Bapsi Sidhwa is the internationally acclaimed and award-winning author of five novels, including The Bride, The Crow-Eaters, and An American Brat. Her book, Cracking India, tells the story of India and Pakistan’s 1947 partition through the eyes of a young Parsi girl, Lenny, who was inflicted with polio. The novel, which won the NY Times Notable Book of the Year Award, was later adapted into the 1998 film Earth, directed by Deepa Mehta. In 1991, she was the recipient of the Sitara-i-Imtiaz award, Pakistan’s highest honor in the arts. Born to Parsi parents in Karachi, Sidhwa soon moved to Lahore. Bapsi Sidhwa currently resides with her family in Houston, Texas, although she returns to Pakistan often. Below, she tells CHUP what inspired her to write, how Pakistan has changed since Partition, and her opinion on the current state of women’s rights in the country.
Q: What inspired you to become a writer?
As a child, I read non-stop. When I went on my honeymoon to the Karakoram Highway, I heard this story of this little girl from the Punjab, who was taken across the Indus River into the un-administered territory. I was living in a little remote army camp at the time and they told me the story of how, after she’d been taken there, she had run away. And I realized in that area, she was obviously bought. And a runaway bride who is bought and the runs away is like stealing – the village chased her and killed her at the Indus. When I came back to Lahore, I wanted to tell her story [referring to her novel, The Bride] because I thought it reflected the lives of so many young girls in the Third World who have no control over their lives at all. And I also wanted to describe these absolutely gorgeous, mighty mountains and the mighty Indus River and what I saw there. I lived there in a state of [spiritual] exaltation because it was so beautiful and I felt that release of creativity to descibe my experiences, the people in the area, and the story of this girl. The novel wrote itself at this point. The writing of many of my novels [since then] have been instinctual.
Q: Your novel, Cracking India, was later made into the critically acclaimed film, Earth. Were u involved in the making of the film?
I was involved in the sense that I was there and I had a very good time. While everyone was working I was having a picnic and talking to the stars. They would shoot a scene and sort of look to me for approval. And in the very end, I appear briefly from a distance as the grown-up Lenny.
Q: The novel is ultimately about India and Pakistan’s Partition in 1947, but it also tells the story of Lenny, a young girl inflicted with polio from the Parsi community in Lahore. Given that you had very similar personal experiences, [Sidhwa, from a Parsi family, also contracted polio at a young age] how much of Lenny’s character is based on you?
Lenny is very different from me. If she was like me, I would have been very self-conscious and couldn’t have written the book because it would have become autobiographical. Someone once said that autobiography is always sort of a lie, whereas fiction has much more truth. You lose your inhibitions in fiction and you can therefore be more revealing. I was a very different child from the way I portrayed Lenny – that’s how I created distance from myself and that child. However, I did give her a lot of incidents from my life – like the polio, and I somewhat portrayed my parents, as I’ve done in most of my books. Some of the characters were people I knew while some are totally created.
People just did not talk about the kidnapping and the ravages that happened to women [during Partition], and it wasn’t until very much later when I did research while I was writing this book that I realized how many women were ravaged. And that became a center point in that book because at times of such anarchy, women seem to bear the brunt of the attack – they attack a woman because they are attacking a man’s honor. A woman is often used and misused for these purposes. A lot of Cracking India was imagination, research, and some of the memories I could build upon.
Q: You previously worked for the late PM Benazir Bhutto on the advisory committee on Women’s Development. Given this background as well as your experiences as a female writer, what do you think of the current state of women’s rights or gender affairs in Pakistan? How can the country progress on that front?
50% of the country has always been underprivileged and underutilized – so how can we really progress? What is happening with the Talibanization is really frightening [in the FATA and NWFP] – it’s scary because the brunt seems to fall on the women. When people talk of religion they often think in terms of “a woman shouldn’t do this or shouldn’t do that.” It’s not only Islam or in Islamic countries – in America the issue becomes the “woman doesn’t have right over her body,” etc. And in Pakistan, we go through a cycle of hope and despair. Right now we are in a place where we don’t know where we are headed.
Q: What would you advise the government?
Well they are not even functioning as a government as of yet. Let them function first, because even with Benazir, she didn’t have time to show herself there [on gender rights]. Naturally, its not easy to govern a country and address those issues. And although we tried at that time to weaken the Hudood Ordinances, none of the women in her cabinet had the power to do anything. The only person who did something was recently, when Pervez Musharraf under the Women’s Protection Act diluted the Hudood Ordinance. We must take away that whole Ordinance.
Q: You were in the country during the time of Partition in 1947. How has Pakistan changed since that time?
I was about eight years old then and my awareness during that period was the chant of the mobs. I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but it was a threatening sound and I knew they were burning places and killing people. Our neighborhood totally changed, our Hindu neighbors went away. Although I have written about how the color of Pakistan changed later, at that time, of course, I was not as aware of what happened because I was very young. As I got older, [in the 1960s], I could go to college wearing a dress on my bicycle – but after that time, the country got more and more stern. Women are being restricted more and more.
To visit Bapsi Sidhwa’s official website, click here.