Jumping boundaries

Written by Nandini Nair | Updated: Mar 31 2013, 05:33am hrs
If age wrenches an author away from the long form to short stories, what happens to their craft Accustomed to the length and breadth of novels, do the characters suddenly shrink and flounder Pakistani-American author Bapsi Sidhwa (born 1938) admits that advancing age compelled her to write short stories after a lifetime of novels (five over the last three decades). But Their Language of Love is not a compromised text. It spans continents, sweeps across decades, creating maximum effect through economical storytelling.

Sidhwa, one of the first Pakistani writers in English, remains within the confines of her comfort zone in this collection. Her stories shift between Pakistanthe land of her birthand America where she has spent the last three decades. We come to know of people like us, whom she describes as belonging to a class privileged by some wealth, some education; a class linked by a web of friendship or kinship... But why cavil if an author chooses to write about a world he/she inhabits

Many of the Pakistani authors writing in English today might pick journalism and reportage, as their method, over memoir and experience. They tell of the lives of others through research and exploration, Sidhwa, on the other hand, tells of the lives around her through observation and interpretation. And the world she creates in this collection is not any less authentic for it.

In Defend Yourself Against Me, looking back at the past, the narrator says, Since childhood memories can only be accurately exhumed by the child, I will inhabit my childhood. As a writer I am already practised in inhabiting different bodies, dwelling in rooms, gardens, bungalows and spaces from the past; zapping time.

As a writer, that is essentially what Sidhwa does in Their Language of Love. She inhabits bodies as they move from garden to bungalow (never to slum or battlefield). As an author, she is as effective talking in the third-person (Ruth and the Afghan) as she is recounting the experiences of a child (The Trouble-Easers) as she is speaking in the voice of a young Parsi mother in Lahore during the war (A Gentlemanly War).

She smites time by moving from the 1965 India-Pakistan War to the Sikh demand for Khalistan in the 1980s to Lahore a year after Partition to the fall of the twin towers.

While moving between America and Pakistan, Sidhwa doesnt attempt to erase differences. She acknowledges the cultural dissimilarities while always leaving space for adaptation and, more importantly, compassion. Sidhwas novels have always straddled different worlds; whether it was a feisty young girl caught in a misogynist tribal world in The Pakistani Bride (1981) or of a Pakistani girl finding her feet and herself in America in An American Brat (1993).

Her takeaway message from the global comings and goings of people is best expressed in The Trouble-Eeasers. A child asks its mother how a Zoroastrian fable stars a Muslim woodcutter who went for Hajj to Mecca, and the mother replies, But that is what happens when one lives cheek by jowl with people of other faithssaints jump boundaries and the barriers of animosity fall.

Sidhwa highlights that displacement leads to some loss and some gain. If Ruth the American businessmans wife living in Lahore misses the unencumbered independence of life in the US, in Lahore, she comes to appreciate the company of women. The enforced segregation of the sexes erases the competitive edge between the womenfolk that she finds in Boston or Houston.

Sidhwa plots the connections between past events and latest consequences. And shows how history repeats itself in violent cycles. In Defend Yourself Against Me, when the atrocities of Partition are recounted, about pillaging mobs and pregnant women who were paraded naked and their stomachs slashed,

the reader is all too aware that these brutalities arent ghosts of the past but terrible realities of the present.

If one were to fault this collection, it would be that it plays

too safe. It takes no risks, it wouldnt bowl you over, but like fables and family histories, it connects one to the past and tells us of the present.