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Bapsi Sidwa and Ice-Candy-Man

Book Review by
Ayesha Fatimah Rasul
If the 1980's turned out to be a decade of exhilarating political change around
the world, the 1940's were a decade of death and devastation. To the horrors of
the Holocaust, the killings and fire-bombings of the war in Europe and the
Japanese outrages in East Asia were added the massacres and atrocities that
accompanied the partition of India in 1947, which took over a million lives,
displaced 13 million people and brutally
treated millions more.
One wonders how humanity survived at all. But it did, and one measure of that
survival is that tragedy gave birth to literature. In the first three decades after
partition, only a handful of writers -- Saadat Hasan Manto in Urdu, Amrita
Pritam in Punjabi, Khushwant Singh and Manohar Malgaonkar in English -could be said to have produced memorable fiction about the catastrophe.
When, in more recent years, sub-continental novelists (led by Salman Rushdie)
again returned to the period, they tended to prefer the grand historical sweep to
the individual story. These writers have, by and large, taken on the shaping
forces, rather than allowing a few ordinary lives to illuminate those forces.
Bapsi Sidhwa, a Pakistani, is an intriguing exception. Her book,
Ice-Candy-Man is one of the great masterpieces of Sub-Continental literature.
The story is not about partition per se, though partition looms large in its
pages; it is about "Lame Lenny," a little girl who has polio, who turns 8 at a
time when no one feels like celebrating birthdays and who is as concerned
about her dawning pubescence as about the freedoms (and fears) of midnight.
Ms. Sidhwa's novel is about a child's loss of innocence, about a world peopled
with characters called Electric-aunt and Slavesister and Oldhusband, about
servants and labourers and artisans caught up in events they barely understand,
but in which they play a terrible part.
Lenny, like Ms. Sidhwa, is a Parsi, a member of one of India's myriad
minorities, descendants of Zoroastrians who fled Muslim persecution in Persia
in the eighth century and found refuge in the coastal state of Gujarat. When
partition came, the Parsis (like the Christians) stayed on the sidelines; they
were not targeted by the mobs nor forced to flee across the new frontiers that
vivisected their country.
So Lenny and her family are not personally threatened, but they live amid
Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs who are. Ms. Sidhwa's superb re-creation of
Lenny's early life richly evokes the colours, sounds and smells of pre-partition
Lahore. She has a particular talent for the larger-than-life Parsi eccentrics she

portrayed so well in her first novel, The Crow Eaters. But her most successful
characters here are the working-class adults little Lenny spends most time
with: her Hindu nursemaid, Ayah; the gruffly paternal cook Imam Din; the
untouchable gardener Hari; the Sikh zoo attendant Sher Singh, and Ayah's
Muslim admirers -- a nameless masseur, the knife-sharpener Sharbat Khan and
the mercurial Ice-candy-man.
It is the suggestively zaftig Ayah, desired by every man, who is the focus of
the book. "Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Parsee are, as always, unified around her,"
Lenny observes. But looming over the narrative is the enigmatic shadow of
Ice-candy-man, who undergoes transformations that dramatically prefigure
those of the world around him. Through Lenny's eyes, we see him as the eager
popsicle vendor whose toes sneak under Ayah's sari early in the story; the fake
Sufi, with copper wiring coiled around his neck and chest, who declares he is
Allah's telephone; the fanatic mob leader who sickeningly betrays his love;
and the pimp-poet with amber eyes and oval face, reciting Urdu verses to woo
the woman he has destroyed. It is impossible not to see in Ice-candy-man a
metaphor for his society, as well as for the dangerous, transient unreliability of
humankind.
"One day everybody is themselves," Lenny observes, "and the next day they
are Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Christian. People shrink, dwindling into symbols."
But Ms. Sidhwa sees beyond the symbols to the poignant humanity of both
fanatic and victim. The scene in which an inflamed Muslim mob comes to
Lenny's house looking for Hindus, while intensely moving, is written with
remarkable power and restraint. Ms. Sidhwa leaves us with an unforgettable
image of the woman they abduct, "staring at us as if she wanted to leave
behind her wide-open and terrified eyes."
Ice-Candy-Man is a novel in which heartbreak coexists with slapstick, where
awful jokes about fore fathers and foreskins give way to lines of glowing
beauty ("The moonlight settles like a layer of ashes over Lahore"). The
author's capacity for bringing an assortment of characters vividly to life is
enviable.
In reducing partition to the perceptions of a polio-ridden child, a girl who tries
to wrench out her tongue because it is unable to lie, Bapsi Sidhwa has given us
in Ice-Candy-Man a memorable book, one that confirms her reputation as
Pakistan's finest English-language novelist.
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