Interview with Bapsi Sidhwa, Writer

Suneetha Balakrishnan on behalf of ELJ

Bapsi Sidhwa has penned five novels, Cracking India (also called The Ice Candy Man), The Pakistani Bride, The Crow Eaters, An American Brat, and Water (the last a film of the same name by Deepa Mehta). Her latest work Their Language of Love, a collection of short stories, has been released recently.

ELJ: Tell us about those initial days of your writing career. How tough were things at that time for a writer? How did the process of writing happen? Could you share something about the time when your very first book was published?

BS: I heard the story of a young Punjabi girl when I was honeymooning in a camp in the Karakoram Mountains. The sapphire tumult of the Indus and the lofty mountains took my breath away and I heard this hair-raising and tragic story of this young girl. When I returned to Lahore, I thought I'd write a short story, but it turned into my first novel: Pakistani Bride. In 1978 I was advised to self-publish The Crow Eaters after receiving rejection notes from the UK and the US. They said they loved the book, but who would want to read about remote Pakistan? When the self-published book was launched at Intercontinental Hotel in Lahore, the hall was emptied out because of a bomb threat. Some days later we realized the Parsis, who had never been written about before in fiction, were very offended by the book and a member of the Parsi community had phoned in the bomb threat. The Crow Eaters was published to acclaim by Jonathan Cape in Britain in 1980.

ELJ: You've been writing for three and a half decades. How would you say your writing has evolved during this period in terms of the themes and characters you choose for your books?

BS: The initial energy and obsession, which started with The Pakistani Bride, continued until I had written my five novels. With age, the act of sitting at the computer to write became painful and my writing slowed. Thereafter, I wrote my first collection of short stories: Their Language of Love. I feel I want to be closer to my memories now. My gift for writing carries me through anything I set my heart on.

ELJ: You're considered one of Pakistan's first writers to be writing in the English language. How differently have your books been received by the readers (especially women) in the East and West?

BS: My books have had an overwhelming reception in the East. They've done pretty well, also, in the West. I think men and women have about equally liked my work.

ELJ: You said somewhere that your works have been influenced by Ismat Chughtai and Manto. What about Western writers? Are there any influences from among them on your works?

BS: I love to read the two authors you've mentioned, but I have been influenced by every book I've read, particularly The Pickwick Papers by Dickens and Anna Karanina by Tolstoy.

ELJ: You were barely nine when the Partition-related bloodbaths happened. How large an influence has Partition been on your writing?

BS: I was too young to observe things at that stage, but the fires, the chanting of the mobs, the pouring in of bedraggled and destitute refugees, registered on my subconscious. My neighborhood changed when my Sikh and Hindu neighbours were replaced by scared and furtive Muslim refugees. My impressions and the subsequent stories I grew up hearing were strong enough to impel me to write Ice Candy Man.

ELJ: How do you see the events of 1947 in today's light? Was it avoidable?

BS: I think the Partition was avoidable, but for the machinations of the politicians, their massive egos and the ugly role played by the British carelessly carving up the country in their haste to leave.

ELJ: How does your identity as a Punjabi-Parsi-Pakistani, as you have described it so beautifully, affect your writing?

BS: My identity as P-P-P as well as an Indian reveals itself throughout my writing, particularly when I'm dealing with Punjabi and Parsi characters.

ELJ: What do think of political and social conflicts marring current Pakistan? How much of this is a part of the literature scene?

BS: Literature naturally copies the political, historical and social conflicts of any countries a writer belongs to. I think Pakistani literature, by and large, reflects this.

ELJ: How do you see the writers (in English, especially, and also other languages) from the sub-continent and what is your take on their writing? What books/authors have stayed with you?

BS: Of course the writers from the sub continent interest me and I read them avidly. The only language I learnt to read and write in was English because as a child, I had polio and my parents were advised not to send me to school. Instead, I had an Anglo-Indian lady give me tuition in English. Although my first language, which (we Parsi speak at home) is Gujarati, I'm also fairly fluent in Urdu and Punjabi. Among my favourite books are Nipul's early fiction, some of Anita Desai, Suitable Boy by Vikram Sath, Amitav Gosh's Hungry Tide and his Opium Geology, Mohsin Hamid's How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, and Sara Suleri Goodyear's Meatless Days. I love to hear Ghalib and other Urdu mystic poets read aloud.

ELJ: How do you reconcile the author and the activist? Do you believe literature needs to play a role in social commentary and change?

BS: What often motivates my writing is the sense of injustice and aggression I see around me. Most authors inevitably play a role in social commentary and that sometimes can affect change.

ELJ: Your association with film-maker Deepa Mehta has resulted in interesting documentations. One of your novels produced one of the most telling screen narratives about the Partition. Another novel, Water, in a reverse writing process, took on Deepa Mehta's film, adapting it to print. Could you comment on how both of these happened?

BS: Deepa came across my book, Cracking India, in Seattle and called me one morning to say she wanted to make it into a movie. I promptly agreed. We became good friends, especially when she was having trouble while trying to shoot Water. She was not permitted to make it in India, so she quietly made it in Sri Lanka and sent me a rough edit of the film, pressing me to turn it into a novel. She thought the subject was too removed for a Western audience to understand why widows were treated the way they were. She wanted it finished in three months to coincide with the launch of the movie. Working night and day, it took me four months to write it. Deepa Mehta is a difficult person to refuse.

ELJ: How do you see awards? Among the list of honours received by you, you have been awarded the Sitara-i-Imtiaz, chosen for the Premio Mondello award for foreign authors in Italy, and you are in the Zoroastrian Hall of Fame. How do you see these awards as a part of your identity?

BS: I'm grateful and honoured when I receive awards and enjoy the ceremonies accompanying them... and then they are forgotten.

ELJ: Why is Lahore so much of a favourite with your Muse?

BS: My Muse has many favourites, but I know Lahore and the Parsi communities most intimately, so it's reflected in my fiction naturally.

ELJ: Would you call yourself an activist?

BS: Not really, but I have been a part of rowdy processions defending women and minority rights.

ELJ: Tell us about your latest book. Why did it take so long to appear?

BS: After writing four full-length novels, it took me three years to compile and edit City of Sin and Splendor [Beloved City in Pakistan]. After that, I wrote Water. Their Language of Love was published in February this year. That is quite a bit of writing for any author, particularly for a woman who is also a wife, a mother, and a receptionist for her husband.

ELJ: What's your writing life like now? What word of advice would you give writers, especially those writing in English from the sub-continent?

BS: I don't think I could ever stop writing. No matter what language you write in, the main thing is to begin by plunging into what you want to say. Don't allow the little censors, which will pop up, saying 'This may not be suitable...' or 'This may offend someone...' Pretend you are writing just for yourself and don't worry about publishing. Only write if you feel compelled to and the activity brings you joy.