Friday, May 09, 2008

Bapsi Sidhwa

Faredoon Junglewalla, his wife Putli and his mother-in-law Jerbanoo, ensconced amidst the Toddywallas, Bankwallas, Botliwallahs and Chaiwallas, form the wafts and the weaves of the tapestry of the Parsee community of pre-partition Lahore and India.

Years ago, during the last years of the 19th century, Faredoon or Freddy as he was called had decided to uproot his family from a nondescript village in Central India and move north to greener pastures. His destination was Punjab, the fertile land of five rivers and the holy Sapta Sindhu of the ancient Zoroastrian texts. And so the young Freddy with a pregnant wife, young daughter and mother-in-law in toe, had set off in a bullock cart to Lahore.

With help from the local Parsees, Freddy settles down in Lahore. What follows is a cat-eat-mouse game between him and his cantankerous mother-in-law Jerbanoo. Old Jerbanoo is often greedy. And much to Freddy’s chagrin, this fact goes almost unnoticed by his wife Putli, who is now busy taking care of their expanding family. Interspersed in their family saga are the stories of the Parsee community, their births and weddings, the customs and traditions and their copings with the recent brush with modernity. The normally liberal Freddy’s discomfort at his son’s love for a non Parsee girl is very apparent.

“I am not saying that only we have the spark. Other people have it too; Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, they too have developed pure strains through generations. But what happens when you marry outside your kind? The spark so delicately nurtured, so subtly balanced, meets something totally alien and unmatched. Its precise balance is scrambled. It reverts to the primitive”

While the plot revolves around the Junglewalla clan, other characters and events shed much light on the spirit of oneness and the solidarity amongst the Parsees. Yet with this book Sidhwa has drawn a lot of flak from Parsees for her depiction of community. The title too (anyone who talks too much is said to have eaten crows) had created a furor of sorts. But the feeling of oneness is beautifully depicted in the narrative.

“Visiting Parsees are rare. When they did steam into the city station, the community mood became festive. The Toddywallas, the Bankwallas, Chaiwallas, Bottliwallas and Junglewallas vied with each other in making the visitors welcome. They were wafted from home to home for breakfast, brunch, lunch, tea, drinks and dinner. The morning after, fortified with enough roasted chickens and hard-boiled eggs to feed an entire train, the hung-over wrecks were seen off at the station. Grandmas, grandpas, aunts, unless and children waved until the little fluttering handkerchiefs faded from view.”

Through the characters are mostly loud and boisterous, Sidhwa’s writing has a wonderful quality of restraint in it. At places the narrative is so quotidian and that one is often reminded of Rohinton Mistry. Was it a coincidence that Mistry’s world Firoz Shah Bagh was also a portrayal of the Parsees!

Humorous and witty, Sidhwa’s tale of the Junglewalla dynasty is an entertaining read.