Watching My Novel Become Deepa Metha’s Film

June 6th, 2016

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New York Times – September 5, 1999

(I have made a few minor changes to update the article)

Watching My Novel Become Metha’s Film

BAPSI SIDHWA

EARLY one January morning I get a call from Deepa Mehta. She has just read my novel Cracking India [Titled: Ice Candy Man in UK, India, and Pakistan]. She wants to make it into a movie. “But tell me, please, has the book been optioned?” she asks.

“No.”

“Thank God!” That breathless, slightly raucous laugh.

I haven’t heard of Deepa Mehta. As she talks I realize she understands each nuance of the novel and the significance of the Parsee girl Lenny as narrator. Lenny bears witness to the violence of religious hatred that led to the partition of India in 1947. Although Deepa Mehta is Canadian and I’m American, we both have our origins in the Punjab. I’m from the Pakistani side of the border, she from the Indian. Considering that India and Pakistan often teeter on the brink of nuclear war, this, too, has significance.

When I finally interrupt Deepa to tell her that she can make the film, there is an abrupt silence, and then: “But what if someone else calls you tomorrow with an offer?”

Her insecurity is touching. “Cracking India has been around for four years and no one’s optioned it,” I say. “I don’t think anyone’s going to call tomorrow.”

And so it is that “Earth”, the second film in Ms. Mehta’s trilogy “Fire,” “Earth” and “Water,” is conceived.

My mind is at once luminous with images: dramatized scenes interspersed with voice-overs. Lenny sits in the park with Ayah, her nanny, and a voice murmurs, “Things love to crawl beneath Ayah’s sari — ladybugs, glowworms, Ice Candy Man’s toes.”

But Deepa is uncomfortable with voice-overs.

I am insistent. The story won’t be the same without Lenny’s feisty interpretation.

Deepa explains she passionately loves Lenny’s way of looking at things. Lenny will be present in every scene. The camera will accommodate her point-of-view. The story will unfold through her eyes.

We spend hours on the phone each day as Deepa literally carves her cinematic vision out of my novel. I’m teaching at Mount Holyoke College, and in March 1997 Deepa flies to Massachusetts from Toronto with the manuscript. I am to give a reading that evening, and Deepa has agreed to participate. We meet for the first time an hour before the presentation.

I read a passage from Cracking India:  “Nine-year-old Adi has just had a hernia operation. He unzips his fly to show his 7-year-old cousin Lenny the surgical scar, and the glamorous spectacle of his miniature genitals.

“You can touch the scar,” he offers gallantly. When she’s suitably impressed, he says: “I’m also having my tonsils removed.”

I ask Deepa in front of the crowd of 300 how she plans to film the scene.

“That’s easy,” she says nonchalantly:  “I visited a sex shop in Toronto, explained I was a filmmaker and asked if they had male genitals.”

“All shapes and sizes, madam,” the salesman assured her.

“I am looking for the genitals of a 10-year- old boy,” she said.

Shocked salesman: “Are you a filmmaker, madam, or a pervert?”

The girls can’t stop laughing. Corrine Bliss, an amused colleague, later says, ‘I can’t believe you two women, in your beautiful saris, said all this in front of the girls.’  Mount Holyoke is not known for levity.

The script shrinks. I’m appalled see my book stripped to the bone. My screenwriter friend Ruth Prawer Jhabvala assures me it’s the norm. The camera will flesh it out – Deepa knows what she’s doing.

Cracking India is a novel knit of many strands, covering a large sprawl of time. The film is a two-hour event. Deepa jettisoned episodes, amalgamated characters and prying out an import strand – that of the beautiful Ayah and her 2 competing suitors – wove the story round it. Although Mehta invites my suggestions, I soon realize that it is her cinematic vision of the book that matters. If I project my ideas too insistently she will compromise, and neither of our visions will be realized. It is like handing over my child to the care of a person I trust.

Two months later I’m summoned urgently to Toronto. I sense a disquieting ambiguity. Deepa and her assistant Anne Masson broach the subject cautiously. They need a narrator at the end. Will I play the adult Lenny? It is a tiny but significant part. “Sure,” I say. Is that all …the reason for the urgent summons? Tactfully I am informed that I will be required to limp. O.K. I already limp slightly. I’ll exaggerate it.

