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Cracking India, by Bapsi Sidhwa

December 2, 2012

Cracking India: A Novel, by Bapsi Sidhwa. Milkweed Editions (2006), Edition: Reprint, Paperback, 296 pages. First published 1988.

A brilliant, powerful novel by a Pakistani woman about people turning violently on each other during the Partition of India in 1947.

Like the narrator of her story, Bapsi Sidhwa is a Parsi, a follower of the Zoroastrian religion.  As a child she also lived in Lahore and witnessed the bloody division into Moslim Pakistan and Hindu India.  Although her novel is not autobiographical in its details, she brings her experience of those years into her novel.  Hers is not a story of high-level negotiations and decision-making.  Its focus is seldom on the actual attacks. She focuses instead on how ethnic and religious hatred built in the streets and homes of Lahore, a city in the Punjab close to the line that “cracked” India.

At first I was skeptical about Sidhwa’s decision to make Lenny, a young girl, the narrator of her story, but I quickly realized the wisdom of her choice.  For Lenny, the horrible violence is embedded in her somewhat sheltered childhood, a domestic world in which she is growing and changing as she approaches puberty.  Her parents are loving, even if sometimes distant.  Lenny’s Godmother and Ayah offer her additional comfort and supportive attention.  Initially family servants, neighbors, friends, and the men who court her Ayah come from a variety of religions; Hindu and Moslims, Sikhs, Christians, and Parsi.  Their differences initially seem inconsequential to her.  Gradually, however, friendship and tolerance are replaced by group identity and animosity. Discussions turn into angry arguments. People turn away and former friends leave the city.  Competition for Ayah’s love takes an ugly turn.

As a Parsi child, Lenny is primarily an observer, not a participant.  The violence comes close, claiming even her Ayah, but her family remains safe.  She is not forced to choose sides, as adults must choose.  Her naïve observations of the horrors she sees are simple and fresh, not diluted with the language adults use to mitigate them. When she first hears rumors that India might be divided, she finds them inconceivable.

Can one break a country? And what happens if they break it where our house is? Or crack it further up on Warris Road? How will I ever get to Godmother’s then?

The mechanisms of the actual division remain distant and arbitrary, to Lenny and those around her.

The British gods under the ceiling fans of the Faletti’s Hotel—behind Queen Victoria’s gardened skirt—the Radcliff Commission deals out Indian cities like a pack of cards. Lahore is dealt to Pakistan. Amitsrar [30 miles away] to India. Sialkor to Pakistan. Pathankot to India.

I am a Pakistani. In a snap. Just like that.

As the formal division takes places, villagers, like the cook’s family whom Lenny has visited, are pressured to move across the dividing line. When soldiers come with trucks they resist.

Do you expect us to leave everything we have valued and loved since childhood?  The seasons, the angle and color of the sun rising and setting over our fields are beautiful to us, the shape of our barns and rooms are familiar and dear.  You can’t expect us to leave just like that!

Muslims who refuse to leave are attacked by Sikhs with whom they had sworn brotherhood and vows of mutual protection.  Their villages are destroyed, families killed and children left homeless. Refuges flood Lahore.  In Lenny’s world, people change in attempts to hide their identities.  Her family’s Hindu servant is circumcised and becomes a Muslim.  The untouchable family converts to Christianity. Friends are murdered.  The ice-candy man who had told Hindus that he placed their friendship above ethnicity becomes a leader of ruthless Muslims.  The vulnerabilities of women are particularly stark.

The underlying question of Sidhwa’s book is how this can happen to people who have been friends.  Her answer is to tell the story of its happening so we will face it is as a real possibility.  In her narrative, she uses sharp, intense prose.  Rather than forcing us to wallow in the horrors, she insists that life goes on.

One image that Sidhwa presents crystalizes the issue for me.

It is sudden.  One day everybody is themselves—and the next day they are Hindu, Moslim, Sikh, and Christian. People shrink, dwindling into symbols. Ayah is no longer just my all-encompassing Ayah. She is also a token.

For me this is the most frightening statement in Sidhwa’s book.  Today ethnic and religious violence, like that she describes in India, is breaking out all over the world.  It’s not just century-old animosities, but violence between people who have lived together amicably in friendship and tolerance.   Even in the United States, racial and religious hatred is stoked by political leaders. Some label the president as African,  Communist, and “too un-American” to be our leader.  Around the world, individuals are “dwindling into symbols.”

I strongly recommend Cracking India.  It is an important book for everyone in today’s world.  And it is a joy to read, because, while Sidhwa describes pain, she transcends it by turning it into a story.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. December 2, 2012 10:35 am

    I like this one too, and consider it one of her strongest novels. Have you seen the film of the book by Deepa Mehta, called “Earth”? I don’t like all of Mehta’s work, but this one is excellent.
    Oh, and I saw Thomas King earlier this week! Thank you for your earlier post about his work–i’d have never attended otherwise. He was wonderful–I’m so very glad I went.

  2. December 2, 2012 6:06 pm

    Thanks. I haven’t read many books are seen films about women in India, only a few of the popular immigration ones. Any suggestions? Recently I tackled The Raj Quartet by Paul Scott. I will review it soon. I love it, but find it overwhelming.

    • December 6, 2012 9:35 am

      I’m not au courant with recent Indian cinema, but I liked Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding. And most of Aparna Sen’s films. And this flawed by interesting Bollywood re-imagining of Sense and Sensibility in contemporary India: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0242572/

      • December 8, 2012 10:15 am

        What Indian books do you suggest. Especially ones by or about women.

  3. December 2, 2012 7:27 pm

    Sounds like an interesting book. The partition seems to inspire a lot of literature.

    That quote you pick out is very insightful I think. Turning people into symbols is an important step in not seeing them as human.

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