Some people have really conspicuous beginnings. “Because of an attack of childhood polio, my parents were advised not to send me to school. ‘She’ll get married, have babies,’ the doctor said, ‘She’s not going to become a professor or doctor, is she?’” Thus began the journey of Bapsi Sidhwa, Pakistan’s most prominent writing personality, in her own words. The illness which confined her to home turned to her immense advantage as she resorted to voracious and indiscriminate reading to alleviate her loneliness. Sidhwa strongly believes that this childhood adversity helped her in more ways than one, as she explains, “…that this time I had to myself and the resources my imagination fashioned to entertain my mind turned me into a writer. The hours spent reading taught me how to create characters and suspense, and also to structure my novels.” Moved by the story of a young Pakistani girl who had the courage to run away from a torturous marriage and was killed by her tribal husband in the Hindukush mountains, Sidhwa was first motivated to write her story which later became her first novel, The Bride.
Sidhwa’s cultural and religious roots in Parsi/Zoroastrianism sculpted her attitude about the Partition of the Indian Subcontinent and allowed her to witness the momentous event from an apparently safe distance, since Parsis held a religiously and politically neutral position. Born in Karachi, Pakistan, and raised in Lahore, Sidhwa witnessed the bloody carnage of the Indian Partition as a young child in 1947. She felt that, “Being a Parsi also can also make a writer a more objective observer, perhaps.” She says in an interview, “The struggle was between the Hindus and the Muslims, and as a Parsi (member of a Zoroastrian sect), I felt I could give a dispassionate account of this huge, momentous struggle…”. It is then needless to say that her works vividly portray the complexities of life in the Indian Subcontinent in the aftermath of Partition.
Sidhwa graduated from Kinnaird College for Women in Lahore, and continued writing whenever she had the chance. Having received countless rejections for her first and second novels, The Bride and The Crow Eaters, she chose to self-publish The Crow Eaters in Pakistan. Though the experience was one she says, “I would not wish on anyone,” it carved for her the path to international literary fame. It was during this period that she remained an active women’s rights spokesperson and in that capacity represented Pakistan in the Asian Women’s Congress in 1975.
Sidhwa with her family partially migrated to America around 1983. She had already started writing her third novel Cracking India (published as Ice-Candy-Man in Britain). The family eventually settled in Houston in 1984. By this time St. Martins had recently published The Bride, in the US and she began reviewing books for the Houston Chronicle. The migration to Houston proved providential for Sidhwa in more ways than one. Here she not only began teaching creative writing, but also exposed the deprecation inherent in the future reckoned to her by her doctor: she actually became a professor.
In Ice-Candy-Man, Sidhwa’s rephrasing of history is far more intricate than it apparently seems to be since Lenny, the young protagonist, in the process of narrating the story of her family, retells the history not just of the Pakistani but also from the Parsi point of view. This also makes her work both interesting and eloquent from the postcolonial point of view. In order to highlight the Parsi dilemma at the time of the Partition, she goes back 1,300 years to the crystallizing moment in Parsi history, when they “were kicked out of Persia… and sailed to India.” The accepted historical view that the Parsis were indifferent to the partition of the country has been deftly undermined by Sidhwa. She does this by showing the “silent but positive role played by Lenny’s parents in helping both the Hindu and the Muslims,” indicating that “the Parsis too were involved in their own ways in the events of the time and that they were not just indifferent and passive onlookers to the awful human tragedy.”
Ice-Candy-Man is marked by a brilliant sense of humor as well among all of this tragedy. She explains, “Laughter does so many things for us. It has the quality of exposing wrongs and gets rid of anger and excitement” (“Writer-In-Residence”). The pain of old, caked wounds are called to recollection in Ice-Candy-Man so that they may finally be healed.
Her next novel An American Brat further expands this theme, where the Parsi community is depicted as actively participating in Pakistani politics. One finds the Ginwalla family fervidly involved in the country’s ongoing political crisis, instead of maintaining a neutral, indifferent stance. In An American Brat, Sidhwa gives expression to the social and political chaos in Pakistan that the forces of neo-colonialism gave birth to.
The use of the English language in Sidhwa calls for special attention. She writes in New English—English punctuated with words of native language. In Ice-Candy-Man, the untranslated words such as “sarka’r”, “yaar”, “doolha”, “chachi”, “Angrez”, “chaudhary” remind the reader that the language of conversation of the characters is not English but Urdu and Punjabi. The deliberately untranslated words are part of the strategy of the postcolonial writer to highlight cultural difference.
Stages Repertory Theater in Houston produced her play, An American Brat, in March 2007. It received great critical acclaim and played to full houses. Her play, Sock’em With Honey, played in Leister Haymarket.
Sidhwa’s collaborative work with Indo-Canadian filmmaker Deepa Mehta deserves special mention. Ice-Candy-Man served as the basis for Mehta’s 1998 film Earth. The 2006 novel Water: A Novel is based upon Mehta’s 2005 film Water.
Her works have now been translated into Russian, French and German. She has also taught college-level English courses at the St. Thomas University, Rice University, Mt. Holyoke, Columbia University and The University of Texas.
- Their Language of Love: published by Readings Lahore (2013, Pakistan)
- The Crow Eaters: Published by Readings Lahore (2012, Pakistan)
- Jungle Wala Sahib (Translation) (Urdu): Published by Readings Lahore (2012, Pakistan)
- City of Sin and Splendour: Writings on Lahore (2006, U.S.)
- Water: A Novel (2006, U.S. and Canada)
- Bapsi Sidhwa Omnibus (2001, Pakistan)
- An American Brat (1993, U.S.; 1995, India)
- Cracking India (1991, U.S.; 1992, India; originally published as Ice-Candy-Man, 1988, England)
- The Bride (1982, England; 1983;1984, India; published as The Pakistani Bride, 1990 U.S. and 2008 U.S.)
- The Crow Eaters (1978, Pakistan; 1979 &1981, India; 1980, England; 1982, U.S.)
- Bunting Fellow at Radcliffe/Harvard—Mary Ingraham Institute (1986-1987)
- Fellow for the National Endowment for the Arts (1987)
- Visiting Scholar at Rockefeller Foundation Study Center, Bellagio, Italy (1991)
- Recipient of Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Writers’ Award (1993)
- Served on the Board of Directors of Inprint in Houston, and is now on its Advisory Board (1999-2007)
- Inducted into the Zoroastrian Hall of Fame in Houston (2000)
- Won the Excellence in Literature Award at the Zoroastrian Congress in Chicago (2002)
- Primo Mondello Award in Italy (2007)
- Bapsi Sidhwa is the first recipient of the South Asian Excellence Awards for Literature. Awarded on May 10, 2008 in New York
- HCC Asian-American Legacy Award (2008)
- Recipient of the Sitara-i-Imtiaz, the highest national honor in the arts, Pakistan (1991)
- Recipient of the National Award for English Literature by the Pakistan Academy of Letters (1991)
- Recipient of the Patras Bokhari Award for Literature (1992)
- Bapsi with Richard Dawkins—Recipient of LiBeraturepreis for Ice-Candy- Man (Cracking India) in Germany (1991)
- 1999 Cracking India was listed among the 200 Best Books in English by The Modern Library (Edited by Carmen Callil & Colm Toibin: Picador, June 1999, London)
- David Higham award for Crow Eaters
- 2007 Premio Mondello 2007 for Water