New Delhi, January 1998: Locations have been selected and actors signed: the Indian megastar Amir Khan as Ice Candy Man; Nandita Das, who was in “Fire,” as the beautiful Ayah; Rahul Khanna as Masseur, and Maia Sethna as the young Lenny. Sethna has just lost her mother to cancer. Her father believes the film will divert her, and provide her with the nurture of women. After seeing the film Shashi Tharoor wrote a moving article in which he said Maia had inherited her mother’s genes: Maia’s mother had been a superb theater actress in Bombay.

I arrive in Delhi. There is a midnight shoot inside the historic walled city built by the Moguls. I sit shivering, wrapped in a comforter. But it is grueling summer in the script. Masseur emerges from hoary wooden doors in a muslin kurta doused with water to resemble sweat. He mounts his bicycle, but alarmed by distant gunfire dismounts. Wheeling the cycle, glancing over his shoulder, he walks through the narrow walled-in gully. Later, when I remove a book from a crackling plastic bag during a take, Deepa hollers, “Cut!” The hypersensitive mikes have picked up the crackle. It is my first lesson in set etiquette.

The following week I learn an unforgettable second lesson.

Ayah sits surrounded by admirers. Ice Candy Man displays a cache of gold coins he has looted and gives one to Ayah: “It’s for you, keep it.” Ayah holds it out on the flat of her palm and says, “I don’t want it.” Ice Candy Man takes the coin from her hand.

After the last take, Amir Khan saunters over to me, anticipating comment.  In the script, when Ice Candy Man says, “Keep it,” he folds Ayah’s fingers over the coin. I feel an important gesture has been omitted.

Mr. Khan agrees. He marches off to Deepa, who is working on another set. As she approaches, black hair spread, eyes ablaze in the night light, she resembles some fierce Hindu deity. I quake. Deepa brings her hands together in a loud clap and holds them before her bowed head in the posture of a supplicant: a very angry one. “Please don’t ever do that to me again,” she says. “There is only one director on the set. I beg you, don’t talk to the actors; actors are easily confused.”

When I see the finished film, I realize how well the scene works, how different a film is from a  novel, what a large role camera angles, close-ups and editing play in the language of the screen. I’m fortunate in my filmmaker. My trust in her has been vindicated.

My brother Minoo Bhandara visits the set from Lahore. It is dusk, and we sit in the servants-quarters yard. Giles Nuttgens is adjusting the lighting, moving the camera on the dolly. Her leg encased in braces for her role as the polio-afflicted Lenny, Maia Sethna wiggles awkwardly up the veranda steps. Her dress with the sash rides up. The backs of pale thighs, the steel struts and leather straps, the half moons of dusty cotton panties, the cook’s bicycle leaning against a crumbling brick wall. I glance at my brother.

Bewitched by the alchemy of the moment, he, too, has been transported to our childhood. In the half light, the distance I had created as a novelist vanishes: fiction fuses with autobiography.

In the novel, where fact is so interwoven with the fabric of fiction, it is difficult for me to separate the two. I was myself a child at the time, and many of the sounds and sights are still vivid in my memory. But my recall is that of the child’s, and a child does not always grasp the full significance of what he or she sees. I began to realize this on the sets.

Although the distant roar of the mobs was a terrifying constant of my young life in Lahore, and I knew they were killing people, I did not witness mobs in action. I saw the evil they’d done only after they’d left; the charred debris of burnt and looted houses, discarded bundles of clothes that suddenly assumed the curled up and deranged shapes of murdered bodies. I saw small processions but they did not convey the menace of the large mobs. And one morning, holding my barefoot Hindu gardener’s finger as we walked on Warris Road, a comparatively safe neighborhood, we stumbled upon a jute sack lying on the dirt sidewalk. The gardener abruptly stopped. Something about his deportment cautioned me to stillness. With the ball of his bare foot he gingerly pushed the sack. A young man spilled out and lay in the dust. He was golden-brown, bold-featured; handsome and rakish even in death. His chest and shoulders were bare and there was a deep bloodless wound beneath his ribs, as if his tapered waist had been further trimmed. A red checked sarong was knotted just beneath his navel. The rest of him was in the sack. Even at that age I felt a wrenching at the futility of this wasted life. The gardener looked about with frightened eyes. He picked me up and began to run.

On the sets Deepa is doubtful: “Are you sure the man was in a gunny sack? We’ve been trying for two days, but we can’t get Rahul to fit into one.”  The next day, Rahul Khanna, the gorgeous six-footer who plays the role of the doomed Masseur, asks: “Was it a standard gunny-sack? It wasn’t larger than normal or something?”

“It was an ordinary gunny sack.” I’m absolutely sure.

