She's a born storyteller
SONYA DUTTA CHOUDHARY
Novelist Bapsi Sidhwa talks about her writing, her best-known book about Partition and her latest one on Lahore.
Late bloomer: Bapsi Sidhwa.
BAPSI SIDHWA is in Bombay to promote a book of writings on the city of "sin and splendour" that she grew up in pre- Partition Lahore.
I meet her at her cousin's elegant, old time Parsi apartment in South Mumbai. The heritage-like flat with its dark teak furniture and copper urns looks out onto an expanse of the Oval Maidan, onto the Rajabai Clock Tower and the gothic spires of the Bombay High Court.
It's a sumptuous setting. Also one that's immaculately appropriate for the petite Punjabi-Parsi- Pakistani writer sitting across me. Indeed this could be a still from a Merchant Ivory film. The fair 67-year-old writer, clad in a pink salwar kameez, with her carefully modulated tones, certainly looks the part. (The closest she's come to this, she confesses, is a cameo in the Deepa Mehta directed "1947 Earth", a film based on Sidhwa's classic story on Partition The Ice Candy Man.)
The last few days have been hectic as journalists and their photographers line up back to back. A TV shoot the day before, of the Houston-based writer hunting for bargains on Colaba's colourfully chaotic Causeway bazaar, has left her with a bad back. She also has a bad stomach ("All that Bombay duck," she exclaims, "I can't have enough of it.")
We talk of her days in Bombay, the five years of her first marriage. Sidhwa, like her eight-year-old heroine in the Ice Candy Man, had childhood polio and wasn't allowed to go to school. "I came to Bombay like a country bumpkin," she declares. "My first husband said, `you can't walk; you can't talk. What you can do?'"
Still, it was a city the young woman found enormously liberating. "Unlike Lahore where everybody knew you, in Bombay there was a wonderful anonymity, you could wear what you liked and just get on a bus".
Like Madhu Jaffrey, who tells an interesting ugly duckling story of how unattractive she felt as a young woman until she moved to the U.S. and threw her spectacles into the Atlantic, Sidhwa too, discovered the confidence of being a late bloomer.
Years later, on her second marriage honeymoon to the mountains, her first novel came to her ("I'd never written before", she says, "just some stupid little piece on pregnancy and how if you walked too far front you were carrying a boy"). It's a story I've read of before, but Sidhwa tells it beautifully, in the manner of a storyteller born. She describes the remote mountain fastnesses between Afghanistan and Pakistan ("you could lose a herd of elephants in there, let alone Osama bin Laden") and tells the tragic tale of a runaway young bride bought as a wife for a tribal man. The short story she set out to write (in secret, she was afraid she'd be laughed at), turned eventually into her first novel The Pakistani Bride.
Trauma of Partition
Interestingly, the story she'd carried inside her almost all her life that of the terrors and traumas of Partition was to emerge much later in 1988 as The Ice Candy Man (published in the U.S. as Cracking India as "ice candy man" had colloquial connotations of a drug supplier).
It's an immensely powerful book, written from a child's point of view and based on Bapsi Sidhwa's own terrified memories. As she writes in an essay for The New York Times of those times, "Yet the ominous roar of distant mobs was a constant of my awareness, alerting me, even at age seven, to a palpable sense of the evil that was taking place in various parts of Lahore...(And when) the dread roar of mobs has at last ceased, terrible sounds of grief and pain erupt at night. They come from the abandoned servants' quarters behind the Singhs' house... why do these women cry like that? Because they're delivering unwanted babies, I'm told, or reliving hideous memories."
Later that evening, at the book's formal launch at a city bookstore, strangers come forward emotionally with their Partition stories one lady wants the book of writings on Lahore autographed for her mother who used to live in Lahore, two young students from Xavier's introduce themselves, "We did a presentation on you." Question hour is animated.
Journalist Anil Dharker asks her, "You look so gentle and genteel. How then do you manage to write such ribald stuff?"
Sidhwa splutters, "But my writing is very decent I don't write like writers like ... er ... Philip Roth" (the infamous Portnoy's Complaint being a prime example!).
"If a writer writes about a boy's sexual urges it is perfectly natural; but girls also experience the same feelings, the daze and the dazzlement, so how does that become ribald and indecent?" she queries, still smarting under the recent U.S. high school controversy on a couple of burgeoning sexuality scenes in The Ice Candy Man.
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