Other Indias

Walter Nash

  • Ice-Candy-Man by Bapsi Sidhwa
    Heinemann, 277 pp, £11.95, February 1988, ISBN 0 434 70230 7
  • Mistaken Identity by Nayantara Sahgal
    Heinemann, 194 pp, £10.95, April 1988, ISBN 0 434 66612 2
  • Baumgartner’s Bombay by Anita Desai
    Heinemann, 230 pp, £10.95, July 1988, ISBN 0 434 18636 8

For my parents, it was the strangulated crackle of the old gramophone tenor forlornly wailing ‘Pale hands I loved’; for me, it was Kim and lives of the Bengal Lancers; and for my sisters possibly a dream of the launder ed memsahib decorously cantering out of the fort, to be abducted in devastating dark-eyed dumbshow by someone like Rudolph Valentino. It was poignant and dashing and very romantic, but I think we must have guessed that India was not really like that. Nor, I dare say, was it very like some recent televisual fantasies, done in stuporcolour and best brown shoe stain, of a shimmering and turbaned place, cooled only by the tutelary presence of Saint Peggy Ashcroft. These may be our preferred Indias, the Indias of spice and hokum, but they are a far, mendacious cry from the country modern Indian writers want to tell us about.

Bapsi Sidhwa tells of a time and place of civil unrest, of wrecked friendships and betrayals of trust, of the sullen moods and sudden violence of sectarianism, of a moral wilderness redeemed only by the courageous good sense and pragmatic decency of a few individuals. The description might seem to fit any number of turbulent places in a world where false godliness grins at real hatred: but the place is the city of Lahore, and the time is the traumatic period of the partition of India. Events are seen through the eyes of a spirited, imaginative, polio-stricken girl, the cosseted child of a middle-class Parsee family. Lenny has an ayah, a nanny, of whom she is inordinately fond, and Ayah has followers, attracted by her well-rounded Punjabi personality. Among these admirers she holds court, in the local park as well as in the kitchen and garden of her employers’ house. Thus Lenny becomes the friend and pet of Masseur (who massages), of Ice-Candy-Man (who sells popsicles), of Imam Din (who cooks and polygamises), of Hari (a gardener), of Sher Singh (a zookeeper), of Sharbat Khan (a knife-grinder) – all of them rich personalities in their own right, and all, for the purposes of the story, representative of the religious and ethnic mix, Hindu and Sikh and Muslim, of India before partition.

This amiable knockabout company is one of Lenny’s educational worlds. The other is the sphere of her Parsee family and their acquaintances: of Godmother and Slavesister, of Electric Aunt, of her furious little flingaround brother Adi, of Cousin (who is engaged in the discovery of his penis), of her doctor, the gruff Col. Bharucha, and of eminences like Mr Bankwalla (a rich wallah who works in a bank). Lenny as storyteller impartially distributes among all these personages proper names (Col. Bharucha), kinship or household designations (Godmother, Ayah), and the nicknames of her own invention (Electric Aunt, Ice-Candy-Man), without respect to the status or narrative centrality of the characters she describes: indeed, the more peripheral characters tend to be those who are properly named, while some of those nearer to the centre of the girl’s life bear through the entire tale only the names her affection and personal interest has given them. This is true to the spirit of childhood, but it also related to a sub-text of the story, the theme of difference and divisiveness. Proper names tell of origins; proper names help to divide Hindu from Muslim from Parsee; but how can we guess at the ethnic differences between Masseur and Ice-Candy-Man? The child looks at a community of persons undifferentiated in her view by the adult categories of religion, caste and origin; the child also sees everything in the immediacy of now, and consequently narrates in the present tense – another thematically convenient device, since it tends to eliminate one of the chores of sequential narrative, the task of ascribing effects to causes. Lenny’s is not a historical account; it is the blink of the eye – watch the birdie – trapping this unaccountable moment, and then another, and then just one more.

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