They find super-large burlap bag to stuff Khanna into. It was only when I saw the rough edit that it dawned on me – the man’s legs must have been dismembered.

As a child I had no way of imagining this.

There are ironies. A huge riot scene complete with explosions, burning buildings and 1500 extras is underway. 10,000 spectators, hoping for a glimpse of  Aamer Khan, are held back by the police. The extras, wielding long swords, staffs, and knives are enacting a clash between the Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs.  Communal tension always simmers close to the surface in India and it doesn’t take much to ignite an actual riot among the spectators. A few men are stabbed and rushed to hospital. The police herd the crew and cast to safety in a nearby building before they tackle the frenzied mob. I tell writer Tahira Naquvi about the incident and a month later I hear her read a moving story based on the incident.

Foreign film companies in India have a ubiquitous guest: a man from the censor board.

I am asked to distract him when a dicey scene is due. At such times I develop ungovernable cravings for spicy chicken curries and other tasty items of Indian food and haul him off to feed me. It doesn’t take him long to catch on. Towards the end of the shoot he gallantly and resignedly plays along.

In May of 1998 I see the rough edit of “Earth.” The scenes have a different order than I’d supposed: some scenes are entirely missing. I view it again, and again. “This works; this doesn’t.” Excited comments fly. I missed a crucial take at a small railway station on the outskirts of Delhi when I whisked the bemused censor away to eat pistachio kulfi at the crack of dawn.

Slaughtered bodies lie atop one another in a tangle of limbs inside a train compartment.  Necks and torsos twist and stretch at improbable angles. I ask Deepa, “Are these dummies”?

“They’re real people!” says Deepa, mildly offended, “We’d spent eight hours applying the make-up and arranging their bodies just so.” And to prove how real they are she elaborates, “When I had them all in place and we were ready to shoot, a man piped up: ‘O-jee, mennu pishaab lagee-aey. (Please, Madam, I want to pee)’. I said, ‘Don’t you dare move. Control yourself.  After a while, desperate, he said,‘Madam, I must go.’ So I said, ‘Do it where you are.’”

From the entwined bodies: “You go on us, we’ll kill you!”

We laugh so much, I forget to ask, “So, did he?”

At the Toronto Film Festival in October I notice more scenes have been eliminated, Psrsee characters dropped. Deepa explains that the scenes confused the story, slowed its tempo.

In December, the Asia Society organizes a screening of “Earth” in New York. The film script has two versions: one for the English speaking world and one for screening in India.  Both screen-plays have been written impeccably by my friend Nasreen Rehman. The film is riveting, almost mystical. But, strangely, perhaps because of my involvement with the filming, it has become too personal. I am no longer able to dispassionately assess it. As with my novels once they’re published, I now depend on the judgment of others.

The Early History of my Writing: Excerpt 6

April 7th, 2016

I never wrote an outline because a story has its own wayward way of expressing itself. One paragraph gave birth to the next and the next. If I introduced a new character, I would work from the very beginning to imbed the character throughout the story. I knew where I was heading when I started to write and I had the end in view.

I was a child when Partition took place and Ice Candy Man (ICM) stayed in me for a long time. It struck me also that I heard hushed conversations not meant for my ears about someone’s daughter-in-law, sister, or mother which bewildered me. I didn’t know what they were whispering about, but as I grew up, I discovered they were talking about hundreds of thousands of women who were kidnapped and raped during Partition. I never met anyone who admitted to having a family member taken away. This was because it would dishonor the family. In fact the brutality the women were subjected to was meant to not only dishonor the family, but to also dishonor the race, the tribe and the religion the women belonged to, whether Hindu, Sikh, or Muslim. I felt very strongly that these bestial kidnappings should be recorded.

When I started writing ICM, I had the image of an incident in mind. Men in carts drive into our house intent on looting, thinking we were Hindus. A memory of my mother standing on the veranda with her hands on my and brother’s heads. Apparently, and I am not sure if I recall this or it is a part of an oft narrated story:  our Muslim cook comes out saying ‘Bastards, they are Parsi and not Hindus’ and the men drive away. I used this incident as a climactic scene in the novel.

When I start a novel, I imagine a scene and often it takes place in the middle. What brought The Crow Eaters to my mind, was a remark by my mother: ‘You know, your father wasn’t always like this. When we were introduced, he asked me ‘Which is your favorite color?’ and I said ‘Blue’ and then he wrote me love letters on blue writing paper.’

