Writing is the music in the background of my life – III
Julie Rajan has an intimate chat with Pakistani, Parsi writer Bapsi Sidhwa on life, words and all the cracks in-between
Why do you think it is so? I mean, by comparison, we do not think of the Partition as so evil and terrible as a tragedy like the Holocaust?
It was a devastating moment in our lives and a defining moment in South Asian history. It changed the map of the world. Its repercussions are still being felt; it’s not over. I think it will perhaps be worse than the Holocaust by the time it is over. Then again — you cannot force a generation to produce writers; whoever was capable of writing, wrote. Saddat Manto and Ismat Chugtai wrote powerfully in Urdu.
What do you mean when you say that it will perhaps be worse than the Holocaust?
I mean that we are undergoing the partition and the independence movement still. It is not in the past, it is happening in the present too. I mean — we’re on the brink of nuclear war.
There are so many layers and interdependent issues in Cracking India. But I think that the main theme is identity.
Yes, it is about identity, in a way. People read different things into the book. When readers tell me about what they see in the book, I find it very interesting and I learn from their insights. I was just attempting to write the story of what religious hatred and violence can do to people and how close evil is to the nature of man. Under normal circumstances people can be quite ordinary and harmless; but once the mob mentality takes over, evil surfaces. Evil is very close to the surface of man.
I find it ironic and interesting that although religion should elevate one spiritually and away from material things, it seems to tie us even more closely to our plot of land.
You’re right. It is one of the thorniest ironies of our existence. We’re defining our identity more and more through religion. As nations we have become poorer and poorer, with little to cling to besides an identity as a Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, etc.
In the novel, did you intend to depict the ideas of nationality and religion as fluid and interchangeable, thus pointing to a kind of superficiality?
Yes, but we have to survive. And when the question of survival arises, we’re very adaptive. Man is territorial, like an animal, marking out his territory with his ‘scent.’ Man wants to mark out a larger and larger territory continually. All wars are fought over the desire for more land, more wealth, the possession of others women
Yes, as it is happening in the Balkans now.
In Bosnia, Kosovo, Rwanda. The men rape women, “Oh, we’ll put our seed into these damn women.” Don’t they know that the women are the carriers of the culture, not their seed? Women influence their culture and their children. These things are always going to be there; what happens in Cracking India will unfortunately always be ‘pertinent and timely.’
I also see love as a major theme in Cracking India?
Love exists in its many forms and faces throughout the book. There’s the cruel, pitiless face of love, and the warmth of the love between Godmother and the child, Lenny. The caring and nurturing love between Ayah and Lenny, between the mother and Lenny. Even Slavesister and Godmother, in spite of their constant bickering, have a strong bond. Love takes an awful shape when the Ice-candy-man allows Ayah to be kidnapped by the mob. There are different forms of love in the novel — love of religion, love of land, love of power. With regard to Ice-candy-man, his love constantly changes its shape. He, himself, changes frequently. He’s a slippery character. And, he’s an amalgam of India. India is so multifarious. Ice-candy-man shows that side of love which is obsessive. A lot of cruelty is perpetuated in the name of love and crimes of passion are exonerated because, “It was done for love.” The love between Godmother and the child–an unconditional love, is I think the purest love presented in the novel.
Another major theme in the novel is the concept of power: sexual power, political power. How does the concept of power fit into the novel and which of these do you find to be the most potent?
Definitely the person who wields the sword is the most powerful, the one who has the capacity to wreak havoc, mistreat power. Then again, there are people like Godmother who are also empowered and use their power for good.
What about the sexual content in the novel?
Lenny herself is a very complex character. She is the teenage Lenny, the adolescent Lenny, the old Lenny, the adult Lenny. So, sexuality is very much a part of her life. The novel is set in a part of the world where there is a great deal of sexual repression. In such a situation, sexuality becomes obsessive; when there’s a lid on sex it can permeate your whole being, your whole life. Sexual awareness among girls and boys is very keen at a young age and it does color all their lives. Very often whatever they see is seen through the lens of their sexuality as young people, as adolescents.
Sexuality represents a very strong underlying force in everything — for men, women, children. Like little Lenny who is in love “with roughly 10% of the male population of Lahore.” It is not only men who are promiscuous; women have these urges too. This is one of the few things that I was conscious of doing deliberately. In Pakistan, there is this enormous sexual repression on women, it is a strong undercurrent–you’re not supposed to feel this or that way. You’re supposed to be either very good — or a prostitute. I wanted to show that even this child, who is so innocent and pure, liked people of the opposite sex — that it is natural. I had not crafted this in a “hitting you over the head” fashion. I wanted a gentle, funny, subtle way of getting at that idea.
In terms of the historical accuracy of the book, facts are moved around. Gandhi’s march, for example, is actually 15 years off.
This is the wonderful thing about poetic license and fiction. That’s why it’s called fiction, when you manipulate events to arrive at the larger truth. The eyes of a child allow you also to get away with certain things. I mention Gandhi’s salt march–I knew it had taken place long before. But as a novelist you can take liberties. I feel I can represent history more truthfully this way; what is significant is harvested and revealed in an imaginative way.
What would you say was the overall purpose of the novel?
To function as a recording of a particular history, hoping that one might learn lessons from that history; though I don’t think one does. If we are not going to learn lessons, we are doomed to repeat our evils. Historically, people have gone on fighting each other for religion, for land, for women, for position, for greed — and those elements prevail still. Man’s nature has not changed – but one can try, and hope it will.
Moving on to the movie Earth, how did Deepa Mehta decide to make your novel into a film?
I got a call from Deepa Mehta one morning. She was very excited having just read Cracking India and said she had been searching for me. Deepa loved the book and talked about it for a long time. She asked if she could make the film. She is also from Punjab; when we talked, I felt she understood every nuance of the novel. She understood what was very important–the importance of the Parsi child and her passionate perspective. I told her to go ahead and make the film, and she said, “But what if somebody else calls you tomorrow and offers you more?” I said, “Look, nobody’s offered me anything in four years. I don’t think anybody’s going to call me tomorrow.” I think she was carried away by the book, and, in the heat of that, wrote the script even before the contract was signed – this is exactly how I wanted it to be: that she should love the book enough.
Did you feel that the most important themes from the novel were captured by the movie?
The movie stands on its own. But it has the voice of the child and it has the spirit of the book–it has objectivity and it has the story. A movie is only a two-hour affair. A book is spread over a wider expanse of time. Deepa had to get rid of many incidents and characters. I hated the fact that every time I saw the script it was shorter. Then when the film was made, scenes were thrown out until something that seemed very bare to me was left. I realize now that the film works so excellently because of the cuts.
Do you think Cracking India gained significance because a woman wrote it?
Some books can only be written by women-I don’t think Cracking India gained significance because a woman wrote it. Though I suspect, had a man written an equal book it would have had much more prominence. A Pakistani-Parsi woman is marginalized straight away as a writer.