Overstuffed tales that nonetheless throw light on a lifetime’s work.
In the high heat of summer a reader likes to crack a book glowing in the colours of summer fruits. Bapsi Sidhwa’s latest, touted as a “brand new collection of stories,” opens with A Gentlemanly War, which reads more like a memory than a story. During the 1965 war, the Indian army, seven times as large as Pakistan’s, advances close to Lahore. Zareen and Cyrus hear the first Indian bombs near Lahore. He trusts in what he considers the gentlemanly conduct of the combatants so far. But she flees with her small children to her family’s home in Rawalpindi. A woman of privilege steps out into the world and we expect something terrible to happen, but Zareen experiences little more than hysterics. At Pindi, her brother has surrendered his palatial home to the President for the duration of martial law and moved to his more modest property across the street. The kernel of the story turns out to be the meeting between Zareen’s family and the occupiers of their home, and the shift from hereditary privilege to true power.
We see Zareen again in Breaking It Up, flying to Denver to meet her daughter Feroza, who plans to marry a ‘non’. That is, her fiancé David is Jewish, not Parsee. Once in Denver, Zareen accepts David’s tours of the city, and daily she comes home from the mall laden with bags, but ultimately she is coldly efficient in shattering her daughter’s chance at happiness.
Another pair of stories revolves around Ruth, an expat living in Lahore with, or mostly without, her husband. While waiting for him to come home, Ruth picks out plants for her verandah, coddles her dog, sips wine of an evening and obeys her servants. She also falls in and out of love, and these two stories, Ruth and the Hijackers and Ruth and the Afghan, explore the small dramas of her life. In the Author’s Note at the end of the book, Sidhwa writes that she based the character on a friend, and the incidents indeed have the open-ended trajectory of memories rather than fiction. An encounter seems gravid with meaning, but it simply trails off. It may be that Sidhwa has not sufficiently streamed her raw material into art. Or it may be that she achieves a startling likeness to real encounters, which after all often pointlessly trail off.
The collection is far from brand new, as Sidhwa herself details in the Author’s Note. The incidents remembered in Defend Yourself Against Me were meant to be part of her most famous work, Ice-Candy-Man. And if Breaking It Up seems rather dated in subject and execution, that’s because it was first published in the 1980s and then reworked into An American Brat. Their listlessness seeps into some of the other stories. In the title story, soaked with predictable nuptial melodrama, newlywed Roshni masters the peculiar codes of marital communication while she explores her new life in the United States. The child narrator in The Trouble-Easers listens to his mother’s traditional fable about an angel, a woodcutter and three chickpeas. The fable takes up most of the space in the story, but we see in flashes the child’s fidgeting, the rituals that accompany the mother’s telling, and her pious interruptions. In Sehra-bai, an old woman in a nursing home who suffers “phases of intense reminiscence” reveals to her unloved daughter the secret humiliations that made her what she is.
Sidhwa explains the unusual length of each story by her preference for the novel form. Overstuffed with extras and scenery, they lack the single-point punch that true short stories might have had. On the other hand, every piece of writing by an established artist throws light on a lifetime’s work, even those that are miscellaneous and imperfect. Readers who study Sidhwa will find this book valuable from that point of view.