By the time I arrived at this point in the story, I had created Faradoon Junglewalla and Jerbano, and a host of other characters who completely took over, and my poor mother remains a lesser but equally memorable character in it.

Writing involves editing and reediting, and I must confess I quite enjoy editing. I don’t think I could write a satisfactory story without editing it. If I write about my friends, I disguised them thoroughly, often changing their sexes. I blithely write about my close relatives, knowing that even if angered, they will eventually forgive me. I seldom wrote really unforgivable stuff about them. When I include someone as a character in my work it is my way of honoring that person –though I have found this sometimes misunderstood.

I smoked a lot when I wrote. I often wrote in bed, lying on my stomach, or slouching on pillows. I wrote in my children’s exercise books, or on rough pads. My first two novels were written entirely by hand, which I typed – misspellings and all – on my father’s ancient Smith Corona typewriter. Nergis Sobani kindly corrected and typed the fair copies. Once I got hold of a computer, I realized that what I wrote by hand in an initial draft of, say of about seven pages, it expanded to more than 20 pages by the time I had worked on it on my computer. In fact while I was writing Ice Candy Man (Cracking India) I semi-moved to America, and it wasn’t until I received the Bunting Fellowship at Radcliffe, which included a Macintosh computer, that I was able to complete the novel.

An American Brat was prompted partially by my own experiences when I migrated to America from Pakistan. As the mother of two daughters, I had to come to terms with the challenges and fears that western influences typified, and navigate the unchartered terrain to accommodate the change. Parsi girls who marry outside the faith are not permitted to attend Zoroastrian temples or partake of attendant rites. One of my daughters decided to marry out, but given the rigidity of the non-conversion laws, there was not much we could do to reconcile her with the religious community. In An American Brat I’ve tried to represent sympathetically each character’s point of view and what motivates the mother’s actions. There are no villains or heroes here, only people doing their best to cope as they face the challenges of adapting to two startlingly different cultures – the conservative East and the free-wheeling West.

While I was writing An American Brat, I spent most of the  nineties in Lahore because my mother was severely ill. This time nourished me and whole swathes of the book move between Pakistan and the United States. Although I became an American citizen in 1991,  It wasn’t until my mother had passed away that I began living in America.

 

The Early History of my Writing: Excerpt 5

March 29th, 2016

Excerpt 5
By this time the press in Lahore, recommended by Javid, had also readied the book. I had sketched a crow for the royal purple cover.

Javid Iqbal did a strange thing. He tore off the front and back jackets from some books and distributed them among the writers in Lahore, most of whom were his friends.

Now it  happened that my brother, Minoo, was sitting next to the beloved poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz on a flight from Islamabad to Lahore. Faiz was of course well known and everyone on the plane greeted him. After chatting for a while with Minoo, he took out a shabby looking book from his pocket and knowing my brother was a Parsi, handed it to him saying ‘This book is written by a Parsi woman. Would you know who she is?’

After leafing through the book, Minoo found some of the material uncannily familiar and said: ‘I think my sister writes…I think it is written by her.’

They came straight to our flat from the airport. I was so honored to see Faiz Sahib in our home. In those days, we had only one air conditioner and it was in the bedroom. My husband and I ushered Faiz Sahib straight to a small alcove there.  It had, a cushioned bench against a window with a coffee-table before it, a couple of chairs, and book-shelves on either side.

I remember the scene vividly. Before sitting down, Faiz Ahmed Faiz dropped the book on the coffee table and said: ‘Have you written this book?’

Although I recognized it, I wondered why the book had no covers on either end. I said hesitantly: ‘Yes, I wrote it.’

‘It’s a good second rate book,’ he announced magnanimously.

After Khushwant Singh’s laudatory remarks about The Crow Eaters manuscript, I felt a twinge of disappointment, but coming from Faiz, it was nevertheless a compliment. I mumbled: ‘Thank you, Faiz Sahib.’

He said: ‘It’s a good book. You write like Narayan, Naipaul and all those writers…you know who I mean.’

I revered Naipaul’s writing and I said: ‘But Faiz Sahib, that’s blasphemy. How can you compare me  with Naipaul?’

‘Oh yes,’ he said, ‘I can.’

‘If Naipaul is a second rate writer,’ I asked timidly, ‘who do you consider first rate?’

Faiz said: ‘Shakespeare, Milton, Dante…’

I looked at him, unable to say anything.

We had some tea and samosas and spent a pleasant evening together before my brother took Faiz away to his home for a drink. Faiz Sahib recommended the book to a Russian publisher and it was titled The Fire Worshippers.

