Born in Karachi, raised in Lahore, now living in Houston, Texas, Bapsi Sidhwa is the grandmother of Pakistani writing in English. Her novel Cracking India, a New York Times Notable Book, was made into a film. Her latest book is the anthology City of Sin and Splendour : Writings on Lahore.
[Interview conducted by Gaurav Sood, with few questions also by Mayank Austen Soofi; picture provided by Bapsi Sidhwa]
Gaurav Sood: This is a quirky way to start the interview but I have always wanted to know what your name Bapsi means? Who gave you the name?
My grandmother doted on the British, and she thought she gave me an English name. Ironically an English woman asked me: ‘You’re quite dignified; how come you have a name like Bapsy or Popsy?’ They said it was definitely not an English name. I would have preferred to have a poetic Persian name, but I’m reconciled to it now – It’s short and easy to remember in the US.
Gaurav Sood: I gather there is a lot of biographical detail in Cracking India’s Lenny but it is hard to disinter facts from the bowels of fiction. Can you tell me a little more about your parents? What school did you go to? Was it a catholic school? What do you remember most about your time in pre-partition Lahore?
Even I often don’t know where fact ends and fiction begins. My father was orphaned as a child and his mother ran their wine business in Lahore. He acquired wealth after the war and Partition: He had the Parsi business gene. My mother was the youngest of 10 siblings. Her father Ardeshir Mama, became Mayor of Karachi, built the Mama school for girls and donated generously to hospitals etc. before going bankrupt. Because of childhood polio the doctor suggested I should not be burdened with school. I had light tuition – thankfully no math. The roar of mobs and the fires were a constant of my childhood pre-partition. A mob came into our house to loot, but departed when told that we were Parsi by our cook. I’ve used this scrambled memory for the ayah kidnapping scene. I’ve fictionalized biographical elements in the earlier part of Cracking India – Lenny is not me – perhaps my alter ego.
Gaurav Sood: The following is a broad question and I am unsure if it is correctly phrased. However, I do think it is an important one. A novelist is expected to be both an insider and an outsider. Can you tell me a little more about how each of the following things that relegated you to the role of an outsider in different ways affected your writing – contracting polio at a young age, being a Parsi in Lahore, your short stint in India in your youth and your contact with the larger Parsi community in Mumbai, and your immigration to US. Looking back, it is virtually impossible to disentangle how each major event affects us singly so please feel free to amalgamate perspectives and weave in anecdotes that capture the effect where necessary.
That question deserves a detailed answer. I write instinctively and I don’t quite know how to answer the first part of you question. Having polio as a child, and being a Parsi in Lahore or anywhere except in Bombay, marginalizes one. This creates a distance, and also a pressure – I was a lonely child and motivated to give voice to the silences in my life, I guess. Being with the larger Parsi community in Mumbai, was a wonderful experience for me – it gave me a sense of belonging. I had never experienced – I found I shared the same weird sense of humor, tastes, and enormously enjoyed being with my cousins. I loved and still love Bombay.
Lahore and City of Sin and Splendour
Gaurav Sood: Do you think the title of your book, City of Sin and Splendour, capture the essence of the city or the book? Yes, there is Heera Mandi and there is Badshahi mosque but I felt the real heart of the book and of the city was in its people and perhaps its ‘undying’ love for food.
It is called Beloved City in Pakistan, but I think the Indian title is more chutpatta.
Gaurav Sood: How often do you go back to Lahore? How has Lahore changed from the days of your youth?
I still have my house in Lahore, and I go back about once every two years. I spent the nineties in Lahore to look after my sick mother. On each visit I find Lahore improved.
Gaurav Sood: How much of the book – to the extent that you chose the stories and the writers- an expatriate’s silver tinted reflection on the city of her youth?
Lahore is not just the city of my youth – till the late nineties I was more in Lahore than in the US. I chose the stories and articles for the Lahore book for the quality of the writing, my respect for the authors, many of whom I know, and because the pieces engaged me as a reader. I tried to present a broad spectrum to show the many facets of Lahore. I also commissioned quite a few pieces. One Indian reviewer asked why I hadn’t mentioned street-children. Lahore has virtually none. The Lahoris take care of their own: children are adopted by madrassas or orphanages. Visitors are surprised at how well-fed Lahoris look. There are hundreds of langars in charitable institutes, Mosques, shrines, etc and no one needs go hungry.
