Interview: Bapsi Sidhwa On Growing Up In Pakistan, Writing And The Future Of The Parsi Community

27/07/2015 12:09 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

I have admired Bapsi Sidhwa for a long time. One of the doyennes of South Asian literature, she is perhaps best known for Ice Candy Man (also known as Cracking India) which was later adapted into the film Earth by Deepa Mehta. Other notable novels by her include The Crow Eaters and The Bride. I have always been fascinated by the multiple identities that Sidhwa seems to juggle - Parsi, Pakistani, migrant, woman, writer. I wrote to her a while back, and to my surprise, she answered with nuggets about her life in Pakistan, being a Parsi and her struggles and successes in writing.

How was it living in Pakistan, post partition, more so as a minority and specifically as Parsi? And since you travel there frequently, what has changed?

I remember we had Hindu and Sikh neighbours on one side of our house and the Birdwood Barracks on the other side, which housed some British police and military families. Both neighbours used to visit my parents. The Sikh neighbours had children and I have written about playing with Rosy and Peter in Ice Candy Man. After the book was published they got in touch with me by email and gave me the news of their children and grandchildren. As a Parsi, I always belonged to a distinct community. The Parsis were liked and respected. Also, Mr Mangat Rai was a tenant in our house. He published a book of his correspondence with the writer (and his wife) Nayantara Sehgal.

There were also eminent Indian Christian families on Warris Road. I remember going to one of their houses as a small child with my mother to meet Gandhiji -- I have described this meeting in Ice Candy Man. All of this has changed. Warris Road is now full of car repair shops and many of the old Christian, Hindu and Sikh families are long gone.

"Since I had polio as a child, I was not sent to school. I assuaged my loneliness by reading whatever came to hand."

What do you make of Pakistan as it stands today? Did you expect it to end up where it has?

Pakistan had a lot of expectations, but as a brand new country it has had its teething problems, including several martial laws. But in the last few years, democracy appears to have taken root. The Bhuttos held sway for quite some time and Mr Zaradari is paving the way for his son, Bilawal Bhutto. Since all the Bhutto leaders so far have been killed, I would be afraid for him.

Pakistan has lacked proper leadership and has often suffered from the interventions of foreign powers because of its strategic location. Despite this, the country has looked out for its self as best as it could.

It is widely believed that Parsis escaped the violence that Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs have had to suffer over time. Why do you think this is?

The Parsis are so few in number that their presence poses no threat to any country. Although they have maintained a low political profile, the community has done well in business and various professions. Parsis have earned the trust and respect of the countries they live in. Since the Parsis have no land they can call their own, their allegiance belongs to the country they inhabit.

"The Crow Eaters... came from within me and I finished the book in six months [but] I received a slew of rejection notes which were heartbreaking."

Was becoming a writer a childhood ambition? How was your journey from being an aspiring writer to an actual one?

Since I had polio as a child, I was not sent to school. I assuaged my loneliness by reading whatever came to hand. We had a two-shelf library which held a few American, European, and English classics and I read whatever was available. Shakespeare existed on the shelves but I could not comprehend his work. I had never thought of becoming a writer. During my honeymoon I spent some time at the Karakorum Highway, which followed the old Silk Road from China and heard fascinating stories of the ungoverned mountain people. My first novel, The Bride, is based on a story I heard in the mountains. To begin with I thought I would write a short story, but it grew into a novel. I had no prior experience in writing fiction. I think all the reading I had done had unconsciously taught me the value of creating tension, suspense, characters... the skills a fiction writer needs.

Publishers at first did not react positively to your novel The Crow eaters. How did the book finally make it into print?

After writing The Bride, I craved to write further and wrote The Crow Eaters. It came from within me and I finished the book in six months. The two novels were sent by friends to publishers in America and Britain, and I received a slew of rejection notes which were heartbreaking. In 1978 I self published The Crow Eaters, on advice from Javed Iqbal, the son of the mystic poet Alamma Iqbal. The book was shown by my British agent, Caroline Dawnay, to Jonathon Cape in England, and it was published by them in 1981. It received heartening reviews and I gained confidence in my writing.

Why was the title of Ice Candy Man changed to Cracking India?

The name of the book was renamed Cracking India in America since drug dealers there are sometimes referred to as "candy men". The publisher thought the title Cracking India suited the contents of the book better and I agreed with them.

Deepa Mehta's film Earth was based on Ice Candy Man/Cracking India. How did the film come to happen and do you think it did justice to the themes in your novel?

Deepa Mehta came across the book in a store in Seattle and, attracted by the title, read it. She had already made Fire and felt Cracking India would adapt well for the second film, Earth, in her trilogy. She called me from Canada to ask if she could base a film on the book and I promptly agreed. I think the movie accurately reflects the underlying theme of the chaos Partition created in the Punjab. I think Earth is a beautiful film... of course, a film is not a talking book.

"The Parsi community has been on the brink of extinction ever since I can remember, but... I think this dodo bird of world religions will continue to exist -- at least I hope so!"

Now a topic close to my heart - what are your thoughts on the future of the Parsi community, which is feared to be dying out. What could save the community from extinction?

The Parsi community has been on the brink of extinction ever since I can remember, but it seems to be holding its own and still flourishing in Mumbai, Karachi, and recently in America and Britain. Of course, Parsi youth are marrying outside the community and many of the children born to these marriages are not accepted as Parsi, but this too is changing. I think this dodo bird of world religions will continue to exist -- at least I hope so!

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