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Their Language of Love

Bapsi Sidhwa

Viking

Pages: 264 Rs. 499

Much beauty, little novelty to be found in Sidhwa’s stories

Bapsi Sidhwa’s stories remain elegant, but they’re also a time capsule of sorts, not so much evoking an earlier world as refusing to acknowledge this one, writes Manasi Subramaniam.

Manasi Subramaniam  27th Apr 2013

Bapsi Sidhwa

f Their Language of Love had been published two decades ago, it would have been the exact same book. Nothing — neither the stories nor the writing — would have been any different. This is the unsettling thing about Bapsi Sidhwa's new collection of short stories. It has no hint of stylistic distinction from the upsurge of books in the nineties from the South Asian diasporic communities of the USA. Often, they were short stories, and often they were written by female authors (Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Jhumpa Lahiri, Bharati Mukherjee, Shauna Singh Baldwin), authors who are among the brightest and most beloved voices in world literature today. The books were characterised by nostalgia, otherness, migration difficulties, dislocation, cultural longing and belonging. There was always a story of a woman moving from a small town in North India to the USA to live with a man she has married but hardly knows. There was always a story that relied on oral tradition and mystical folklore. There was always a story of a child sent to America who falls in love with an American, much to the chagrin of her parents. The style was usually the sort that is described as sensuous or jewel-toned or evocative. The imagery usually involved tamarind and vermillion and spices. And often, when the subtext was not clear, it was explained in the next paragraph, like an attached study guide, with words like 'marginalised' and 'identity.'

This takes nothing away from that decade or the writers who contributed to its literature. It was not even formula (can everyday occurrence be classified as formula simply because it is repetitive and frequent?). These books gave a world of understanding to an as-yet-unshrunk universe inhabited by the flurry of South Asians who had blunderingly found their way to North America. The stories gave them representation on the bookshelves of the world, assurance that their lives were being documented, that their troubles didn't go unnoticed. And the issues they covered were terribly important for the time. But when one watches the progression of the genre (if one might call it that), or even of these individual writers, one sees how easily (and, in some cases, how magnificently) the authors have adapted themselves to the changing ways of the world, the newer concerns of immigrants, the reinvention of the self, the reconstruction of the homeland, the shift of the diasporic struggle from maplessness to mapping, from distance to re-engagement, even the rejection of well-worn Orientalist metaphors.

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In terms of style, tone, and voice, the datedness can be gnawing. Sometimes, the reasons for this are apparent enough: the final story was a chapter omitted from the final draft of Ice Candy Man.

idhwa, though, seems not to have noted these changes. Her collection remains rooted in the time between Partition and the nineties, clinging to the many anxieties of that dynamic period without ever lurching towards the new century. Thematically, this is not so much of a problem, we could even consider it historical fiction. But in terms of style, tone, and voice, the datedness can be gnawing. Sometimes, the reasons for this are apparent enough: the final story, 'Defend Yourself Against Me,' was a chapter omitted from the final draft of Sidhwa's seminal work, Ice Candy Man, first published in 1988. The second story, 'Breaking it up,' was the short story that was later expanded into her novel An American Brat, first published in 1993. In this story, when the protagonist Zareen travels from Lahore to Denver to visit her daughter, Sidhwa writes: "They breakfasted at McDonalds and lunched at Benihana, where the Japanese chef performed a fierce ballet with his sharp knives. At night Zareen sank her teeth into a thick slice of medium-rare roast beef and shut her eyes the better to savour it. Never had she tasted the natural flavour of meats, fish and vegetables quite this way – always eating them drowned in delectable concoctions of spices at home."

Sidhwa's tales are certainly well-written and her characters are vividly etched-out. Two stories from the perspective of an American woman living in Lahore are particularly astute and full of sharp observations. The language is evenly elegant and the stories explore the experiences of women with the eagle-eyed insight that Sidhwa is best-known for. In Sehra-bai a relationship between an ailing woman and her granddaughter is described: "Although Sehra-bai indulges her granddaughter brazenly, there is a limit to the familiarity she will permit. She stops short of allowing it to undermine her authority of grandmother. Perin frequently skirts the periphery, and tests the limits of her grandparent's tolerance. This mixture of devotion and teasing, obedience and indulgence, has forged an inextricable bond between them."

It is a slim volume of eight stories, and each is touching in its own way. Sidhwa's strong-willed women are intense, intelligent, witty creatures. At one point, Sehra-bai recalls with peals of laughter that when she visited the bank in her youth the employees were given official sanction to put down their pens and admire her beauty. In the title story, Roshni astutely decodes her new husband's flamboyance and bossiness as insecurity and deals with it in her own sensible way. The final tale is one of heartrending pain, culminating in a beautiful sort of forgiveness. All of these are very lovely, as Sidhwa's work is bound to be. But the book, finally, is a time capsule, buried for twenty years, and emerging tremulously into a world it does not acknowledge.

 
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