October 24, 2015

Of Families and Freedom: Bapsi Sidhwa’s The Bride educates


Her terror of wild beasts drove her to seek the even more fearful nearness of man.

It’s hard to write a review for a book by Bapsi Sidhwa, mainly because she holds that venerable title of the first Pakistani English female writer (And how many people can claim to be the first of anything these days?), but also because she’s just so huge in the world of literature. In our part of the globe, where people treat reading as a passing fancy, Bapsi Sidhwa has dominated for years.

Reading the Bride felt as a sort of rite of passage. Something one reads because one should, one must. But it’s hard to write this review as anything other than a textbook-format list of things one could discuss in class, because the moral compass of The Bride is pointed dead centre at An Issue and it is around it that the story is told. Bapsi Sidhwa herself admitted that she wrote this novel after hearing the real-life story of a wife who escaped from the tribal areas only to be caught and executed. So she started writing this novel with a purpose in mind: to teach, to educate, to commiserate, and it shows.

The Summary

Women the world over, through the ages, asked to be murdered, raped, exploited, enslaved, to get importunately impregnated, beaten-up, bullied, and disinherited. It was the immutable law of nature. What had the tribal girl done to deserve such grotesque retribution?

The blurb claims that the story is about Zaitoon, a girl from the plains of Punjab whose adoptive father takes her back to his mountains to wed her off with a clan member. Unhappy and abused, Zaitoon runs away, to be chased after by her enraged husband and the rest of his tribe so they can kill her for this dishonour she has forced on them.  This, supposedly, is what the book is about, but it takes a lot of time getting there.

In preventing natural outlets for cruelty the developed countries had turned hypocritical and the repressed heat had exploded in nuclear mushrooms. They did not laugh at deformities; they manufactured them.

Instead, really, this novel is more about Pakistan. About partition and the people who suffered through it, about lost parents and obsessive husbands, about city life and tribal ways. It’s a fictional account of a very real moment in time, and of people who are drawn as complex as anyone of us: Qasim, the Northern man who loses his family and picks up an orphaned girl during his attempt to flee after the partition. Zaitoon, the young girl whose family gets brutally murdered during an attack on a train trying to cross the border. Carol, the young, unhappy American wife of a Pakistani businessman. Major Mushtaq, involved in an affair with Carol and willing to save the life of a runaway wife. These characters are connected and have their own stories to tell, with large portions of the text dedicated not to Zaitoon but to the hows and whys of tribal pride, adultery and identity politics.

This doesn’t necessarily have to be a flaw, of course. Lots of books digress from their blurbs, choosing only to summarize what the author or editor feels is the most important part of the story for the reader to know. What keeps this novel from being thoroughly captivating is, in fact, its attempt to teach a lesson. It errs on the side of entertaining, instead providing ample matter for analysis and discussion, which doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing. After all, lots of books don’t keep the reader enthralled but have something important to say, and Bapsi Sidhwa manages to do the same thing, providing lots of material on...

...cities

Lahore – the ancient whore, the handmaiden of dimly remembered Hindu kinds, the courtesan of Moghul emperors – bedecked and bejewelled, savaged by marauding Sikh hordes – healed by the caressing hands of her British lovers. A little shoddy... like an attractive but aging concubine, ready to bestow surprising delights on those who cared to court her.

...the clash of cultures

Qasim was ordered to apologize. He refused, and his clansman was sent for. After a roaring argument, the clansman finally persuaded Qasim to say the necessary words. He uttered them with the grace of a hungry tiger kept from his victim by chains... Qasim learnt from his cousin that killing, no matter what the provocation, was not acceptable by the laws of this land.

...the atrocities of migration

Sikander feels a dampness along his thighs. Glancing over his shoulder, he sees a black wetness snaking its path down the slope of the roof. In desperation, men and women urinate where they sit. He feels the pressure in his own bladder demanding relief. “God, let me hold out until Lahore,” he prays.

...post-partition Pakistan

The uneasy city was awakening furtively, like a sick man pondering each movement lest pain recur... looted houses stood vacant, their gaping doors and windows glaring balefully. Men, freshly dead, their bodies pale and velvety, still lay in alleys and in open drains.

...and the post-partition government

Jinnah died within a year of creating the new State. He was an old but his death was untimely. The Father of the Nation was replaced by step-fathers. The constitution was tempered with, changed and narrowed.

...post-partition individuals

Fifty million people relaxed, breathing freedom. Slacking their self-discipline, they left their litter about, creating terrible problems of public health and safety. Many felt cheated because some of the same old laws, customs, taboos and social distinctions still prevailed.

... and the post-partition architecture

The marble canopy that had delicately domed Queen Victoria’s majesty for decades looked naked and bereft without her enormous dour status. Prince Albert, astride his yellowing marble horse, was whisked away one night from the Mall... No one minded.

...historical locations and Red Light districts

He enjoyed the narrow lanes streaming with men, and the tall, rickety buildings leaning towards each other. He could stroll in these lanes for hours, his senses throbbing... the heady smell of perfume, the tinkle of payals on dancers’ ankles, the chhum-chhum of feminine feet dancing behind closed doors...

He groped his way along a narrow passage into the dank guts of the building ... Stale air, poisoned by the stench of ammonia, frying onions, mustard oil, and sweat suffocated him. He stumbled over a child defecating, and the discordant sound of music filtering through the walls was pierced by a distant wail. 

...looking at a culture from the eyes of an outsider

“I love Lahore,” she wrote... “It’s beautiful and ramshackled, ancient and intensely human. I’m a sucker for bullock carts and the dainty donkey carts. They get all snarled up with the Mercedes, bicycles, tractors, trucks, and nasty buzzing three-wheeled rickshaws. The traffic is wild!”

...the treatment of women

“Don’t worry, she’ll be okay. If not, too bad. It happens all the time.”
“What do you mean, ‘happens all the time’?”
“Oh, women get killed for one reason or other... imagined insults, family honour, infidelity...”

...the representation of Pakistani segregation

“You know how it is with us – segregation of the sexes. Of course, you only know the sophisticated, those Pakistanis who have learned to mix socially – but in these settlements a man may talk only with unmarriageable women – his mother, his sisters, aunts and grandmothers – a tribesman’s covetous look at the wrong clanswoman provokes a murderous feud.”

...tribal notions of honour and marriage

 “My God. If she had run away...” The though sickened him. No. Most likely, she had slipped and hurt herself. Possibly even now a mountain leopard was at her. He prayed it might be so. She couldn’t have run away. She wouldn’t dare...

...the stereotypical representation of marriages in uncivilized areas

She also grew immune to the tyrannical, animal-trained treatment meted out by Sakhi. In his presence, she drifted into a stupor, until nothing really hurt her. He beat her on the slightest pretext. She no longer thought of marriage with any sense of romance. She now lived only to placate him.

...Courtesans and their culture

To entertain, a courtesan knows how to elicit laughter. “That is our destiny...we automatically smile in the presence of men. We are taught to from children. I’d never allow myself to be moody before a man.”

The Recommendation

Only if one is in the mood for a book that involves analysis and a descriptive introduction to the world of post-partition Pakistan would I recommend this. Although by virtue of it being the first book of Pakistan’s first English writer, it should rate highly on every Pakistani’s to-read list. Recommended.