The Crow Eaters was launched at the Intercontinental Hotel in Lahore. A slew of writers lined up by Javid Iqbal  talked about the book. But before we were halfway through, we were requested to quickly vacate the hall because of a bomb threat. We later discovered, to our surprise, that a Parsi had made the phone call; Faiz Ahmed Faiz had been precinct when he wrote on the back jacket of the book, “… Her exposition, or exposure, may or may not please her confreres [Parsis] but it will certainly endear her to every reader who comes across the book…” Up to this point, the Parsis had almost never been written about in fiction and they could not stand to see themselves depicted as less than perfect.

After the launch, the shabby little self published book was sent by an English friend to Caroline Dawnay, my new agent in London. Two weeks later I received a marvelous acceptance letter from the esteemed editor Liz Calder at Jonathan Cape. Caroline Dawnay has been not only my agent but a dear friend ever since .

Liz Calder was considered the best literary editor at the time and when the Crow Eaters was published every newspaper and magazine carried a review. It won the David Higham award for first books. (The award was withdrawn when Mr. Bhutto slapped his shoe on the table  in a fury and withdrew Pakistan from the commonwealth) A year later  Cape published The Pakistani Bride and soon after that both books were  published by St. Martin’s in America.

I would like to make an observation here:  I think the printed word appears to make a book look more worthy than just a typed manuscript.

The Crow Eaters Cover ILMI Printing PressThe Crow Eaters Back Cover ILMI Printing Press

As I was an absentee writer, St. Martin’s did nothing for the book, and it fell through the cracks.  It wasn’t until I moved to the U.S. and Cracking India was published by Milkweed Editions,  that I achieved recognition in the United States. They subsequently published all my other books, including The Crow Eaters.

During that time, Kushwant Singh had recommended The Crow Eaters to Penguin in India, and they consequently published all my work, as did Oxford University Press in Karachi. In fact, my first collection of short stories, Their Language of Love has just been published by Penguin in India (February 2013) and by Readings Books in Lahore, Pakistan, simultaneously.

I never had a set time to write. I wrote when the children were at school and my husband at work. I wrote whenever I could snatch a few moments to write, at other times I wrote the whole night through. I hastily wrote narrated anecdotes or thoughts that suddenly came to me while driving or at a party on scraps of paper or even napkins and receipts. We took plenty of vacations but the novels remained in me and I could always return to them where I had left off.  I wrote when I found time.

The Early History of my Writing: Excerpt 4

March 16th, 2016

If memory doesn’t deceive me, I think it was Kushwant Singh who recommended my book to Longfellow Press in Delhi. Someone from there called to say: ‘We want to publish the Crow Eaters, but we need to keep the price very low for it to sell. Please cut about 40 pages.’

Being a rookie writer and not knowing anything about the publishing world, I was so delighted  to have found a publisher in India that I diligently set about removing paragraph after paragraph until the manuscript met their specifications. Longfellow commissioned a delightful cartoon for the cover: A fat Parsi lady standing precariously on a bed while the hero — standing behind her, scissors in hand — delicately holds the tip of a ratty plait of hair — its ragged ends tied with a scant little bow. His intent is clear. I wish I could print the cover here; I’m fairly sure I have at least one copy of this book. I wish I had quite a few featuring this unique cover.The Crow Eaters Cover

Longfellow Press marketed the book for a scant nineteen rupees. Surprisingly the book got a few cheerful reviews, depicting it as ribald and very funny. It sold quite well — ever so often someone in Pakistan or India proudly tells me they have an old copy of The Crow Eaters with this delectable illustration.

The Early History of my Writing: Excerpt 3

February 24th, 2016

Although writing came to me easily, finding a publisher was quite another matter. An American friend gave me the name of a creative writing professor, Herbert Schumann, at Washington University who directed me to an agent at Curtis Brown. An unsolicited manuscript only lands on a publisher’s slush pile, so I was lucky to get an agent right away. After this, the agent sent me a spate of rejection letters from publishers saying that “we love her writing but we don’t think that American readers would be interested in Pakistan,” and added that they would be interested in any further writing by this author.

Immediately after I finished writing The Pakistani Bride, I started my second novel, The Crow Eaters. This novel about my own Parsi community bubbled up from within me and I had to force myself to end it. I sent this off to my agent who sent both novels to another agent in England. Now I was receiving rejection notes from either side of the Atlantic. After two years both agents gave up.

