21 March 2013

Their Language Of Love

Publisher: Penguin Viking
Price: Rs 499

Year of Publishing: 2013

It was despair and unhappiness that drove Pakistani author Bapsi Sidhwa to be a writer. Afflicted with polio as a child, she battled intense and soul-crushing periods of loneliness.

'Earth-1947', the acclaimed Deepa Mehta film which was adapted from her best-selling novel, 'Ice Candy Man', gives a fairly accurate portrait of the author's childhood consciousness. Her personal trauma, both the handicap and a failed first marriage, was what drove her to write. She said in an interview, "Had I lived in a milieu where I could have boyfriends, gone to dances and had fun, I don't think I would have written....Just the act of writing removed much unhappiness."

It must be her debilitating personal grief that lets her see the world in its peculiar grotesque forms. And yet, the author's brutal wit and ability to see people as creatures of circumstances, capable of much charm and goodness, acts as an antidote to the otherwise grim world she portrays.

The tide changed, and the author found her peace finally.

"Now that I am pretty reconciled to my life and am happy, I don't feel the urge to write." she said a couple of years ago. Perhaps that is why Bapsi Sidhwa relies on past memories, desultory meetings with random people, leftover episodes that she could not accommodate in her earlier books, to make a collection of eight short stories in her latest.

'The Language of Love' while extremely readable is not freshly inspired. These are no stellar stories, and if you've read the author before, there isn't anything spectacularly new. In fact, on first reading, you feel impatient with stories high on embroidery and garnish, and low on plot. Much of it meanders and there is a lack of a tight structure.

The raciest in the collection is 'Breaking It Up, about a mother who travels to the US to persuade her daughter to give up on her idea of marrying her non-Parsi boyfriend. The story is entertaining and gives a portrait of the community's customs and quirks. The other one is 'The Trouble Easers' , which Sidhwa borrows from the famous Zoroastrian Gujarati tale about a woodcutter and his fortune. Both stories move with vigour.

'Their Language of Love' recounts a fairly convention story of a young Indian bride who is getting acquainted with a new country (US) and a new life partner.
None of these are very ambitious. The others are languorous and essentially stories of atmosphere. Being a novelist primarily, Sidhwa tends to linger on, and describe settings in the greatest detail.

This can get tedious in the beginning, as your mind is trained to look for a plot point in a short story. But once you realise that the atmospherics and descriptions are 'the' point, you allow yourself to soak in the elaborate and luxuriant period sets that Sidhwa tenderly etches out with consummate skill.

'Ruth and The Hijackers' and 'Ruth and the Afghan' intersect with some characters slipping in and out. Ruth is an American housewife whose husband, Rick works for the South Asian division of a company and is required to travel to India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. The couple's house is in Lahore, and Ruth while affectionate towards her absentee husband, has a proclivity to fall for handsome and elite Pakistani men of her circles.

The setting is of the 80s, a period where a casual visit to Kabul is possible for a foreigner. Here, Ruth and Rick befriend an Afghan, a top ranking official in the government. They are quite charmed by what they see around. The ruling party is pro Soviet Russia and America is starting to get increasingly paranoid about the latter's expansionist motives. This is the time of US support to the mujahideens (not Talibans, as misunderstood), routed through Pakistan. It ultimately led to a bloody war that destroyed peace in Afghanistan forever. This is a period rarely documented in fiction and though Sidhwa's stories are personal, they are studded with many historical details.

'Defend Yourself Against Me' is a leftover piece from 'Ice Candy Man', and considers how youngsters approach their acrimonious past.
'Sehra-bai', about an ailing elderly Parsi woman is that rare story in the collection that is a triumph of characterisation.

'Their Language of Love' is not Bapsi Sidhwa's best, but it is still greatly readable, as is the case with seasoned writers. Even when they aren't in their most inspired phase, they produce work that can make the cut.