Dwindling Into Symbols


Fifteen years after its publication, Cracking India, by Bapsi Sidhwa, is still on the bestseller lists in India. The basis for the 1999 film Earth by director Deepa Mehta, the novel features an 8-year-old girl named Lenny, who watches as her community is torn apart by the partition of Britain’s South Asian colonies into India and Pakistan. “It is sudden,†writes Sidhwa. “One day everybody is themselves—and the next day they are Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Christian. People shrink, dwindling into symbols.â€

In the years since Cracking India was published, a right-wing Hindu government has risen to power in India by exploiting the divisions that were unleashed during the partition, an event that killed half a million and displaced hundreds of thousands more. The cycles of violence continue to this day: Last August twin car bombs set off in Bombay were said to be retribution for riots that killed 2,000 people in 2002—most of them Muslim—in the state of Gujarat. In turn those riots were said to be retribution for an attack on a train that killed Hindus. But Sidhwa, who was born in Pakistan and now lives in Houston, reminds us that there was a time when people saw themselves more as neighbors than as battling communities. Currently working on a collection of short stories, Sidhwa recently visited Austin for a reading and showing of Earth at the University of Texas. She later spoke with the Observer. Excerpts follow: Texas Observer: What was it like, allowing your novel to be made into a film? Bapsi Sidhwa: When Deepa phoned me to say she wanted to make this into a film, I got very excited. This book has a very strong child’s voice, and I was imagining that as scenes were going on, the voice-over would be there, saying “Things loved to crawl beneath Ayah’s sari. Glow worms. Ice-candy-man’s toes,†and so on. When I told this to Deepa, she said she was very uncomfortable with voice-overs. She said, “Bapsi, what I’ll do is hold the camera at such an angle that everything would be seen from the child’s perspective, and Lenny will be in every scene because I love Lenny too.†Deepa seemed to understand the importance of a Parsee child, a child that’s not Hindu or Muslim or Sikh; that this child could bring dispassion and fairness.

As Deepa was writing, she would fax the screenplay to me and we would work on it together. In the beginning I would make a few suggestions about the script, but very soon I backed off. Deepa was carving her cinematic vision out of my book. It was as though my book was a huge, big stone and she was carving her vision out of it. In the beginning the screenplay was quite large, and then slowly, slowly it got whittled down. And then I got nervous. I said, “Oh my God, it’s like a skeleton!†But…that is what happens to books. Because the camera fleshes out so many things, everything doesn’t need to be said. The child’s voice is a particular voice, and she has a very peculiar angle on looking at things. That cannot be conveyed in the film. The irony of what she’s thinking and what is happening. How she misreads situations. Those are things that get lost.

The movie has its own integrity. I see it as part of the story of my book, but also as itself. It stands alone. And I think it’s a beautiful movie. I was a little disappointed that a lot of the funny Parsee characters couldn’t be included, but it was impossible. It was going to be shown in the West, so we had to deal with all these different religious groups. If on top of it there was too much about the Parsees it would have been very confusing.

Because the last scene is this mob of Muslims carrying away. But Deepa was conscious of it when I mentioned it to her, and she was very careful to alternate one violent scene with the Muslims with one violent scene of the Sikhs and Hindus.

TO: Were the message of the film and the book the same?

BS: It is a human tragedy, which both the film and the book convey. People are leading these ordinary lives, but when order breaks apart and anarchy prevails, human nature changes. Greed comes to the forefront. Lust comes to the forefront. Barriers disappear. It happens in all societies. And this book, and the movie, shows this. You have a group of friends who suddenly found this moment when they could exploit Ayah, loot their neighbors, occupy somebody’s house. So they took advantage of it. That’s human nature. TO: Was the way the book was received different from the way the film was received? BS: Yes, very much so. The book had absolute acceptance. Whether it was Hindu or Muslim, they all identified with it. The Hindus who read it saw themselves in Ayah, the Muslims saw themselves reflected in it. It was amazing how each took out what they liked from it. When the film came out—although the book is more violent—things became suddenly more graphic, more concrete, more in-your-face. It aroused much more passion. People were really angry. When it opened in New York, someone got up in the audience and said it was an anti-Muslim film. And then there were some Hindus that got Deepa at an airport and banged her against the wall and said “How dare you! Aren’t you ashamed, portraying Hindus as killers. Don’t you know we Hindus never kill?†This is what people told me, also: “But don’t you know we Hindus never kill?†I said, “Who killed Gandhi, for God’s sake? What is happening in Gujarat? Who is doing the butchering there?†So everyone has their illusionary fantasy of what their religion or what their community is like. And when they see themselves portrayed as they don’t like it, they get very offended.