I was brokenhearted and stopped writing for a year. Or, at least, until Dr. Justice Javid Iqbal, the son of the great mystic poet, Mohammad Iqbal, said he’d heard I’d written a book and he asked me to show him the manuscript. Javid Iqbal and his wife Nasira both loved it. Their validation and enthusiasm heartened me no end and our acquaintance was transformed into a lifelong friendship. Javid gave the book its title: The Crow Eaters (which in the local idiom means people who talk too much) and suggested that I self-publish.

I didn’t know how to go about self publishing and Javid Iqbal introduced me to the press who published his father’s bestselling books of mystic poetry. Mohmmad Iqbal wrote in Urdu and Persian, and the publishing house, whose name I have forgotten, had never published in English. They had scant knowledge of the language or its grammar. I could not face the daunting task of proofreading the book that was full of misspelled words so I enlisted the help of my friends. We would correct one set of proofs and the redone pages sent by the press would have sprouted new and bizarre misspellings.

Meanwhile the manuscript of The Crow Eaters had been sent by Basharat Qadir, a family friend, to the redoubtle Indian writer Khushwant Singh. He was ensconced in a small apartment in Bombay at the time. I happened to travel to Bombay, and he very kindly invited me to visit him. As I was paying off the taxi, I heard someone holler: ‘You are an hour late!’ I looked up, bewildered, and located a burly bearded figure leaning over the balustrade of a third floor balcony. I gathered this was Khushwant Singh. He tapped his wristwatch and repeated: ‘You are an hour late! I don’t see people if they are more than 10 minutes late for an appointment!’ I had no idea he was such a stickler for promptitude. Even had I known, it wouldn’t have made much of a difference because I was invariably late and still am; I chalk it down to my lack of schooling. I’m sure school inculcates discipline. Besides, I had made no allowances for finding a taxi, and then locating his address added even more time. I gazed up at the maze of similar-looking buildings and balconies wondering what was expected of me. ‘I’m going to see you, only because you’ve written a first rate book!’ He indicated an orifice in the building and said: ‘Come up to the third floor.’

It was a busy street, and not being used to Bombay streets, I ran helter-skelter across with horns blaring to the squeal of brakes and people shouting at me. By the time I climbed up, my heart was beating fit to burst. Khushwant Singh, his long hair tied in a Sikh turban, stood against the open door and ushered me in. Before I had time to look around, he indicated an attractive woman in her early fifties and, before I could even acknowledge her, he said: ‘She is much more beddable than her daughter.’ I was shocked. The woman glanced at me and looked away indifferently; obviously she was inured to such remarks by Kushwant Singh. Her beautiful daughter had married into a very prominent political family.

It was not until I stayed with him and his wife Kanwal at their home in Delhi many years later that I realized what a hard working and dedicated writer he was. Waking up at four in the morning and dictating his articles till breakfast-time, he led much too busy a life to live up to the philandering image he liked to project.

The Early History of my Writing: Excerpt 2

February 18th, 2016

People have often asked me, “What made you start writing? Did you always want to write?”

I have to admit, I stumbled upon writing by accident. My husband, Noshir, and I had been invited for our honeymoon by Major Safdar Butt. He was in charge of the construction of the Karakarom Highway, that follows the old Silk Route from China to Eastern Europe. We stayed at an army camp at about 8000 feet built near a gorge. The gorge fell steeply to an expanse of white sandbanks and water where the hurtling river had been contained to form a sapphire lagoon a mile wide. The camp doctor and an engineer together with the major told us the story of a sixteen year old Punjabi girl who had been brought to the remote Himalayan range by an old Kohistani tribesman. They wondered why the young girl was with the old man and he told them that he was taking her across the Indus River to get married to a relative in his tribe. The girl seemed content. A month later they heard the girl had run away. The point in telling me the story was that the girl had survived in the mountains, where there is not a blade of grass or any foot-trails, for over two weeks. One morning they found her decapitated body on the opposite bank of the Indus.

 

A runaway bride is an intolerable insult in the tribal code of the ungoverned area that lies between Pakistan and Afghtanistan. The tribesmen were out hunting the girl and the punishment for running away was death. When I returned to Lahore I was haunted by the soaring ranges of the Karakarom, the turquoise Indus, and the girl’s story. At first I wrote an article for the Civil & Military Gazette, describing the breathtaking scenery that was imbued with an almost mystical quality.

