Bapsi Sidhwa’s fiction deals with both the pre and post-colonial period of the subcontinent. Her fiction not only brings to life the horror of the Partition but also vividly portrays the complexities of life in the subcontinent after Independence. What makes her work interesting from the post-colonial point of view is the way in which she re-writes the history of the subcontinent. In Ice-Candy-Man, Lenny, the young narrator, in the process of narrating the story of her family re-writes the history of the subcontinent, thereby undercutting the British view of history imposed on the subcontinent.
In An American Brat Sidhwa highlights the predicament of the Pakistani people in general and of the Parsi community in particular. Thus, while in Ice-Candy-Man Sidhwa grapples with the realities of the pre-Independence period, in An American Brat she highlights the phenomenon of neo-colonialism in Pakistan. What is most remarkable about her work is her dual perspective, which is based on both the Pakistani and the Parsi point of view. She speaks both for the Pakistanis and the marginalized Parsi community.
Sidhwa’s re-writing of history in Ice-Candy-Man is far more complex than it appears to be since she re-writes history not just from the Pakistani but also from the Parsi point of view. In order to highlight the Parsi dilemma at the time of the Partition she goes back thirteen hundred years to the significant moment in Parsi history, when they “were kicked out of Persia“ and “sailed to India.” After waiting for four days on the Indian coast they were visited by the Grand Vazir, with a glass of milk filled to the brim, symbolizing that his land is full and prosperous and in no need of “outsiders with a different religion and alien ways to disturb the harmony.” However, the Parsi forefathers, intelligently, “stirred a teaspoon of sugar into the milk and sent it back,” symbolizing that the Parsis “would get absorbed into his country like sugar in the milk. And with their decency and industry sweeten the lives of his subjects.” The short account, whether true or not, highlights the dilemma the Parsis have faced over the centuries—the dilemma of assimilating themselves into an alien culture and risking the loss of their identity.
The impending partition of the country, as depicted in the novel, might prove that all the efforts the Parsis have made over the centuries to assimilate themselves into Indian culture are futile since the community all of a sudden faces the threat of extinction in the wake of the Partition. Thirteen hundred years ago, the Parsis had tried to accept Indian culture with all its diversities, but now at the moment of Partition they might be forced to take sides with one of the dominant communities/religions in India—Hindus, Muslims or Sikhs. Thus Sidhwa undercuts the received historical view that the Parsis were totally indifferent to the partition of the country. Instead of indifference the Parsis had a complex attitude towards Partition, as brought out in the main-hall meeting in the Fire Temple. Col. Bharucha, the president of the community in Lahore, argues that the Parsis should shun the anti-colonial movement and stick to their long standing stance of loyalty to the British Empire. He warns the Parsis that once we get Swaraj, ”Hindus, Muslims and even the Sikhs are going to jockey for power: and if you jokers jump into the middle you’ll be mingled into chutney!”
However Dr. Moody points out that it is not so simple. The Parsis cannot remain uninvolved and will have to take a stance otherwise, “our neighbours will think that we are betraying them and siding with the English.” This, however leads to a further complication, as voiced by a fellow Parsi, when he asks: “”Which of your neighbours are you going to betray? Hindu? Muslim? Sikhs?” This remark brings to the foreground the bitter fact that even after thirteen hundred years the Parsis feel alienated in the subcontinent. Their alienation from all the major communities in India ultimately forces them to support “whoever rules Lahore.” Col. Bharucha suggests, “Let whoever wishes to rule! Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Christian. We will abide by the rules of the land.” Thus Sidhwa by giving voice to the marginalized Parsis demonstrates that their choice of remaining neutral in the context of the Partition was not out of indifference but forced upon them by a complex historical reality.
Sidhwa, further, demonstrates that the neutral stance adopted by the Parsi community vis-a-vis the freedom struggle did not prevent them from participating in the freedom struggle in whichever way they could. M.F. Salat observes that Sidhwa contradicts the received discourses by showing the “silent but positive role played by Lenny’s parents in helping both the Hindu and the Muslims,” suggesting that “the Parsis too were involved in their own ways in the events of the time and that they were not just indifferent and passive onlookers to the awful human tragedy:”
Salat observes that it is a revelation meant not only for Lenny but also for all those who are ignorant of the Parsi involvement in the Partition when Lenny’s mother explains the secret of her suspicious outings. She explains: “I wish I’d told you … we were only smuggling the rationed petrol to help our Hindu and Sikh friends to run away. And also for the convoys to send kidnapped women, like our Ayah, to their families across the border.”