Mayank Austen Soofi: You dedicated your Lahore anthology to your daughter Parizad whom you complimented as the quintessential Lahori. What traits should a person have to merit such a title?
To me she is a typical Lahore girl of a certain class. She spent nights with her friends doing tapsaras of Urdu poetry and most of her friends are still from or in Lahore. The way she dresses, relates to her friends, the subjects they talk about, her hauteur and reserve with strangers, her mannerisms, gestures, values and thought process still reflect the culture of that city – she moved to the US in the late nineties and still functions at the rhythm and laid back pace of that city. Please keep in mind, this is a spontaneous, perfunctory answer. Any more and I’d be intruding on her privacy.
Other Books and such
Mayank Austen Soofi: Usually, films are based on books. But your new book Water was based on Deepa Mehta’s film. This was also your first book which was a world away from your setting – no Pakistan, and no Parsis. What prompted you to write it? Can you also elaborate of the relationship that you share with Deepa Mehta?
Deepa Mehta called to say that she wanted me to novelize her film Water and sent me a rough edit of the film. I started with much trepidation – particularly since she wanted me to write the novel in three months to time it with the release of the film. I said I would give it a try, because I loved the film, and Deepa can be very persuasive. Once I started writing I didn’t find it as difficult as I had imagined. The child widow Chuyia has much in common with the child Lenny in my novel Cracking India, and once I created an earlier life for the child in her village, before the film starts, I had a grip on the novel. I enjoyed the challenge, although I have never worked so hard – I would wake up dreaming of sentences and get to the computer to write them down. I wrote late into the night.
I have known Deepa Mehta since she called me to say she wanted to make my novel Cracking India into the film Earth. She wrote the script for the film but I worked closely with her on it, keeping in mind that it was her cinematic vision of the book that mattered. I was at the film-shoot in Delhi for a good part of the time. I think Deepa and I respect each other and appreciate and trust each other’s work.
Gaurav Sood: You put in a fair amount of autobiographical detail in your novels. Can you briefly comment on it?
I write instinctively, one paragraph giving rise to the other, and have a general idea of where I want to go. Everything, everyone I know and every experience I have or hear of, are grist to my mill – like Flaubert, who famously said: ‘I’m Emma Bovary’. I am almost every character in my books.
Pakistan and being Pakistani
Mayank Austen Soofi: Your novels Cracking India and The Crow Eaters captured the flavor of Pakistan at its dawn. In The Pakistani Bride, you dealt with the tribal lores of the Frontier. If you were to decide to write a book on present-day Pakistan, which theme would you like to deal with?
I have just finished writing a collection of short stories – I think that will contain the answer to your question. The stories deal with what you mention above and also my new location in America.
Mayank Austen Soofi: Being a woman in Pakistan, did you think it was a risk to put in sexual humor in your novels? Did it upset the readers? In fact, you self-published your first novel The Crow Eaters, which had quite a lot of uninhibited sexual comedy, in 1978 – the very year General Zia-ul-Haq announced setting up of the Shariah benches. Did anyone harass you?
I wrote naturally about sexuality because I hadn’t realized I needed to censor what I wrote. Although I am very liberated, my writing is more inhibited now. There were no complaints about this in Pakistan, in fact my candor was appreciated. When I launched the self-published “The Crow Eaters”, in Lahore, there was a bomb scare at the hotel and the function was hastily closed. I realized later that the Parsi community was very offended and responsible for the bomb scare. No one had written about the Parsis before, except books praising the community, and the Parsis could not stand to see characters fictionalized, warts and all. The general Pakistani community loved it. It was not until the book was published in Britain to critical acclaim that the Parsis gradually accepted it.
The only squeamishness about Cracking India has been in the United States. A mom and her pastor tried to ban it from being taught in a Baccalaureate program in a Florida high school. A committee of 30 people decided it was suitable to teach.
Mayank Austen Soofi: Who are the writers to watch out for in Pakistani literature?