 

But the girl continued to haunt me and I began to write a short story about the young life that had ended so tragically: I named her Zaitoon. As I wrote I began to wonder who her parents were and how she had met the old tribesman. In creating this background for Zaitoon I soon realized that the short story was turning into something much longer. I was a fastidious and exacting writer. I discovered the Roget’s Thesaurus and did not rest untill I found the words that exactly conveyed my intent. I experimented: creating flashbacks and removing them. I compressed 400 written pages into 30 pages, and dismayed by the result I recovered them. I cut my writer’s teeth on this effort. It became my first novel: The Bride. (The Pakistani Bride in USA)

 

My life as a businessman’s wife was one of tedium filled with coffee mornings and mindless socializing. Telling this girl’s story became my obsession and I discovered that the act of writing set my mind on fire. I enjoyed the creativity it unleashed within me. It was a source of almost sublime joy and I couldn’t bear to be away from it. Even when I was a dummy at a game of bridge, I would sneak off to write a few lines. Only my husband knew that I was writing. I was afraid that my friends would have jeered at me with remarks like, ‘What will Bapsi write?– probably a romance!’

The Early History of my Writing: Excerpt 1

February 12th, 2016

I was about two when I got polio. The doctors advised my parents that since polio affected the nerves they should not send me to school. I was not to be burdened with things like geometry and exams. “She isn’t going to become a lawyer or a professor, is she? She’ll get married, have babies, and lead a comfortable life.” Consequentially, when I was about eight, I was handed over to Mrs. Penherow a middle-aged Anglo-Indian woman, for light private tuition. I remember the solitary tedium of those hours.

Yet the care that was lavished on me at home, and the two surgeries that followed, must have served me well; because a decade later I was able to run up and down steep mountain paths near our summer house in Nathya Gali; a hill-station nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas from which we could glimpse, on clear days, the lofty Nanga Parbat.

In retrospect the creeping encroachment of my isolation, the arbitrary withdrawal of my right to be among other children at school, caused an increasing erosion of my self-regard. The psyche that was left intact by my polio, and had in fact waxed robust for the next few years, was destroyed, unwittingly perhaps, by the doctor.

However, I have concluded from the history of my particular providence that almost every apparent misfortune eventually turns out to be its opposite and instead works out to be in my favor. Contrary to the good doctor’s prediction, I became a professor. I taught at several Ivy League universities in America; I also taught briefly at South Hampton University in England.

When on my tenth birthday Mrs. Penherow gave me Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, some favorable aspect in my horoscope must have been triggered. The novel, combined with my loneliness, propelled me into a feast of reading. Books not only took the place of family, friends, role models, and teachers, but they also unveiled the almost mystic quality that shimmers in beautiful language, and the subtle labyrinth of meaning that words lead one to explore.

By the time I was thirteen the world of books and magazines completely took over my life, which increasingly only existed between the pages of captivating stories that shifted me into the realm of fantasy and imagination. When I ruminate on the books I’ve read, I feel like congratulating myself on the good luck that brought them my way, and there is little doubt in my mind that my earlier polio-stricken reading fashioned me not only into a writer, but also  into the almost functional woman that I think I am.

My reading was indiscriminate. Since I did not have access to a library I read whatever came my way, and much of what came my way – besides magazines and comics – were classics: French, Russian, German, English, and American. These books lined six shelves in our sitting room. This was our household library. Although my business-minded family did not read fiction my parents looked upon books as repositories of wisdom. And authors such as Tolstoy, Scott, Forster, Henry James, Melville, Balzac, found their way into our house as birthday gifts for my brother and me.

Having shed Mrs. Penherow by the time I was twelve, I read only what I could assimilate.  Shakespeare, and all the major poets in English and other European languages, were beyond the reach of my unaided comprehension. I regret this lack. There are many holes in my education I have yet to fill ….If I ever can….And yet I have perhaps read more than most people.

Tom Sawyer’s dialogue and Huck Finn’s audacity are as much responsible for my incurable addiction to humor as are James Thurber’s short stories, and a book called Mame. Our six-shelf library had the obligatory Dickens, most of which (with the exception of A Tale of Two Cities) I abandoned because of boredom, until I came upon Pickwick Papers. I read it so often that it wore familiar grooves in my brain. The mention of Sam Weller or Mr. Pickwick even now charges circuits that flood my psyche with laughter. A family friend once caught me laughing while I was reading. He gave me my first P. G. Wodehouse: I think it was Lord Elmsworth’s Pig. It was a landmark occasion: tap anyone versed in English from the Indian subcontinent, and you will discover a Wodehouse devotee. Another favorite book, that I must have read again and again was Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. I still marvel at his insight into the subtleties of a woman’s mind.

