Ice-Candy-Man has strong women characters who want to forge their independent identity. In a patriarchal set-up which is essentially discriminatory against women and emphasizes on conditioning them for life-long and willing subjugation to men, the women of Ice-Candy-Man are not only conscious of their desires, but also eagerly assertive about their independent handling of situations.
The male characters, despite the fact that they initiate almost all events of the novel, remain peripheral and apathetic, lacking the will to change and transcend their circumstances. The women characters “subtly but effectively subvert the ingrained elements of patriarchy, privileging female will, choice, strength along with the feminine qualities of compassion and motherhood.” Ice-Candy-man can undoubtedly be termed as a feminist novel—the traditional novel eulogizes the heroic qualities of men only, while in feminist narratives women acquire such attributes by their active involvement in and control of situational contexts. Lenny, the narrator in Ice-Candy-Man is also the centre of the novel, retaining her independent identity in diverse situations. Her attitude towards her nameless cousin significantly portrays the feminist need for assertive equality. At this point it shall be interesting to note that all women’s writing may not be necessarily feminist. A piece of writing which justifies, propagates or perpetuates discrimination against women cannot be termed as feminist. Only that artistic work which sensitizes its readers to the practices of subjugation and opposes them can be treated as being feminist in nature. Ice-Candy-Man not only sketches and critically reviews the dehumanizing patriarchal norms engendering a discriminatory social climate, but also portrays the struggle against them, as well as the desire to manifest an assertive self-will on the part of its women characters.
Lenny, the child narrator of the novel, witnesses the barbaric cruelties of the Partition days, including the inhuman commodification of women. Yet what emerges as the dominant note or thematic motif in the novel is not the victimization of women, but their will and sustained effort to fight against it and overcome it. Most of the other Partition novels in English, as well as in other languages, have concentrated largely on the helplessness of women pitched against oppressive male forces. Khushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan, Manohar Malgonkar’s A Bend in the Ganges in English, and the short stories of Saadat Hasan Manto and Kishan Chander in Urdu highlight the trauma women had to undergo during the catatonic times of Partition. Even the more contemporary authors have not been able to escape it. They have talked about the national trauma of Partition using the device of the child narrator and taking the linear time narration. Sidhwa on the other hand treats the theme of Partition with a clever juxtaposition of images and an underlying ironical humour without compromising with the innate independence of women.
Lenny is a handicapped girl representing a miniscule minority. She is also free from the effect of social conditioning most of the sub-continent girls have to undergo. She is a young, curious and vivacious child, eager to know what is happening around her and participating in it vigorously. The socio-religious divide creates in her an awareness of her own identity, but even prior to that she had become conscious of the creation of the gender, the socially accepted role of women and girls, and also of her burgeoning sexuality. She is aware that her “world is compressed.” This awareness is intensified when Col. Bharucha prophesies her future, “She’ll marry, have children—lead a carefree, happy life. No need to strain her with studies and exams.” Lenny observes the gender-based relationship in the society and accepts it as a peripheral part of her experiences, without allowing it to colour her own individuality. She notices how in Col. Bharucha’s clinic a woman has to discuss her child’s health through her husband. During her visit to Pir Pindo she notices how Khatija and Parveen, the adolescent sisters of Ranna, like the other girls in the village, already wear the responsible expressions of much older women “affecting the mannerisms of their mothers and aunts.” They are perplexed by Lenny’s cropped hair and short dresses.
These early impressions of Lenny, presented with multiple strains of irony, humour and wit exhibit her awareness of gender stereotypes. She perceives many differences in the personality traits and interests of men and women. However Lenny is neither influenced nor conditioned by her perception of gender based social stereotypes—that she assertively retains her interests is evident in her attitude towards her Ayah, Hamida and her cousin. When godmother arranges a meeting with Ayah, Lenny insists on accompanying her. She feels that Ayah has been wronged and ashamed by her friends and she shares her humiliation. She wants to “comfort and kiss her ugly experiences away.” She does not think that sexual exploitation should remain a stigma for any woman, “I don’t want her to think she’s bad just because she’s been kidnapped.” She also keeps Hamida’s past a secret under the impression that if revealed her mother may sack her. Her sympathy bonds her to all the women characters in the novel.
Very early in the novel the reader notices Lenny’s consciousness of her own burgeoning sexuality. Her open background and liberal upbringing make her receptive to her early sexual stirrings. She enjoys the admiring covetous giances Ayah receives from her admirers and displays traditional feminine smugness and coquetry. She vividly portrays Ice-Candy-Man’s toes, Avail’s furtive glances towards Sharbat Khan and the Masseur’s intimacy with Ayah. Her relationship with her cousin, allowing clandestine forages into physical intimacies, shows her mental independence. During their walks to the bazaars and gardens she irreverently points out boys and men to her cousin whom she finds attractive. She sums up her attitude neatly when she says, “Maybe I don’t need to attract you. You’re already attracted.” Cousin angrily complains to godmother, “She loves approximately half of Lahore . . . why can’t she love me?”