TO: Why did you decide to write about Partition? BS: Not many books had been written about Partition. It was a huge event in history. We have read much about Mountbatten and Jinnah and Gandhi and Nehru. But what happened to the ordinary, everyday people? I don’t know why hardly any fiction has been written about it.

I was about 7 when the partition took place. The roar of distant mobs was a constant of my childhood: it was a sound that terrified me, because I knew they were doing evil—I suppose I picked up the sense of alarm from the adults. I saw buildings on fire, and a sudden change in our neighborhood: Hindu and Sikh neighbors were replaced by hordes of bedraggled Muslim refugees. I saw a handsome young man spill out of a gunny sack and even as a child I thought what a waste of a beautiful life. The scene is in the film, except as a child I did not realize that the man’s legs had been dismembered. This realization came to me when the movie was being shot and they could not fit the actor into the sack.

A mob of looters, chanting slogans, drove into our house in horse-carts after the partition was over. I remember my mother, in her sari, standing boldly with her hands on my and my brother’s heads. The mob thought the name on the gate, was a Hindu name. Our Muslim cook came out of the kitchen beating eggs and said, “What do you bastards think you are up to? These people are Parsee, Bhandara is a Parsee name, too.†And the mob went away. I have described this scene in Cracking India and turned it into a pivotal scene in which Ayah is kidnapped.

Then again I grew up with the stories of what happened to so-and-so’s mother, sister, brother. Horror is seen more plainly and it is chilling when filtered through a child’s innocence and honesty. In writing in the voice of a child, I became that child. A child sees more clearly because she has as yet not learned the bias and prejudice that have taught the adults to hate people of a different race, religion or color.

TO: Why haven’t there been more novels written about Partition? BS: I’ve often thought about it…I think this was because so many people were displaced. They were too busy setting up homes, reconstituting their lives. They didn’t have the leisure, I think, to reflect and write. Otherwise I can’t think of why. It was a subject that cried out to be written about. People didn’t even talk about it.

For example, hundreds of thousands of women were kidnapped. Muslim women by the Hindus and Sikhs; Sikhs and Hindus by the Muslims. It was a free-for-all. And one of the things you own in India along with your house and your buffalo and your car is the woman. The woman symbolizes honor; she is the vessel of honor for a man’s family. So, when she is raped or brutalized, attacked, the men are not doing it only for carnal lust. It is also that through her, they are attacking that man’s religion. That man’s tribe. That man’s honor. They’re really demeaning that man and that man’s tribe through the woman. They’re enacting vendettas through her body. They are celebrating victories over her body. And so really brutal things happened, and are still happening. I don’t know what happens to men in such times. But this is what happened in Kosovo and Bosnia as well. It happens wherever the governance of a society is destroyed.

No family ever admitted that their girls and women were kidnapped. It was something that would bring dishonor to the family for a long time and affect the way their children married and how others behaved towards them. The kidnapped women were not forgotten. After Partition hundreds of camps were set up and bands of women volunteers and police went and searched out the kidnapped women and brought them to these Recovered Women’s Camps. The Muslim women were sent to Pakistan and Hindu and Sikh women to India. Many Hindu and Sikh women did not want to be repatriated because their children had to be left behind and they had formed relationships with the men . Many knew their families would never accept them—they had been defiled and the disgrace would rub off on them.

TO: In the years since Cracking India was published, sectarian violence in India has dramatically increased. Has that changed how the book is received? BS: It has. There was a much readier acceptance of Cracking India before this very strong resurgence of Hinduism took place. But now a lot of people who belong to the Hindutva movement are writing me hate mail. Religious emotions and prejudices are again getting embedded in children. And the very sad thing is they are bringing this baggage to America. You would think they would leave this rubbish behind, but no, they bring it. In Houston, it is all there. “Are you Pakistani? Or are you Indian?†is being heard much more. The Indian community has its temples and keeps to itself. The Muslim community has its mosques and keeps to itself. They don’t mix much. And I just wrote what most people thought was a very fair article for the Houston Chronicle on what’s happening in Kashmir, blaming Pakistan for sending insurgents, and blaming India for keeping this enormous, almost million-man army there, Hindu and Sikh soldiers over a Muslim civilian population. And I discovered that there was this small fundamentalist body of people in Houston who were saying Indians should boycott Bapsi. And the Pakistanis were angry at me: “How can you say we’re sending insurgents?†There was a very bad backlash. It just shows that people are defining themselves much more narrowly now, and taking things much more personally.

Rachel Proctor May is a graduate student in the joint program in Middle Eastern Studies and Radio-TV-Film at UT-Austin.