Waiting at the India International Centre to meet Pakistani author Bapsi Sidhwa, I had formed a mental picture of her by adding a decade to the photos I’d seen on various websites - figuring that those were of older stock. So it was a considerable surprise to see the lady herself. It’s difficult to believe Sidhwa is 67 - it isn’t just that she looks younger, it’s the agility: the keenness of her gaze, the way she sharply and precisely corrects me when I get a detail in one of her stories wrong. Or how she bristles when I remark that she’s written only four novels in 26 years: "That isn’t so meagre," she says, "especially when you consider that two of them are acknowledged classics."
It’s a bit worrying to hear an author refer to her own work as an "acknowledged classic" - but then maybe it’s also hypocritical to expect all writers to abide by the self-effacing stereotype. (Especially when one knows that deep down, most of them really aren’t!) Sidhwa is forthright about herself and her work, and in her defence The Crow Eaters and Ice-Candy Man (presumably the two novels she is referring to) really are solid books, providing fine sketches of a certain time and place and the people who inhabited them.
Ice-Candy Man (alternatively titled Cracking India, "because the term ‘ice-candy man’ had drug associations in the US") looked at Partition through the experiences of a young Parsi girl, Lenny (around the same age Sidhwa was at the time, and similarly polio-afflicted), whose own family isn’t directly affected by the riots but who has an emotional compact with some of the people who are -- like her beloved Ayah, and the local ice-candy man. I read the book around 1999 (when Deepa Mehta’s film version Earth was released) and was impressed by the way it glided, almost imperceptibly, from the commonplace to the horrific: from the quotidian details of Lenny’s family life to the spectre of Partition violence and the emotional betrayal at the book’s core.
Ice-Candy Man had quite a few light moments as well, but nothing in it quite prepared me for the next Sidhwa book I read - The Crow-Eaters, a piquantly funny story about the life of a Parsee family in the early 20th century, and the often-hilarious power struggle between Freddy Junglewalla and his cantankerous mother-in-law. Sidhwa’s first novel, this was seen as something of a milestone in Pakistani writing in English. It was difficult for her to find publishers, and the book reached a wide market only when Jonathan Cape in the UK took it on. This was followed by a brouhaha in the Parsee community, some members of whom objected to the way they had been depicted, and even to the book’s title. "There had been almost no fiction dealing specifically with Parsee life before this," says Sidhwa, "they weren’t used to see ing themselves and their little idiosyncracies portrayed in a book, and so they missed the fact that it was really a very affectionate look at the community."
"Lahore, Lahore hai"
But Lahore has to be the main topic of discussion at this interview, because Sidhwa has just helped edit a new anthology of writings on the city - City of Sin and Splendour. It’s as eclectic a collection as one could wish for in 360 pages. "I’ve tried to cover as many aspects of Lahore as possible," says Sidhwa, "from the historical perspective to aspects of the modern city." Nostalgia is definitely the byword though: there are reminiscences by Khushwant Singh and Sara Suleri Goodyear among others; Ved Mehta's account of returning to his old family home to find that everything, right down to the toilet system, has changed; Minoo Bhandara’s recollection of sitting next to the movie star Ava Gardner in the Regal Cinema "box" as a youngster. Other pieces in the collection include Saadat Hasan Manto’s acerbic "Toba Tek Singh", about a post-Pa rtition exchange of lunatics between Pakistan and India, and Irfan Husain’s "The Way of All Flesh", about Lahori food; the latter might give you dyspepsia just reading it (and, how to say this, I mean that in a good way).
Sidhwa has spent most of her life in Lahore and loves the city (incidentally the book’s dedication is to her daughter Parizad, "the quintessential Lahori"). She believes the age-old greeting "Lahore Lahore hai" ("Lahore is Lahore", implying there’s no place else quite like it) holds as true today as it ever did. "Despite the globalisation, the McDonalds and so on, the place hasn’t changed in its essence. Every year one sees more and more gardens – the government is still very particular about this. The Walled City is more beautiful and neater than its equivalent in Delhi. And poetry is still so alive in the city."
Most of the pieces in this collection reflect this affection for the city. My favourite among the ones I’ve read so far is Ismat Chughtai's delightful account of her visit to Lahore in 1944 on a court summons. Chughtai had been charged with obscenity in her story "Lihaaf", which hinted at a lesbian relationship between a lady and her maid. Given that threatening background, it’s remarkable how high-spirited this piece is. Chughtai might as well be describing a picnic; she isn’t nervous about the trial so much as thrilled about the opportunity it gives her to visit Lahore:
"...words of praise issued forth spontaneously from my heart for the King of Britain, because he had brought a case against us and thus afforded us the golden opportunity of having a festive time in Lahore."
Some of the stories present two different perspectives on an aspect of the city. Pran Neville’s "The Splendours of Hira Mandi or Tibbi", for instance, is an idealised tribute to one of Lahore’s most famous institutions, and mentions the nose-ring ceremony held to mark marked the deflowering of singing or dancing girl. However, the next piece, "Kanjari", presents another aspect of the "diamond market" - the exploitation of young girls. Sidhwa’s own view is that the two aspects coexist. "There is a sordid side but these are the same people who keep classical song and dance alive in Lahore."
Our conversation keeps going off on a tangent (mea culpa): in fragments, we talk about Ved Mehta (who asked her not to mention his blindness in the Contributor’s Notes for the anthology), Sidhwa’s novelisation of Deepa Mehta’s next film Water, and women’s writing in Pakistan ("People are actually very happy when a woman spends her time writing," she quips, "because then she’s shut up in a room by herself"). But Sidhwa is a little behind schedule and the interview must be cut short. Leaving, she’s back to being the publicity-savvy professional. "I hope the story is printed around the time of the book launch," she says, "It’s good for sales."