Author Bapsi Sidhwa met Sikander Khan at a party in Houston. They began swapping memories of Lahore, which was when Sidhwa realised they’d been neighbours as kids.
Book Review by Joanna Lobo | DNA
Khan was just nine when his village in India was attacked by Sikhs during the 1947 riots. Khan’s immediate family was killed and he, with his head sliced open, was left for dead. His mother was probably beaten and raped. But she and Khan, survivors and refugees, eventually made it to Lahore where he stayed in an abandoned house near Sidhwa’s home. This violent past is cast into fiction in ‘Defend yourself against me’, one of the short stories in Sidhwa’s newest book, Their Language Of Love. It tells Khan’s story all the way to the events that bring him to Houston (where he, like Sidhwa, now lives). In a poignant scene, two young Sikh brothers ask Khan’s mother for forgiveness for the sins of their fathers. “I forgave your fathers long ago,” she tells them. “How else could I have lived?”
Sidhwa relies on memories, both personal and those of people she has met, to give life to her stories in Their Language of Love. ‘A gentlemanly war’ is based on her own recollections of the Indo-Pak war of 1965. Her friendship with different American women who lived in Lahore between the 50s and 90s come together to create Ruth, a young, pretty, New England Protestant who moves to Lahore with her husband and finds herself attracted to the dashing Pakistan’s federal minister of minorities. She is the protagonist in ‘Ruth and the hijackers’ and ‘Ruth and the Afghan’. The strongest characters in these two stories is Ruth’s Muslim maid, Billo. Armed with broken English, Billo is feisty: she sets the dog on beggars, snake-charmers and hawkers who dare enter the gate, and doesn’t think twice before lecturing Ruth on matters of apparel and propriety when dealing with men.
Women, in Their Language Of Love, are not only war-ravaged widows but also exceptionally strong, devout and witty people. ‘Sehra-bai’ is the story of an ill 72-year-old woman who reminisces about the times when she had many admirers. She recalls how when she’d walk into a bank, employees were given permission to put down their pens just so they could stare at her. Now, ill and without much to do, she is forced to confront a painful and hidden of her past.
In ‘Breaking it up’, Zareen, a Parsi mother, flies to the USA on hearing her teenage daughter is intent on marrying a Jew, David. When lecturing and emotional blackmail fails, she manages to scare David witless by enthusiastically chattering about diamonds, saris and Parsi wedding customs.
Sidhwa has made a name for herself by writing about the Parsi milieu in her previous books, and some of that heritage is reflected in the book. In ‘Their language of love’, a newly-married Parsi woman on her honeymoon quickly learns how to understand and adapt to her husband’s controlling behaviour. In ‘The Trouble-easers’, a Parsi mother and daughter recite the Zoroastrian story of the woodcutter whose fortunes change after he meets two angels. The story ends with the daughter questioning her mother about this prayer she has been reciting from childhood: how is it that a Muslim woodcutter gets tangled up with Zoroastrian angels?
Sidhwa touches upon some interesting truths: when people live cheek by jowl with people of other faiths, saints jump boundaries and the barriers of animosity fall; the behaviour of foreigner women in Pakistan is usually condoned and indulged in, and religious antagonisms and obligatory reserve of Pakistani women in the presence of men dissipates when they are abroad.
It is these telling and often witty observations on life, marriage, migration, expatriates and on the Partition’s effect on people that make Their Language Of Love worth reading.