tenets for their existence. This ‘society’ is usually a male set-up; if not that, it is heavily patriarchal or patrilineal in character. 

Discrimination against women is not limited to India. However, when it comes to conducting an academic inquiry into prejudices which females suffer merely by the virtue of their biological characteristics, India is a land rich and vibrant with stories and practices and rituals which can put one’s beliefs in right and wrong to shame. In Tara, in which the family is constructed as a credible, average Indian household, grappling with a unique problem, the bias against Tara, vis-à-vis her twin, Chandan, is clearly visible, without the need for any ornate dialogues or visuals. This bias is present in the way Tara is treated by her father, in the way Chandan is expected to conform to certain roles and abstain from certain activities, in a repentant mother’s lament for the future of her daughter, and more than anything, this bias is present in the story of Tara’s birth. This bias, perhaps, is also visible in the telling of this story, which will be understood once the process of Tara and Chandan’s separation and the gender politics there-in is understood.

As mentioned earlier, Tara and Chandan are conjoined twins. Birth of conjoined twins is an extremely rare phenomenon, and in most cases where they are surgically separated, only one of the two survives. Chandan and Tara, however, carry with them the promise of living as two separate individuals. They have perfect chances of surviving after surgery, with each important organ present in each body. There is, however, one issue. The boy and the girl, together, have three lower limbs, and chances of the limb surviving on the girl are more, as stated by Dr. Thakkar, also present in a significant role in the play. In a cruel judgement, the mother of the twins, Bharati, with the help of her father, convinces Dr. Thakkar to graft the leg onto Chandan’s body, where it does not survive for long! Thus, there seems to be something destiny ridden in the way both twins are again made equal – they both now boast of one Jaipur foot each. What is interesting to note here is the application of gendered role of a girl. Since time immemorial, female body is seen as a means for comforting, rejuvenating and even entertaining the male body. Going a step further, it would not be wrong to assert that female body is also seen as an instrument for alleviating male deficiencies and deformities. The body of a girl has often been seen akin to a territory, with many claims to it, which passes on from hand to hand, which has human (man) making decisions for it. Poor Tara, even before being given a chance at a full life, is deprived of it, because the classic male-child-preference psyche operates here, in this case. There is a certain cold ease with which the mother (microcosmic representation of the society), strips the girl of the right to live as an able bodied, complete woman and seizes from the girl which is biologically, and hence naturally hers.

The author - Mahesh Dattani
A carefully placed conversation in the text of Tara is about one of the most hideous cultural practices of that India which considers its daughters as curses. In a scene between Tara, Chandan, their next-door-neighbour and extremely garrulous Roopa and Bharati, a practice of drowning infant daughters in milk is mentioned in a rather subtle and casual way. Though the deed of choking daughters on a nourishing white fluid is ironic and hideous, the essence of that scene is not in creating awareness among the audience that such practices in India exist (In Gujarati community specially, as per the play). The catch in that scene is in the attempt of Bharati to stop Roopa from revealing to her twins this practice. Why does she do that? May be, an acute undercurrent of guilt operates in her system. May be, she equates, in her mind, the act of killing an infant with what she did to Tara, by depriving her a chance at a full and healthy life. 

More intriguing is the character of Mr. Patel, Bharati’s husband, who had no role to play in Tara’s deprived existence, but who sure is the reflection of a quintessential male-head of the family in a patriarchal society. Patriarchy is a social system in which the male acts as the primary authority figure central to social organization, and where fathers hold authority over women, children, and property. It is also a system in which division of labour is clear and roles expected from gendered selves pre-ordained. There are not any premeditated, conspiratorial acts conducted against the woman; patriarchy is more of a way of living. As evident in the play, Tara is dearly loved by her father, but Patel has lofty expectations from his son. He scolds his wife for making a sissy out of him when he observes him helping in some domestic chores. He insists on taking Chandan to his office in the face of his absent interest, and doesn’t take the suggestion of replacing him with Tara in the office trip too kindly.What their daughter is worthy of is some human consideration and compassion, but nothing beyond. This ethos is articulated in a powerful dialogue by Bharati addressed to Chandan – “It’s all very cute and comfortable when she makes witty remarks. But let her grow up. Yes, Chandan, the world will tolerate you. The world will accept you – but not her!”

