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Heady mix of magic, fantasy
and history : Bapsi Sidhwa

A uthor of four internationally acclaimed novels, The Crow Eaters (1982), The Bride (1983) Ice-Candy Man (1991) and An American Brat (1993), Bapsi Sidhwa was born in Karachi, Pakistan and raised in Lahore. She graduated from Kinnaird College for Women, Lahore, and began writing after the birth of two children. The Ice-Candy Man was declared a New York Times Notable Book for 1991, received the LiBerature Prize in Germany and was nominated by the American Library Association as a Notable Book the same year.

Sidhwa's novels have been translated into German, French, Italian and Russian. In addition, stories, reviews and articles have appeared in New York Times Book Review , Houston Chronicle, Harper's & Queen , The Economic Times, and the London Telegraph.

Sidhwa held a Bunting Fellowship at Radcliffe/Harvard in 1986, and was a Visiting Scholar at the Rockefeller Foundation Center, Bellagio, Italy, in 1991. She received the Sitara-i-Imtiaz, Pakistan's highest national honor in the arts, in 1991, and the Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Writer's Award in 1994.

She has worked on the advisory committee to former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto on Women's Development, and has taught at Columbia University, University of Houston, and Mount Holyoke College.

She was the Fanny Hurst writer-in-residence at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. An American citizen now, Sidhwa lives in Houston, Texas, and frequently visits Pakistan.

You have said: "Writing has been my savior, my hobby and my love. It has been my passion. It is the music in the background of my life." But you started writing when you were already a mother of two children and you then lived in Pakistan where publishing in English was practically non-existent. Why did you take to writing? Was it to fill void? Or were you looking for some kind of fulfillment?

I was the mother of two children by the time I was 22. I think I wrote because I had a compulsion to communicate, to tell stories, to shed light on forgotten people, to right wrongs, to fill the silences in my life, to express the thoughts that engorged my mind - the list can go on and on. I wasn't looking for fulfillment, but the act of writing gave me great joy, in that sense it fulfilled me.

You confessed you wrote your early novels secretly? Why? You also self-published The Crow Eaters. Did all this make the task of a writer more difficult?

Our friends and relatives were all business people and to confess I wrote would have exposed me to ridicule. I would be considered affected and at best thought to be writing romantic nonsense. Writing in a vacuum didn't bother me - in fact I can't imagine writing as a team effort. But one writes to be read, and The Bride and The Crow Eaters gathered rejection notes from both sides of the Atlantic: It was heart-breaking to read that the publishers loved my writing but felt Pakistan was too remote in time and space for my work to be commercially viable. My agents in the U.S. and U.K. gave up after two years, and I gave up writing. I was able to write Cracking India only after Jonathan Cape published my novels to encouraging reviews in Britain.

It is often said that with The Crow Eaters you started a trend in comic realism in Parsee fiction and, in a broader sense, South Asian fiction. The Pakistani publication of this novel predates Rushdie's Midnight's Children by three years and its British publication by one year. You also paved way for the blend of magic and fantasy with history that was to become the trademark of sub-continental fiction in the eighties and nineties. When you look back do you see yourself as a trendsetter?

I don't know if I was a trendsetter or not, but my work has influenced a great many writers; and not only in the Indian subcontinent. But that's what writers do - they influence each other. R.K. Narayan and V.S. Naipaul were humorous writers, but I think I unwittingly introduced a bawdy, irreverent element that had never shown itself in Indian fiction: at least not in English, and certainly not by a woman writer. My writing, I think, had an uninhibiting effect on many writers.

The partition of India and Pakistan is a recurring image. Why?

The Partition changed the map of the world; it was a defining moment in our history. It affected so many of our lives, often tragically, and continues to affect our lives at a personal level. Sometimes I feel half my life was spent in filling out visa forms and citizenship papers. Then again, the events at Partition were dramatic, and the writer's instincts do gravitate towards the dramatic.

In your 1997 essay in Time magazine you write: "I was a child then. 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." How much of it do you remember?

