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Bapsi Sidhwa
by Laila Kazmi

Bapsi Sidhwa is the author of four novels and one of Pakistan's most prominent English fiction writers. In 1991, Bapsi Sidhwa was the recipient of Sitara-i-Imtiaz, Pakistan's highest honor in arts bestowed upon a citizen. In 1998, her novel Cracking India was adopted into the movie, Earth, by renowned filmmaker, Deepa Mehta.

Bapsi Sidhwa began her writing career at the age of 26 after visiting the Karakoram mountain-area of Pakistan with her husband. She was touched by a tragic story of a young girl who had been brought to one of the area's tribes as a bride. After being there for a short time, the girl ran away from her husband’s home. The tribals considered this a highly dishonorable act. Some of the men hunted her down and murdered her. “When I came [back] to Lahore, the story haunted me,“ says Bapsi Sidhwa. “The girl’s story, the poor tribals, the way they lived, all [of] that I wanted to write about,” she adds.

Sidhwa first wrote a couple of short articles about the beauty of the Karakoram mountains. However, feeling compelled to tell the girl’s story, she decided to make her first attempt at fiction writing and sat down to write a short story which turned into her first novel, The Bride (also in print as The Pakistani Bride). It is a work of fiction based on the events from the tribal girl's life. Through her first novel, Bapsi Sidhwa discovered a love for writing. The Bride took four years to complete because, she says, “I wrote it then re-wrote it. Sort of experimented with it, made it into a huge backdrop, [added] flashback.” Though it took four years, it was an experience which she says she enjoyed so much that soon after completing The Bride, she starting working on her second novel, Crow Eaters, a lively and humorous story about the Parsi community of Pakistan. The title of the book is translation of a derogatory term used for Parsis who are stereotyped as being excessively loud and talkative.

Success didn’t come to Bapsi Sidhwa without a lot of hard work. She wrote her first two novels in Pakistan where no one was publishing in English at the time. So, after receiving many rejections, Sidhwa decided to self-publish and self-distribute Crow Eaters. “It was very frustrating to peddle your own books as I did in Lahore… I would go from bookstore to bookstore saying, ‘Please read the Crow Eaters.‘” Bookstore owners would show little interest, often criticizing the title of the book. The process was so discouraging that Sidhwa stopped writing for about five years. In 1980, after receiving a copy of Sidhwa's self-published Crow Eaters, Britain's Jonathon Cape decided to publish it. "[An] agent showed [Crow Eaters] to Jonathan Cape, and this time around, their editor, Liz Colter, wrote a delightful letter of acceptance within two weeks of receiving it," recalls Sidhwa. It was at that time when Sidhwa felt encouraged enough to pick up her pen and write again.

Though the first two novels brought her recognition, it was her third novel, Cracking India (also published as Ice-Candy Man), that earned Bapsi Sidhwa international acclaim and acceptance as one of the most promising English novelists from South Asia, placing her among the likes of Kushwant Singh, Anita Desai, and R.K. Narayan.Cracking India is a tale of the bloody partition that led to the creation of independent Pakistan and India as the British left the subcontinent. The book is both uplifting and heart wrenching, filled with characters that the readers grow to love and despise as the story unfolds. Told from the perspective of a child from the Parsi community of Lahore, Sidhwa has done an amazing job of presenting the story of the partition and Hindu-Muslim riots from a neutral perspective. Due to the complex and sensitive subject matter of Cracking India, Sidhwa says, “It was a very difficult book to write… difficult and painful.” Sidhwa believes that as a writer, all of her work has some degree of autobiographical elements. She based the parents' characters in Crow Eaters on her own parents. In Cracking India, the child protagonist, Lenny, is reminiscent of Sidhwa's own childhood. Like Lenny, Sidhwa too suffered from polio as a child due to which she was not sent to school and had frequent visits to the hospital. Before she became a writer, Bapsi Sidhwa spent about six years in India where she moved after her first marriage at the age of 19. Though, that marriage resulted in a divorce after which Sidhwa returned to Pakistan, she feels that the experience of having lived in India became crucial to her writing in both, Crow Eaters and Cracking India. “Living in Bombay, that big city, then visiting it very frequently after my divorce, was very important to my writing…The interaction with the larger [Parsi] community really opened my eyes, the interaction with a big city opened my eyes,” Sidhwa remembers.In 1998, Canadian director, Deepa Mehta based her critically acclaimed film Earth (released as 1947 in India) on Sidhwa’s third novel, Cracking India. Earth won the Grand Prize at the Deauville Panasian Film Festival in France and, in 1991, the book Cracking India won the Liberator Prize in Germany.

Earlier this year, Sidhwa traveled to London for production of a stage play, Sock 'em With Honey which was based on parts of her most recent novel, The American Brat, about the young Feroza who comes to US from Pakistan to study. "The geographical location of my writing changed after I moved to the US, and I wrote the book after I moved. I wrote of my experiences of my encounter with America," says Sidhwa about her novel The Bride.Currently residing in the US with her husband, Sidhwa returns to Pakistan often. She speaks of her city, Lahore fondly, “I can write a lot more in Lahore than I can write anywhere else… Lahore does have a very romantic atmosphere and it does release some type of a creative energy.”

Bapsi Sidhwa’s latest project is a collection of short stories for which she feels she may just have to return to Lahore to complete.

 


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