Bharati does try to reduce her burden of guilt by showering enormous maternal affection on Tara. She, realizing her sin, leads a stigmatized motherhood, consequently suffering nervous breakdown and metamorphosis. She cultivates disproportionate compassion for Tara in an effort to seek salvation and exonerate herself by donating a kidney to her daughter, but not before Dattani makes it amply clear that the affection of mother-daughter relationship is subordinated and subjugated to the demands of a patriarchal society. Therein lies the tragedy of the narrative. Patel, her husband, is not in favour of Bharati donating her kidney. In fact, he goes ahead and finds a commercial donor. When confronted by Bharati, Patel replied rather sternly, without any cushion, that he does not want Bharati to donate her kidney “because I do not want you to have the satisfaction of doing it.” This one sentence is ponderable, and has disturbing socio-cultural interpretations. Bharati is still insistent, and even succeeds in her desire of giving Tara a part of herself, but she, her husband and the society fail miserably in letting Tara live. As mentioned in one of the essays on this play, Tara eventually wastes away and dies.

One of the saving graces of Tara’s life is perhaps the kind of special relation she shares with Chandan. Chandan refuses to join college unless Tara does. He recognizes his sister’s interests and personality and accepts that she might be a stronger person than him (“I’m sorry if I don’t have your strength!”). He calms her in her moments of distress and understands her more than is in the capacity of anyone in the world. A dialogue which surmises Chandan’s love for Tara most aptly is, “No difference between you and me? That’s the nicest thing you have said to me.” In Chandan’s words we witness a lament of everything that cannot be. The relation between him and his sister is special, but is ridden with emotional tribulations of the harshest kind. Metaphor and perhaps prophecy for the separation of these two souls, so much in communion with each other, is visited at the very beginning of their existence. Two operation tables being put together and then pushed apart – two loving souls brought close and then violently separated, never to come back together again. The image of separation at the operation table translates into jarring emotional parting between them, the effect of which is so profound on Chandan, that he escapes his identity, becomes Dan and sets out to narrate Tara’s story, essentially trying to find a completion to his own. The place where Chandan (or Dan) falters is when he becomes the agent of perpetuating the wrong done to Tara in her life. Chandan had always been interested in writing, and when he sets down to write Tara’s story, he writes it as his own tragedy. He apologises to Tara for doing this – “Forgive me Tara. Forgive me for making it my tragedy.”

Dattani’s play, as would be evident by now, has an overwhelming relevance to contemporary realities. It is important to ask in this context, how appropriate is it to use the medium of theatre to send across messages which are strong and which need to be sent across. The function of the drama is not merely being to ‘reflect the malfunction of the society but to act like freak mirrors in a carnival and to project grotesque images of all that passes for normal in our world’ (‘Gender Discrimination and Social Consciousnes Tara by Mahesh Dattani’, Khobragade Grishma Manikrao). “There is inseparable relation between the play and the audience. Every setting, action and characterization in the drama is performed keeping in mind the audience and viewers of the play as every act has to be played live and in as it is manner.” – Writes Vivekananda Jha is his paper on Tara, titled ‘Discrimination of Class and Gender: Mahesh Dattani’s Tara. Jha also adds words of appreciation for Dattani by stating “As a playwright, Dattani has peerless power to transform his script into living and natural performance.” Tara is specifically relevant in our times of burgeoning foeticide, infanticide and increasingly adverse sex ratio. When a sentiment is enacted on stage, there lies more to it that mere words. Non verbal communication plays a great role in conveying to the audience what readers might never be able to read in between the lines. In an interview about Tara, Dattani clearly mentions that evoking sympathy about Tara’s character was not the single-fold focus of undertaking this writing exercise. It was also to shed light on the feminine side of males, which when expressed, is met with disdain and disappointment. 

When asked what gave him the idea for writing Tara, Dattani mentioned it was a medical journal elucidating on Siamese twins and goes onto add , “It was the inspiration but I think by then having written Dance Like a Man, I was prepared to take on the gender issue head on, and I think that was a powerful metaphor. Again, you know, the play is misread and, you know, people tend to focus on the medical details but that’s really not what the play is about. It’s a metaphor either for being born equal as male and female and sharing so much more and with the surgical separation comes a cultural distinction and prejudices as well, but on another level, it could also deal with the individual having the male and female self and half the female self is, whether your gender is male or female, is definitely given the lower priority.” In this journey which Dattani undertakes to shed light on the way gender is perceived and constructed in our cultural milieu, he more than succeeds at touching the hearts of his audience (as well as his readers). He gives Tara an identity, which is strong enough to become a metaphor for the various wrongs perpetuated on women kind in our society, whether in infancy or adulthood. Or even in after life.
·         Mee, Erin, Collected Plays by Mahesh Dattani, Penguin
·        Jha, Vivekananda, Discrimination of Class and Gender: Mahesh Dattani’s Tara
·         Mukherjee, Tutun, ‘I do not write merely to be read’ – An Interview with Mahesh Dattani, The Hindu
·         Acharya, Pankaj, The Socio-Psychological Aspects of Discrimination in Mahesh Dattani’s Tara, International Research Journal
·         Manikrao, Grishma Khobragade, Gender Discrimination and Social Consciousness In The Plays of Mahesh Dattani: Tara