Dormant memories about the Partition came alive when I was writing. Not only of the chanting of the mobs, but the stories I heard as I was growing up; the hush-hush whispers about what happened to so-and-so's mother, daughter, brother etc. which I couldn't understand as a child but which I was able to decode as an adult. I saw a lot of fires and the plight of refugees, and the people who took refuge in our house and whom my parents helped. The scene where a handsome murdered man tumbles out of a gunny-sack made me realize, even as a child, the futility of the wasted life. I didn't realize till the film (Deepa Mehta's Earth, based on The Ice-Candy Man) was being made, and they couldn't fit the masseur (the Muslim masseur loves the ayah, much to the chagrin of the Ice-Candy man) into the sack, that the man's legs must have been dismembered. These terrible memories lie dormant most of the time but surface whenever I hear of communal trouble - or during the rampages such as occurred in Bosnia and Kosovo or wherever there is wanton killing, looting and raping.

In The Ice-Candy Man you look at the Partition through the eyes of a child. Is it because it gives you an objective perspective? And does it take cue from your own life? You were home-schooled because you were afflicted with polio, so is Lenny, the child narrator in the novel.

I made a few false starts with the novel and suddenly the first paragraph came to me with its distinct voice and child's perspective and I knew instinctively it was right. Yes, I did feel a child's perspective could be more objective, particularly a Parsee child's. Inhabiting the child's persona made me realize also the clarity of an innocent child's take on events - she has not yet learnt adult prejudice; the hate and contempt that exists between people of different faiths. Witnessing evil through the eyes of innocence makes it all the more chilling.

Talking of the book, why did you change the name The Ice- Candy Man to Cracking India for the American edition. Any specific reason?

My American publisher felt that the book would disappear through all kinds of cracks unless the title said something about the book. At least people who were interested in India would buy Cracking India. While The Ice-Candy Man could be mistaken for a book about drugs.

The theme of the book vacillates between identity, love and power - sexual and political power. What is the most important?

Gosh! That's for you to figure out I think. I wasn't conscious of any of these aspects as I wrote; I guess they are all intertwined. Politics and power go together, and sex plays a larger role in our lives than most people from the subcontinent care to acknowledge. Love can be pure and supportive, as between Godmother and Lenny or it can take a cruel and manipulative aspect as demonstrated by the Ice-Candy Man.

Your most recent novel, An American Brat changes the scenario completely. The story hops from Lahore in Pakistan to various cities across America. You explore the life of a young girl who moves to America, falls in love with a Jewish man. The novel elaborates on the issues of diaspora and questions of cultural identity and racial difference. This change in locale also compelled some critics to say that An American Brat is the least uncharacteristic of all your novels. Do you think so?

An American Brat is a descendant of The Crow Eaters . I'm surprised critics don't see the connection. But the styles in all my novels are very different. Of course the change in the cultural and geographical locale to America does change the way the material and the way it is handled.

Just before you wrote this novel you yourself moved to the U.S. and acquired an American citizenship. Is America a more comfortable canvas to work on?

The American canvas cannot be mine the way it belongs to someone born and brought up in America. I am much more at ease writing stories about the subcontinent, or about desis in America. It is harder for me to create American characters, and to that extent writing An American Brat took a lot of courage.

You have described yourself as 'Punjabi-Pakistani-Parsee'. Has any one of these identities shaped you as a writer more?

All three identities are present in each of my novels and inform each sentence I write. I should include Indian too, because I would have been a different writer had I not spent eight years in Bombay [now Mumbai] and become an Indian. All these cultures and landscapes have influenced my material and me as a person and as a writer.

You have recently contributed to the book To Mend The World: Women Writing About 9/l1. What is the essay about?

It is a 15 page essay called A Selective Memory for History and focuses mainly on the relationship between America and Afghanistan. It reminds Americans of the role of the Mujahideen in defeating the Soviet Empire and how, their purpose served, the Americans walked away from a ruined Afghanistan.

What are you working on right now?

I am working on a play, which has gone through various incarnations, and which will be produced in London by a small theater company in Spring, 2003. I have contributed an article for a book To Mend The World: Women Writing About 9/l1 Edited by Marjorie Agosin (a Chilean activist and poet teaching at Wellesly) and Betty Jean Craig. In fact I seem to end up writing a lot of essays and articles for books and newspapers. God alone knows when I will get back to completing my collection of short stories. I'm also working with Deepa Mehta on the film script of The Crow Eaters.

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