Despite the pressures of socially constructed gender-roles and expectations the awakening of an individuality which is pulsatingly present in Lenny can be felt in other women characters too. Lenny’s mother belongs to the privileged economic strata of the society. She can engage several servants to look after the children and other daily chores. She is kept busy with her social obligations—entertaining guests and partying exhaust her time. Lenny’s physical handicap has generated a sense of guilt in her which often surfaces in her conversations. She says to Col. Bharucha, “It’s my fault, I neglected her—left her to the care of Ayah.” Lenny admires her delicate beauty, but resents her “all-encompassing” motherliness. She is initially possessive about her mother but soon learns to cope with it. Her mother’s voluptuous appeal generates a subtle jealousy too in her psyche:
“The motherliness of Mother….How can I describe it? While it is there it is all-encompassing, voluptuous. Hurt, heartache and fear vanish….The world is wonderful, wondrous—and I perfectly fit in it. But it switches off, this motherliness….”
Mother’s motherliness has a universal reach. Like her involuntary female magnetism it cannot be harnessed. “… I resent this largess. As father does her unconscious and indiscriminate sex appeal. It is a prostitution of my concept of childhood rights and parental loyalties. She is my mother—flesh of my flesh—and Adi’s. She must love only us!”
Lenny is given ample personal space by her mother. Though decisively controlling and channelizing her children’s lives, she allows them to frolic around and view life from their own standpoints. Lenny is permitted to accompany Imam Din twice to a village Pir Pindo, her visits to parks and restaurants with Ayah are also unchecked. She is also able to effortlessly control the entourage of servants and run her household effortlessly. Despite her liberated handling of children and a modern life-style, she is very much a traditional wife, humouring constantly the wishes of her husband. She is almost servile in her attitude towards her husband, coquettishly appeasing him and trying to create an atmosphere of pleasant mirth around him. Lenny sceptically looks on when her mother chatters in saccharinely sweet tones to fill up the “infernal time of Father’s mute meals.”
Though Lenny is not able to decipher it, her remarks hint at the presence of an inner void in her mother’s personality. Most of the women writers have hinted at the presence of an inner hollowness in the lives of women, which is often shielded by the deceptively beautiful screen of their social graces and obligations. For women like Mrs. Sethi, social elegance is not simply a pleasure, it is also a bondage, because herein they are forced to accept their role as female.
The conversation during the party the Sethis organize for the Rogers and the Singhs explicitly suggests that it is a woman’s erotic capacities, not her intellectual calibre, which is integrated with the life of society. Her driving sprees along with the Electric-Aunt to smuggle petrol in order to help their stranded Hindu and Sikh friends, and the rehabilitation of Hamida shows her humanitarian understanding of the situation, and also a desire to do something meaningful.
A major part of the novel’s discussion is centred on Lenny’s Ayah Shanta. She is a Hindu girl of eighteen and everything about her is also eighteen years old. Though she is employed with considerate masters, her condition is that of an unprotected girl whom everybody treats only as a sex object. Looking at Ayah, Lenny also becomes conscious of her sexuality:
“The covetous glances Ayah draws educate me. Up and down, they look at her. Stub ended twisted beggars and dusty old beggars on crutches drop their poses and stare at her with hard, alert eyes. Holy men, marked in piety, shove aside their pretences to ogle her with lust. Hawkers, cart-drivers, cooks, coolies and cyclists turn their heads as she passes, pushing my pram with the unconcern of the Hindu goddess she worships.”
While the sexuality of Lenny’s mother lies beneath the veneer of sophistication and unfulfilled longings, Ayah’s is transparent and self-serving. She is fully aware of her sexual charm and uses it without any inhibition to fulfill her desires. She has accumulated a good number of admirers who regularly assemble in the Victoria Garden—the Ice-Candy-Man, the Masseur, the Government House gardener, the restaurant owner, the zoo-attendant, and a knife-sharpening Pathan are her regular admirers. Lenny also learns to identify “human needs, frailties, cruelties and joys,” looking at these people during her outings:
I learn also to detect the subtle exchange of signals and some of the complex rites by which Ayah’s admirers co-exist. Dusting the grass from their clothes they slip away before dark, leaving the one kick, or the lady, favours. … I escape into daydreams in which my father turns loquacious and my mother playful.
