At Home in Many Worlds

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Like her protagonist Lenny in Ice-Candy-Man, author Bapsi Sidhwa was inflicted by polio as a child. The physical disability plucked her away from the typical exertions of childhood and nudged her into the world of books. She was educated at home until she was 15. She later graduated from Kinnaird College, Lahore. Not allowed to go to school and confined largely to the house, she would often read for up to eight hours a day. Sidhwa soon struck up a deep friendship with Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy (the eternal sisters of Little Women).

While she befriended books, she also learned from them. Her hours of reading as a child moulded her into one of the first Pakistani writers in English. Just as Lenny Baby, of the big eyes and telltale limp immortalised by director Deepa Mehta in 1947 Earth, watched the horrors of Partition with a mix of intelligence and sensitivity, Sidhwa too has fixed her piercing yet gentle gaze on contemporary events over the last 50 years.

Born in Karachi, to Parsi parents, she lived in Pakistan and India and has been based in the US for close to three decades. While Sidhwa is best known for her novels, Ice-Candy-Man (1988), An American Brat (1993), Water (2006), the septuagenarian treads new ground with Their Language of Love, her first collection of short stories. The author of six novels believes her natural impulse propels her towards the novel, as she is incapable of omitting details and is determined to include almost everything. However, novel writing is a long and arduous process and one she is wearying of. "I no longer have the energy to write a novel," says Sidhwa. "This is my first foray into the short story. It is not as fulfilling, but I'm satisfied with the outcome. As a writer, I will keep writing till the day I die what else can I do?"

Their Language of Love reflects its author's well-lived life, moving in time and place from the '60s to the present, from Lahore to New York. While 'A Gentlemanly War' deals with the 1965 India-Pakistan war, 'Their Language of Love' glints with discoveries and ardour of two newlywed Indians in New York. Each story remains true to its location, just as its author remains at home in each country. Growing up as a Parsi child in Lahore, Sidhwa found herself among warring communities rather than as a member of one. This non-belonging ensured that she could be the observer rather than a participant. As an onlooker, little of her work is actually autobiographical. She says, "The political is the background that shapes the personality of characters and influences their actions. But whatever one writes is shaped by one's imagination plus what one has heard, read or experienced."

Sidhwa has written in depth about her many homes. An American Brat dealt with a teenage Pakistani girl coming of age and finding herself in America. And more recently she edited City of Sin and Splendour: Writings on Lahore (2006), which she calls a "labour of love", adding, "I felt I owed it to the city that nurtured me as a writer."

Even though she moved to the US back in the '80s, the subcontinent wafts though her work. Longing for the texture and details of Lahore and Bombay, she travels there as frequently as her visa and health allow. "I've been thrice in the past five years to Lahore," she says, "My heart is also in Bombay, where my community is located, and I love Delhi."

Today, Pakistani authors writing in English are a group unto themselves, known for their engagement with social and political issues and their felicity with language. While it would be unfair to club Nadeem Aslam's lyricism with Mohammad Hanif's satire, one can still say that the country has produced a clutch of original and thought-provoking writers over the last few decades. And few might realise, that a soft-spoken Parsi woman was responsible for opening this door of opportunity. Sidhwa was one of the first to publish in English in Pakistan.

Fittingly, she takes her place as one of the leading writers at the Lahore Literary Festival (LLF), being held this weekend, where she is part of a panel on "Lahore in Literature". An Urdu translation of The Crow Eaters, a rather ribald look at the Parsi community, named Junglewalla will be launched at the festival. While fluent in Urdu, Sidhwa cannot read or write it. However, she worked closely with her translator and reader, poring and laughing over the translated pages. For Bapsi, the first LLF not only showcases the rising talent of writers in Pakistan, but also proves how far the genre has travelled, since her early foray into it. Of the early challenges she says, "It is true, fools rush in where angels fear to tread."

Her first novel, The Pakistani Bride (published only in 1981, a year after The Crow Eaters ) arose from the need to tell the world that patriarchy and misogynist laws can destroy young women. Sidhwa wrote the deeply layered novel after travelling to the Karakoram Mountains in northwest Pakistan on the border with Afghanistan. There she heard of a young Punjabi girl married to a tribal man. Subject to immense cruelty, she tried running away, only to be captured and beheaded by her husband's family. The Indus carried her headless body to shore.

The story struck Sidhwa's feminist core. As the wife of a businessman and mother of three, she found herself sneaking out of bridge games to write. She says, "I started writing The Pakistani Bride because I was so moved by the story of the 16-year-old. I wrote secretly. I felt our friends mostly from the business communities would laugh at me. I read out what I wrote to my husband and he was my sole sounding board."

Sidhwa has continued with her feminist work outside of novels as well. She worked in the Destitute Women and Children's home in Lahore for years, and was a member of the advisory committee on women's development to former Pakistan Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.

While age might have coerced Sidhwa away from novels, and toward short stories, and might have stymied her trans-Atlantic travels, she remains what she has always been a writer at home in many worlds.

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