Bapsi Sidhwa has become well-known as the author of the novel Cracking India, which was made into the 1998 movie ‘Earth’, directed by Deepa Mehta. She, however, has been around for a lot longer than that. As more than one reviewer has pointed out, her first book The Crow Eaters was first published in 1978, a full year before Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. She was born in 1938 in Karachi, Pakistan, into the Parsi Zoroastrian community but later moved to Lahore and grew up there. All her subsequent work, which includes nonfiction (with the City of Sin and Splendour : Writings on Lahore, 2006, being the latest) reflect her identity and experience as a Parsi, a woman and as somebody who witnessed the 1947 Partition of India at close quarters. Ahmede Husain recently talked with her via emails
hmede: Does your background as a Parsi Zoroastrian influence your identity as a writer?
Sidhwa: It certainly does: it has formed my habits, my thoughts, my values, and I have fun portraying my community, as in Crow Eaters. No matter where they are the Parsis are a minority, and the tension this creates compells one to express feelings, ideas, politics etc. Being a Parsi also can also make a writer a more objective observer perhaps.
Ahmede: In Water we see you narrate the story of an eight-year-old against the backdrop of Indian independence movement. This little girl has been abandoned at an ashram after the death of her husband. We see this theme of an individual’s presence in history coming back to your work like a leitmotiv. Can you explain this for us?
Sidhwa: I like the way you’ve put that question. One cannot really remove an individual from his/her political or historical context. The Partition was one of the defining moments of our history, and the mass exodus and carnage affected millions of lives in the subcontinent. Unfortunately too little has been written about it in fiction. It is our history and shapes what we are today. Gandhi’s influence in moderating bias and injustice benefited the subcontinent in substantial ways.
How do you perceive the role of religion in the social and cultural life of South Asia?
Sidhwa: Religion is so subjective: I think we each mold it to suit our needs. I think religion appeals to what is noblest in humans. It has nourished and brought peace to us through the ages. It has also been misused by those in power to benefit themselves and wreak havoc in its name. In the subcontinent I grew up in, one learned from infancy not to discuss it, and to respect other people’s religion.
Ahmede: As a woman coming from Pakistan, how free do you feel as a writer?
Sidhwa: There are thousands of women writers, journalists and poets in Pakistan. Writing is a solitary activity — it does not entail interacting with men, and as such is considered a suitable and even laudable pursuit. Of course there is the extremist element who are ready to take umbrage at what they consider to be “fawsh” or obscene, but luckily they are not given to reading fiction. I find quite raunchy stuff written even in Urdu. I am disappointed though that my books are not taught in colleges and schools because of this prudery.
Ahmede: You, we all know, write in English, a language that has once been imposed on the people of the region where you come from; and at the same time, people of South Asia have embraced English at the latter half of the last century and have modified it significantly. What is your response to this issue?
Sidhwa: Although Gujrati is my mother tongue, English is the only language I learnt to read and write in. It has become the dominant language and people in most countries are striving to learn it for commercial or scholarly benefit. It was perhaps among the better features imposed on us by the British. I have no problem incorporating the Punjabi, Parsi, or Pakistani idiom in my fiction.
Ahmede: Does the concept of South Asian fiction really exist? Or it’s only the people and region that defines the genre?
Sidhwa: Well, people need to compartmentalize for convenience; it makes life easier for many professors in the West also. But I do find the definition limiting if not demeaning – each writer stands on his or her merit in the community of world writers.