Ayah uses her charm to obtain easy gains—cheap doilies, cashew nuts, extra serving of food etc. She successfully uses her charm as a strategy of survival and manipulation till the violence of Partition destroys her familiar world. Her portrayal also represents the male exploitation of female sexuality. Ice-Candy-Man manages to kidnap her with the help of some hooligans and forces her into prostitution. Despite her conviction that she is now an impure person, she retains her will to go back to her family and face life anew. Her refusal to admit defeat despite physical and emotional mutilation and her determination to probe into future alternatives imparts a moral courage to her.
Godmother and Slave sister—Rodabai and Mini Aunty—are other major female characters in the novel who are presented with a sense of glee. The one-and-a-half-room abode of her godmother is termed as her haven by Lenny, her “refuge from the perplexing unrealities of my home on Warris Road.” She is also a surrogate mother for Lenny in a mutually fulfilling relationship. Her portrayal is presented to us by Lenny in a fascinated manner, as if she is an idolized entity. She is presented as an old lady, plainly attired in Khaddar sarees, covering herself from head to foot, possessing a penchant for sharp wit, accurate repartee and a profound understanding of human psyche.
She makes it her business to know everything about everybody, and tries to help people whenever she can. She donates blood, seeks admission to a boarding school for Ranna, traces the Ayah and manages to send her back to her people. She is a formidable person too and scolds the Ice-Candy-Man for disgracing the Ayah, “Oh? What kind of man? A royal pimp? What kind of man would allow his wife to dance like a performing monkey before other men? You’re not a man, you’re a low-born, two-bit evil little mouse!”
Despite Slavesister’s protest she permits Lenny to accompany her to Ayah’s place. She is also a sensitive person. When she realizes that Ayah, despite her marriage with Ice-Candy-Man, does not want to live with him, decisively sets about to rescue her. Pier Paolo Piciucco comments that the plot of the novel comes to a head because of the Godmother. Her visit to the Ayah has the trappings of a trial: she sits and acts as a judge. Unlike other female figures of the novel Godmother has transcended her sexuality and emerges as an authoritative presence, able to achieve her desires. She incarnates the ideal of strength in female characters.
Godmother’s attitude towards Mini Aunty, whom Sidhwa has very aptly termed as the Slave sister, draws the reader’s attention for its incongruous eccentricity. In her dealing with people outside her immediate family circle she displays compassion and understanding, but her attitude towards her husband and her sister is shorn of such sentiments. She fully dominates her household in which her husband is only a peripheral presence. She is insensitive, churlish and cruel to her sister and constantly bosses over her. Her sister does all the household chores, while she only criticizes her nastily:
If you think you have too much to cope with you can live someplace else.
Don’t think I’ve not been observing your tongue of late! If you’re not careful, I’ll snip it off. . . . God knows, you’ve grown older— and fatter—but not up! This child here has more sense than you.
Lenny adores her godmother as she tights her battles for her though it cannot justify the Slave sister’s exploitation.
Muccho, the sweepress, and her daughter Papoo are other female characters who can be mentioned here. Muccho takes Papoo as her rival and saddles her with all the household chores, beating and abusing her on slightest pretexts. Ayah and other servants constantly try to save the young child from this abuse but often their efforts are fruitless. Once she had to be admitted to hospital for two weeks as she had concussion as a result of her mother’s severe beating. But despite this senseless maltreatment, Papoo cannot be browbeaten into submission. She is strong and high-spirited, but as Sidhwa suggests very early in the story, “There are subtler ways of breaking people.”
Muccho arranges her marriage with a middle aged dwarf whose countenance betrays cruelty. Papoo is drugged with opium at the time of ceremony to suppress her revolt. Lenny curiously studies Muccho’s face during the wedding ceremony and is startled to find a contented smile on her lips—”smug and vindicated.” The sketch of Muccho suggests that women themselves are unconsciously bound by their conditioning and saddle their daughters with a repetitive fate, treating marriage as a panacea of all ills.
The women-characters of Ice-Candy-Man draw our attention to the facts of victimization of women and their compulsions to define their lives according to the pre-fixed gender roles. They also expose the patriarchal biases present in the archetypal social perceptions. Lenny, the child protagonist, recognizes these social patterns and exhibits the vivacity to transcend them. She also records the multi-faceted trauma women had faced during the unsettling and devastating days of Partition. The narration of the story by a girl-child ensures that the surrounding world would be seen through a feminine eye. The novel presents women as a “twice oppressed category on stage: firstly, as human beings suffocated by violence and secondly, as women burdened by the bond and impositions of a patriarchal society.”