This theme is further developed in her next novel An American Brat, where the Parsi community is shown actively participating in Pakistani politics. Instead of keeping a neutral, detached stance, Ginwalla family is passionately involved in the country’s current political crisis. Zareen at one point voices her concern over her daughter’s intense involvement in “Bhutto’s trial.” Her concern for her daughter, however, does not stop her from working in “many women’s committees with Begum Bhutto.” Feroza even when she is in America, remains acutely concerned about the crisis in her country. She is totally shocked to hear of Bhutto’s hanging. On coming back to Pakistan, she voices her disappointment at being inadequately informed about Pakistan‘s current political scenario: “I want to know what’s going on here. After all, it’s my country!” Thus Sidhwa exhibits that the Parsis, both in the pre and post-Independence period, instead of showing indifference to the country’s politics, have been actively involved in it.
Sidhwa in Ice-Candy-Man as mentioned earlier, rewrites history from the Pakistani point of view also. In an interview with David Montenegro, she clearly states this agenda:
The main motivation grew out of my reading of a good deal of literature on the partition of India and Pakistan … what has been written by the British and Indians. Naturally they reflect their bias. And they have, I felt after I’d researched the book, been unfair to the Pakistanis. As a writer, as a human being, one just does not tolerate injustice, I felt whatever little I could do to correct an injustice I would like to do. I have just let facts speak for themselves, and through my research I found out what the facts were.
To counter the British and Indian versions of the Partition, Sidhwa in Ice-Candy-Man not only tries to resurrect the image of Jinnah but also demystifies the image of Gandhi and Nehru.
The sublime image of Gandhi constructed by British and Indian historians is totally undercut when he is seen through the eyes of the seven-year-old narrator, Lenny: “He [Gandhi] is small, dark, shrivelled, old. He looks just like Hari, our gardener, except he has a disgruntled, disgusted and irritable look; and no one’d dare pull off his dhoti! He wears only the loincloth and his black and thin torso is naked.” According to Masseur, Gandhi “is a politician” and “it’s his business to suit his tongue to the moment.” Similarly Nehru is a shrewd politician who in spite of all the efforts of Jinnah “will walk off with the lion’s share.” Nehru, according to the Ice-Candy-Man is “a sly one… He’s got Mountbatten eating out of his one hand and the English’s wife out of his other what not … He’s the one to watch!”
Even though Sidhwa tries to depict the atrocities committed by Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs without partiality, being a Pakistani writer she makes it obvious that her sympathies are with the Muslim victims. Not only is the Sikhs’s attack on Muslim villages in Punjab described vividly, but also it is seen through the eyes of the Muslim child Ranna, which shifts the reader’s sympathy towards the Muslims. In an interview with David Montenegro, Sidhvva observes, “the Sikhs perpetrated the much greater brutality—they wanted Punjab to be divided. A peasant is rooted in his soil. The only way to uproot him was to kill him or scare him out of his wits.”
Sidhwa’s Use of English Language
Another interesting feature of Sidhwa’s writing from the postcolonial perspective is her use of the English language. In fact, language is a major preoccupation of the postcolonial writer. Should the writer write in the language inherited from the imperial power or should he/she revert to the native language? An opposing stance has been taken by the two African writers Chinua Achebe (Nigeria) and Ngugi wa Thiong’o (Kenya) vis-a-vis language in postcolonial literature. Ngugi after writing his earlier works in English has rejected the language and now writes in his native language Gikuyu.
Ngugi’s point is that language has been always used by the colonizer to mentally and spiritually control the colonized: “The domination of a peoples’ language by the languages of the colonizing nations was crucial to the domination of the mental universe of the colonised.” By continuing to write in the colonizer’s language, one is colonized on the cultural level, and instead of enriching one’s own native language and culture, one only ends up enriching the European traditions. However, writers such as Chinua Achebe and Gabriel Okara disagree. Achebe argues: “‘I feel that the English language will be able to carry the weight of my African experience. But it will have to be a new English, still in full communion with its ancestral home but altered to suit new African surroundings.” He best demonstrates this new English in his much acclaimed work Things Fall Apart.