(This essay is an abridged version of the paper I wrote as a part of the optional course, titled 'Indian Writing in English', during semester I of Masters in English Literature at Jamia Millia Islamia)

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Ice Candy Man by Bapsi Sidhwa - A Review

 "I feel so sorry for myself—and for Cousin—and for all the senile, lame and hurt people and fallen women—and the condition of the world—in which countries can be broken, people slaughtered and cities burned—that I burst into tears."
There are important strains of narrative which often history forgets to recollect. There are voices of countless millions which are muffled in discourses which tell us of our past. Thankfully, for the readers today, where the historian fails, the literary writer emerges and succeeds. It is a writer who dares to construct a parallel track of history which talks not of politics, or war, or heroes, or leaders, but of the silent sufferings of the oppressed masses who are most affected by events which can be considered watershed moments in history. 

One such watershed moment in the history of not just India as we know it today, but the entire sub-continent is the Partition. Scholars have remarked that partition is one of those events which has not died, which continues to live on in the hearts and minds of people - which is an inseparable part of the story of the birth of our modern nation. However, partition was not just about Jinnah, Gandhi, Nehru or Mountbatten. It was not an event which can be surmised in statistics of death and destruction. The partition had many stories behind it, one of which Bapsi Sidhwa, is her acclaimed novel - Ice Candy Man - has tried to unearth. 

Ice-Candy Man is a novel which shows you the pre-partition and post-partition world through the curious, innocent and observant eyes of Lenny - a 10 year old daughter of a Parsi household. Ridden with a deformity in her leg, Lenny is under continuous care of her Ayah - Shanta - who is perhaps the most influential person in her life. Ice Candy Man is essentially Ayah's story. It is the story of her world - the one of domestics - and of her  many harmless affairs with men belonging to her social strata. Of the many who admired her and had particularly obsessive-possessive tendencies towards her was the titular character - the ice candy man. Ayah, after flirting with ice candy man, finds comfort in the warm and affectionate presence of another of her admirers - the masseur. Our titular character does not take Ayah's transgressions lightly, and wrecks revenge on her in the worst possible way. 

Besides the story of these individual characters, the story of a nation is taking shape in the background. India is on the verge of partition, and Bapsi Sidhwa, in her novel, has unravelled the impact the impending partition was going to have on the Parsi community in Lahore - a community which can be called the minority of the minorities. This community has a history of mixing within the cultural landscape of place like sugar in milk - but with an event as large as the partition looming large in front of their eyes, they could not remain totally detached from the fanaticism of communal politics being played out in front of them. One of the most powerful characters of the book, in fact, is a Parsi matriarch, called Rodabai - Lenny's Godmother - who represents a very firm and progressive facet of Parsi women in the pre and post-partition society. Ayah, being a Hindu residing in Lahore was one on whose body the frenzied destructive dance of partition had been performed - whatever little salvation could come her way came from Rodabai.

Bapsi Sidhwa, herself being a Parsi, has written a novel which is so credible in its delineation of characters and events, that it is not difficult to believe that a Lenny, or Rodabai, or Ayah might have existed in Lahore in 1947, to see their land being ravaged by the forces of communal hatred. This novel had earlier been published under the title 'Cracking India' - to signify the cracks which had occured not just on India as a geographical entity, but to emphasize on the fragmentation which had occured in psyches, cultures and among people. There are strong autobiographical tones in the novel, for Sidhwa also had a limp in her leg - identifiable with the narrator of the novel. The narrative dwells on not one, but many issues - political, communal and sexual. She does a wonderful job particularly of reflecting on the female condition. Even better is Sidhwa's prowess at characterization. The character of Ice Candy Man had been one of the most interesting and complex characters I have come across in fiction - and his psychology has been the toughest to decode. 

This novel was also adapted into a film by Deepa Mehta, called 1947 Earth. A great cinematic experience, the film however does not do justice to the novel's narrative, because it foregrounds the love story between Ayah, Ice Candy Man and masseur, leaving out the portrayal of many important issues Sidhwa dwells upon in the book. 

The language of the book is comprehensible - the only problem a reader might face while reading is in terms of the continuity of narrative. The book follows a simple linear narrative technique, but takes a lot of leaps between scenes which make it difficult to keep pace. However, it is a novel to make you cry, to make you think, and to stay with you till long after as a blatant, but sensible reminder of all that was not considered important enough to be reported by historians. A 3.5 star book for me, but strongly recommended. I would have tagged this at 4 stars, but I read a few partition books in quick succession, and a few turned out to be a tad more amazing than this one. 

I would also like to recommend two more works by Bapsi Sidhwa - Water and The Pakistani Bride - both of which take up serious social issue and present them to you in a manner which makes you sad, angry and finally leaves you in a contemplative zone.