I have just a few favorite authors, and a great many favorite books. Some of them I have already named in the context of my youthful reading, but to name them is to neglect other books by other authors I have delighted in and savored equally – and to list them all, especially the Urdu poets I cherish (among them are the romantic and mystic poets), in this short piece is impossible.

All American Muslim

January 3rd, 2012

 Recently, an evangelical group in Florida blamed TLC, an education TV Chanel, for its show All American Muslim, protesting that it was “propaganda that riskily hides the Islamic agenda’s clear and present danger to American liberties and traditional values.” Due to the pressure, Lowe’s, the home improvement company, withdrew its advertising from the show. Thousands of Lowe’s Facebook fans rightfully laid into them for their cowardly withdrawal, and a petition with roughly 200,000 signatures was delivered to their figurative doorsteps – to no avail.

How long can one go on pandering to bigots? It is one thing to have freedom of speech, although it’s quite another to use that freedom to claim that any television show which depicts Muslims as regular, law-abiding folks-next-door is telling a dangerous lie. But this move, perpetrated first by the evangelical wingnuts and secondly by a prominent corporation like Lowe’s, is abusing freedom of speech, while dealing a nasty backhand to our country’s vaunted freedom of religion.

I was heartened by all the major networks’ and comedy talk show host’s responses to the absurdity of the bigots’ claims.

The ability to speak your mind and follow your own faith are two of this country’s cornerstones of liberty. How can one right be the instrument of violating the other? How is this American?

Civil Liberties: a Thing of the Past?

December 16th, 2011

Last week, I read a thought-provoking article called ‘Waging War on Ourselves’ written by Ethan Casey on his blog. Acting in conjunction with current developments  in the American news, the article moved me enough to reply:

“… the Senate is trying to pass a law which would allow for US citizens with suspicion of links to Al Qaida or terrorism to be detained without trial indefinitely. This is blatantly unconstitutional. ‘Suspicions’ can encompass unimaginably horrendous abuses, and would inevitably target the US Muslim community, who are typically law-abiding citizens. Even in Britain under the tyrant Henry VIII in the 1530s, in the terrible days of torture and beheading, accused citizens were entitled to trial.”

I was referring to the National Defense Authorization Act. How heroic it sounds, and how the name camouflages the disgrace it embodies.

Today, the Senate passed the bill — most ironically, on the 220th anniversary of the Bill of Rights. 86 members voted for it, with only 13 dissenting voices standing against this infraction of American liberty. Sadly, the threat of a presidential veto has been withdrawn, and the President is expected to sign the bill. How can we have come to this point after so long? 220 years after the creation of the Bill of Rights, we should be moving forward, not rocketing backward.

IT’S LIKE WINNING A LOTTERY TWICE!

December 24th, 2010

Sadia Ashraf, Bapsi Sidhwa, Greg Mortenson, Gina Davis, Danny Pudi

This is the second time I was invited to a gala for Greg Mortenson.  On November 13 ’10 the Central Asia Institute [founded by Mortenson]  awarded   me the 2010 Spirit Lifetime Achievement Award. This was at the Hilton Anatole in Dallas. It was a surprise and I could scarcely contain my emotions.  Greg Has been my hero ever since I read his personal  story In Three Cups of Tea.

Greg has a phenomenal energy and I suspect it springs from his abiding faith in humanity. I was astonished  by the number of schools and events he addressed in his flying visit to Houston a few  months back.  The CAI has established 145 schools and educated 64,000 students, including 52,000 girls in remote regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Greg Mortenson and I share a bond with the Karakoram Mountains.  My  novel,  The Pakistani Bride, is also set in the remote region at the roof of the world.  And although decades separate my novel  from  Mortenson’s books the desolate lives of the tribal’s they depict are very similar

The guests were welcomed by Sadia Ashraf, Outreach Coordinator for CAI, who also gave a moving account of the devastation caused by the recent floods in Pakistan.  She introduced me as Pakistan’s leading writer before inviting me to speak.

The rest of the program was kicked off by a special address from award-winning  actress Geena Davis, followed by a talk by Danny Pudi (starring in  NBC’s show Community). Greg Mortenson spoke at the very end.  The event was compeered by TV and film actor Michael Rady

Every one of the 1000 guests received a copy of my novel  Cracking India together with Mortenson’s  book Stones into Schools. The evening ended with many in the audience asking me  to sign their copies of Cracking India.