Sidhwa’s stance is in line with that of Chinua Achebe. In her interview with Feroza Jussawalla, she states:
My first language of speech is Gujrati, my second is Urdu, my third is English. But as far as reading and writing goes I can read and write best in English. I’m a tail end product of the Raj. This is the case with a lot of people in India and Pakistan. They’re condemned to write in English, but I don’t think this is such a bad thing because English is a rich language. Naturally it is not my first language; I’m more at ease talking in Gujrati and Urdu. After moving to America I realized that all my sentences in English were punctuated with Gujrati and Urdu words.
So, even though Sidhwa writes in English, it is a new English— an English punctuated with words from the native language. However, it is not a simple addition of words from the native language to English. While the writer translates a number of words from the, native languages, a large number of words are also left untranslated. For instance, the following words, in Ice-Candy-Man, have been translated: “pahailwan, a wrestler”, “Choorail, witches”, “Shabash, Well Said!”, “Ghar ki Murgi dal barabar. A neighbour’s beans are tastier than household chickens”, “Khut putli, puppets”, “Mamajee [Uncle].” In An American Brat, almost every word and phrase of the native language employed in the novel is translated by the writer in a “Glossary” at the end of the novel. For instance: “Badmash: scoundrel,” “Gora; white, in Urdu,” “Heejra: eunuch or transvestite.” What such a translation of individual words does? Bill Ashcroft et al in The Empire Writes Back observe that such translation of individual words is the most obvious and most common authorial intrusion in cross-cultural texts. Juxtaposing the words in this way suggests that the meaning of a word is its referent. But the simple matching of words from the native language with its translated version in English reveals the general inadequacy of such an exercise. The moment a word from a native language is juxtaposed with its referent in English, instead of clarifying the meaning, it shows the gap between the word and its referent.
Bill Ashcroft et al argue that the implicit gap between the word from the native language and its referent, in fact, disputes the “putative referentiality” of the words and establishes the word from the native language as a cultural sign. For instance, let us take the word “Kotha” from Ice-Candy-Man, which is translated as “Roof in the novel. However, it is made clear in the novel that the word “Kotha” does not simply mean “roof,” but is a place of prostitution. This gap between the word “Kotha” and its English translation “roof establishes “Kotha” as a cultural sign.
Apart from these words, in Ice-Candy-Man, there are certain other words from the native language which are not translated, such as: “sarka’r”, “yaar”, “doolha”, “chachi”, “Angrez”, “chaudhary”. What purpose is served by not translating words of the native language? The use of untranslated words “is a clear signifier that the language which actually informs the novel is an other language.” Even though the Ice-Candy-Man is written in English, the untranslated words remind the reader that the language of conversation of the characters is not English but Urdu and Punjabi. The untranslated words are part of the strategy of the postcolonial writer to highlight the cultural difference.
Apart from using the strategies discussed above, Sidhwa, to highlight Muslim culture, quotes various Urdu poets in her narrative. Ice-Candy-Man opens with Iqbal’s poem “Complaint to God.” At the beginning of chapter 13, the quote from Iqbal’s poetry is a good example of the poet’s anticolonial stance:
The times have changed; the world has changed its mind.
The European’s mystery is erased.
The secret of his conjuring tricks is known:
The Frankish wizard stands and looks amazed.
The European’s mystery is erased.
The secret of his conjuring tricks is known:
The Frankish wizard stands and looks amazed.
To conclude, Sidhwa through the Ice-Candy-Man successfully questions the British and Indian versions of the subcontinent’s history and provides an alternate version of history based on the Pakistani point of view. In An American Brat, she voices the social and political chaos in Pakistan generated by the forces of neo-colonialism. In both the novels, she has succinctly adapted the English language to suit her purposes. Further, she has not just provided the marginalized Parsi community with a voice but also a large number of Pakistani readers. She is justified in saying:
I think a lot of readers in Pakistan, especially with Ice-Candy-Man, feel that I’ve given them a voice, which they did not have before. They have always been portrayed in a very unfavourable light. It’s been fashionable to lash out Pakistan, and it’s been done again and again by various writers living in the West. And I feel, if there’s one little thing one could do, it’s to make people realize: We are not worthless because we inhabit a poor country that is seen by Western eyes as primitive, fundamentalist country only.