Amidst conflict

Amidst conflict

Amidst conflict

‘Their Language of Love’ is a collection of stories that describes the emotional agony of Partition and its consequences for people, especially women, writes Melanie P Kumar .

In the Author’s Note, Bapsi Sidhwa clearly mentions that she is a “novelist by inclination and not a short story writer,” and though this may account for the rough edges, her stories still have so much to say.

Sidhwa’s Pakistani exposure and powers of observation serve to provide deep insights into the lives of the people around her. These, coupled with her lyrical style, make her writings special. Several of Bapsi’s stories whet one’s curiosity with her use of the Partition and the Indo-Pak wars as backdrops, and also offer an excellent opportunity for a reader from India to get a perspective from the other side of the border.

The title story deals with the arrival of Roshni, a newly-wed bride from Bulsar, who is kept waiting by her husband, Nav, at JFK airport. Nav has arranged a honeymoon for his bride in New York. As their relationship blossoms and Roshni grows to trust Nav, she also realises his bossy side, which she handles with both annoyance and acceptance in Their Language of Love.

A Gentlemanly War, though a fictional piece, juxtaposes real-life anecdotes from the author’s life. The terror of the average Pakistani woman for her family, during the 1965 war with India, contrasts with the reaction of the men. In this narrative, the lady protagonist writes: “…It struck me again that Cyrus, and not only Cyrus, but all the men I knew, had been more exhilarated by the onset of the war than appalled by it.… The menacing atmosphere was electric with excitement for the men.

” But what seems to be the most appealing part is the protagonist’s conclusion that what prevented the Indian army from occupying Lahore and sparing it further horrors was the “unacknowledged compassion” and the acceptance of “the ties between the two countries — between the two halves of the divided Punjab — of friendship, shared languages, neighbourhoods and customs.”

Breaking It Up reflects the anxiety of a Parsee couple, after they receive a letter from their daughter, Feroza, who lives in the US. The mother, Zareen, tearfully tells the father on the telephone, “She wants to marry a non,” to be interpreted as a non-Parsee, and in this case, an American, David. The reaction of the father, Cyrus, is to assume that David is a “bounty-hunter” and to promptly despatch his wife across the seas, to break it up. Her efforts, laced with sorrow and humour, bring out the rigidity, which is the well-known bane of the Parsee community.

Zareen tells Feroza, “You’ll be thrown out of the community,” and continues, “It is not just the case of your marrying a boy; the entire family is involved — all our relationships matter.” The clash between the freedom of choice and the pressure to maintain one’s heritage are interestingly brought out, as the story reaches its foregone conclusion.
The stories, Ruth and the Hijackers, and Ruth and the Afghan, bring out an American woman’s perspective on life in Pakistan and surprisingly includes a near-spiritual experience, which has Ruth saying, “I’ve lost my fear of death.”

The Trouble-Easers is about two Parsee angels and the most interesting part comes at the end, when it strikes the young girl to ask her mother why Pir Khurkham, who returns from Haj and should logically be a Muslim, is bestowed with the blessings of Zoroastrian angels, after chanting Zoroastrian prayers. The mother, after some hesitation, replies beatifically, “But that is what happens when one lives cheek by jowl with people of other faiths — saints jump boundaries and the barriers of animosity fall.”

Captivating tales

Sehra-Bai and Defend Yourself Against Me are among the most touching stories in this anthology. The former tells the story of mother, Sehra, and daughter, Ruby, after Sehra has grown old and her body is racked by paralysis. But the illness has not killed Sehra’s spirit and the stories of her past not only confirm to her daughter her childhood awareness of her mother as a sexual being, but also reveal the tragic secrets that had isolated them from each other. The last paragraph speaks of childhood resentments melting, and Ruby being “flooded with feelings of tenderness and love.”

Defend Yourself Against Me brings out the horrors of the Partition, as viewed by Pakistani women. The lamentations of an old Pakistani woman chill the heart when she says that it is women who are “the fruits of victory in the unremitting chain of wars that is man’s relentless history. The vulnerability of mothers, daughters, grand-daughters, and their metamorphosis into possessions, living objects on whose soft bodies victors and losers alike vent their wrath, enact fantastic vendettas, celebrate victory.”

The book is replete with reflections on the ravages of Partition and Indo-Pak conflicts, making the stories a must-read for a humane understanding that war wreaks the same kind of trauma, whichever side one belongs to. In Sidhwa’s writings, one senses the underpinnings of a desire for peace between the two countries.

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