Often words and characters come to life and become our friends when we find that we lead a lonely life. Sometimes, words allow us to migrate from reality to fantasy and enable us to move from our corner of the earth in order to explore far off places, interesting people and different times. For Bapsi Sidhwa , renowned author of books such as “The Crow Eaters”, “Cracking India”, “Water” and “The American Brat”, surrounding herself with books was the only way to ease her loneliness during part of her childhood. She was born in Karachi and later moved to Lahore with her family. As a child, from the age of two, she suffered from polio and did not go to school as others did for a while. She never really had much of a chance to go out and do the things that other children found were commonplace. She surrounded herself with many books and found literature to be her solace. She made friends from the characters in her books. According to her, expressing herself through writing became her way of communicating to the world and creating characters that would be lifted from her world and times. At nine, during the 1947 Partition, she faced a difficult time and saw many harsh moments in history such as religious intolerance and genocide. Those events inspired her to write about Lenny, a character suffering from polio in her book, “Cracking India” which depicts the story of a girl caught in the midst of the Partition of 1947 that caused the separation of British India into the Republic of India and Islamic Pakistan.
I had the fortunate honor to meet with her in a Tamarind Society sponsored event in late fall. I found that she was inspirational in that she tackled subjects that were quite controversial during her time. Her books, interspersed with some humor were subtly juxtaposed with horrific events that were based on real, life altering incidents. Many people could associate with the harsh realities presented in her books, but often they rejected the books in their own country because of heart wrenching and sensitive topics that made them want to look away. The themes were heavy, but needed to be tackled head on and Bapsi Sidhwa did just that. For example, she described the life of a child widow in the book “Water” and the negative treatment of widows in India. The honest and open approach to this difficult subject did not bode well with many living in India. Bapsi Sidhwa told us that her first book was initially published in England and when it received praise and accolades abroad, only then did she find the doors opening up to her in other countries. She said that even her own country did not want to publish her books and she was initially struck by criticism for her handling of controversial topics.
Eventually her books made it to the big screen in collaboration with Deepa Mehta. The trilogy of movies ,“1947: Earth”, “Fire” and “Water”, were produced by Deepa Mehta and based on Bapsi Sidhwa’s novels. Some of these movies were banned in India due to the controversial nature of the subjects. Now, in her mid-seventies, Bapsi Sidhwa outwardly seems frail and delicate in nature, but possesses an inner strength. What I learned from my short afternoon tea with her is that you shouldn’t shy away from topics that may be difficult for others to hear while writing something of worth. She still possesses a strong voice, a powerful aura and speaks with much eloquence, but underneath it all she needed to spread her important messages. I have always wondered how a writer or an artist is born or created. Do the strong feelings of grief, struggle, sadness or loneliness constitute the makings of an artist? Is it that they need to communicate with written words or brushes or a different medium to survive? I believe Bapsi Sidhwa felt she needed to be heard in some way, that she needed to create characters that epitomized those around her and left a mark on her life, and ultimately she needed to make sense of the struggles around her. She had to speak through her craft. Her words have enriched our world with powerful messages that she left behind in her writings. She left me with a message of my own. She told me to “Just write”. No matter what opinions others may have, just write what’s inside. Face writing with courage and pen down the words circling around inside; words that need to be heard and write down what is deep within the heart. I spent about an hour just chatting with her about writing and trivial matters as well, but her thoughts on writing and her general personality has left a lasting impression on me. I was supremely thrilled to have been left with a hug and a kiss on the cheek. It was almost a whisper of a blessing as she left me with the two simple words, “just write” before she departed from the afternoon tea.