Mohsin Hamid and Kamila Shamsie are the most prominent. Tahira Naqvi and a few others who write short stories in America. Aamer Hussain has published three collections in the UK, India, and Pakistan: he is a sensitive and poetic writer. Among the new crop of writers published in Pakistan, I really like Bina Shah’s writing. All of the above have stories or articles in the Lahore anthology.
Mayank Austen Soofi: Living in USA, do you ever face any discrimination because of your Pakistani passport?
I have a US passport now, and it is a breeze to sail through various countries with it. Pakistan is out of favor in American and Europe and this does affect me as a Pakistani writer. Although I must admit “Cracking India” had a spectacular reception when it was first published and is taught in almost every university.
A ‘novel’ medium
Gaurav Sood: Naipaul has talked about the end of novel as a literary form. Is novel a sufficient medium to bring forth the complexities of modern life?
The novel is thriving – there is no other medium which can bring out the emotional nuances and complexities of modern life as well as the novel can in the hands of a good writer.
Gaurav Sood: Milan Kundera recently wrote novel is the only form in which you can convey the pointless. More broadly, it can convey the pointlessness of violence, the myriad irrational tugs and pulls that define humanity. History is an exercise in sense making when none exists. Do you agree with Kundera’s statement?
There is validity in what he says when it comes to violence, although the sequence of cause and affect, even in the most irrational seeming incidents, are always present. Novelists like myself use the novel to express their deepest emotions and views – one usually writes the truth as one sees it. Of course no one owns the truth and there are many valid points of view. Many historians have arrived at the truth. But often their narration is imbued with their own prejudice, and can slant history to suit their or their own or their country’s agenda. History in the hands of fiction writers like Tolstoy is often more authentic and vivid than history books.
Gaurav Sood: Azhar Nafisi in her largely bankrupt novel, Reading Lolita in Tehran, makes a fascinating point about the democratic structure of a novel - where each character has a voice. Obviously, Nafisi miserably fails at the task herself and all we hear is her elitist trauma. Nonetheless, I think it is an important point and one if followed can help readers really empathize with a variety of characters. Virginia Woolf to me remains an epitome in that regard. More broadly, I think the point goes to the heart of the role of an author and of a novel. Is the role of the novel to build empathy? Relatedly, what do you see is the role of a novel and a novelist?
The role of a novelist, and by extension the novel, is to reveal the culture and complexities of a society in a manner that is engaging and entertaining. The emotions we hold in common have to be strongly portrayed: without empathy for the characters the novel looses its value as a narrative.
Gaurav Sood: I am often stuck by how few of the stories of my parent’s and my grandparent’s generations have been chronicled. We are soon going to lose a lot of those stories forever as the oral traditions die, and the storytellers grow old. What do you think should be do to keep some of these traditions alive?
The Partition was poorly represented because the memories were too painful, and people were too busy setting up new lives. But story tellers will tell their tales, and very little will be lost. Writers in Indian and Pakistani languages are chronicling the old tradition. As long as there are writers and storytellers most of what is important will be retained. Writers are the new myth makers.
Gaurav Sood: I am stuck by the ‘unconscious feminism’ (Sara Suleri-Goodyear) of South Asian female writers like Ismat Chughtai. South Asian female writers take on feminism bubbles with urgency, excitement, humor, and candid pugnaciousness that rejects the system but does so in a rooted and informed way. Can you expand a little more on the South Asian female writers and their contribution to highlighting the gender inequalities?
I cannot talk for all South Asian women writers, but I imagine that as women, consciously or unconsciously, we bring out the problems and discrimination women face and project our aspirations. I myself don’t like to preach about feminism but the way the stories unfold illustrate their position in the family and in society.
Gaurav Sood: While South Asian writers have grown in prominence in recent years, their books reflect more and more reflect inert globalized ideas rather than alertness to South Asia. Is there a future for the distinctive South Asian fiction or are we seeing the end of it with increased globalization?
The vernacular languages embed South Asia in their narratives. South Asia will continue to be written about and by authors who write in English as well. Indian writers in the Diaspora reflect their new experiences if that is what you mean by globalization. As writers move their writing reflects their new locations, experiences, thoughts and aspirations.
The interview was conducted via email. Some of the answers and questions have been edited for style.