Book Reviews

A Meeting of Streams

“... preserver of the collective tradition, a folk historian and myth maker.” - M. G. Vassanji

Vassanji has rightly laid out the crucial role of a postcolonial writer in the above line. A postcolonial writer plays the dual roles of a preserver of culture and tradition as well as the harbinger of modernity with new modes of thinking and expression. In their attempt to assert their ethnic identity they redefine the hybrid identity of the nation, the community and their self. In their works can be seen the writer’s need for self expression, nostalgia, interrogation of history, and alternative perspectives of history and reality.

Postcolonial fiction is characterized by its obsession with history; trying to unearth perspectives, hitherto ignored or hidden underneath layers of colonial consciousness.  Representing history through the altered spectrum of the postcolonial consciousness, writers like Sidhwa undertake the job of a historian and a myth maker. If history is the details and facts of incidents that happened in the past, then myths are the collective unconscious of a race, community or group of people, having shared history that represent and carry forward their ancestral wisdom, tradition, culture and experience from one generation to another. 

When history seeps into fiction it does not merely remain a collection of facts and figures but becomes a human story. Unlike a historian who filters down facts and figures from the past in a dry form, the writer creates characters who relive history in front of our eyes, in the present. They are as much influenced by history as they themselves exert an influence on it. Novelists like Sidhwa are in league with other postcolonial writers as Salman Rushdie, Amitav Ghosh, Michael Ondaatje, etc., in their choice of history as a major theme of their fiction. Approach to the theme however is individualistic; if Rushdie satirizes history then Ghosh interrogates it, while Sidhwa presents an alternative perspective like in her novel The Ice-Candy Man wherein she depicts the trauma of partition through the eyes of a polio ridden young girl, Lenny. In The Crow Eaters she represents the history of her community, trying to adapt and adjust to their life in the Indian subcontinent. 

Intertextuality being an integral part of postcolonial fiction, Sidhwa like her contemporaries draws heavily from her repertoire of rich cultural heritage of the subcontinent. Parsi and Hindu myths and beliefs find an equal space in the life and characters of her maiden novel The Crow Eaters (1978), in which Sidhwa has dexterously maintained her role as a preserver of culture, a folk historian and myth maker by projecting the life and customs of her community, and their assimilation into the Indian way of life. Narrating the journey of her fictional character Faredoon Junglewalla from the forests of Central India to Lahore, and his phenomenal success as a businessman, Sidhwa represents the migratory nature of her community, their adaptability, eccentricity, ethnic customs, rituals and religious beliefs. Through her fictional narrative she has depicted the historical context related to an undivided India, colonial rule and the partition, affecting and transforming her community, their affiliations and life.   

Parsis are a very industrious and hardworking people. They owe their migratory and adaptable nature to their diasporic genes. They left Pars or Persia over 1200 years ago to preserve their culture and religion from the invading Arabs. Arriving on the coast of Gujarat they assured the Maharajah of their peaceful co-existence through the example of a bowl of milk and sugar that blend harmoniously. Thus adaptability runs in their blood as evidenced by an easy assimilation of Gujarati language, dress and customs into their life and culture. With the arrival of the British they once again adapted themselves with Western life style and culture thereby gaining their patronage. Survival is the most basic instinct of every living being and it is this very instinct that makes the Parsis adapt and assimilate into their immediate environment making the most of the situation they are in; not only surviving but also triumphing over it.

In the novel Faredoon shifts to Lahore in the then undivided India.  He works hard and sets up his business of groceries and supplies. Shrewd and diligent he manipulates even the most difficult of situations to his benefit. Sidhwa gives an expression to the stereotypical image of Parsis and their idiosyncrasies through the characters of Faredoon and his mother-in-law Jerbanoo.            

In her fictional tale Sidhwa retells the story of her community at the turn of the last century when the nation was under the colonial rule of Britain. The Parsi community sided with the Britishers, wheedling them with their loyalty and assistance in return for economic favours and freedom. In taking the side of the British they have in fact followed the dictates of their religion that require them to be loyal to the ruler thereby linking the state and community in a complementary relationship of mutual benefit and gain. On coming to Lahore Faredoon registered his arrival and his loyalty to ‘Queen and Crown’ by visiting the Government House. Faredoon imparts the wisdom latent behind this thought to his children when he says, “Oh yes, in looking after our interests we have maintained our strength- the strength to advance the grand cosmic plan of Ahura Mazda- the deep spiritual law which governs the universe, the path of Asha.’”  (TCE 12). 

Apart from the sycophancies adopted by Faredoon and others to cater to the British displaying Parsi loyalty to the ruler, Sidhwa also sketches the colonial history of the subcontinent and the divided loyalties of its people. The dominant centre always marginalized the subservient other, and the attitude of the Britishers was no different. They patronized the Parsis for their own interests in business and economy but never accorded them an equal status. The Parsis were also the ‘mimic men’ trying to imbibe western modes. 

. . . the exaggerated servility of Freddy [Faredoon], his son Billy and other Parsis towards the British is revealed as an act to ensure legal security, peace and economic prosperity. With her ironic perspective the flattery of the Parsis is humourously revealed in the novel, but it also expresses an underlying identity crisis and quest for security amongst the community as a whole. (Kapadia 127)

Their identity crisis is evident from Faredoon’s opposition to the nationalist movement and Dadabhai Navroji whom he calls a “misguided Parsi” (TCE 282).

Throughout the novel Sidhwa has interspersed her narrative with the teachings of her religion. Faredoon quotes often from the scriptures whenever he wants to share his experience and wisdom with his children or make them understand his point. Even his decision to migrate to Punjab is influenced by his religion, as the ‘Septa Sindhu’; the Sind and Punjab’ is mentioned as created by their revered Ahura Mazda. He always laces his advices with Parsi beliefs and teachings as when trying to cajole his son Yazdi to accept and understand his decision regarding Yazdi’s love for Rosy Watson.  He was proud of his Parsi lineage and spoke of the ‘spark’ that is carried forward through the purity of generations reaching back to the times of their great Zarathustra, the Magi. He spoke of his cherished friendships with people hailing from all communities, British, Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and even goes to lengths to break away with tradition as when they come to pay their last respect to his dead son Soli, yet he is against mixed marriages and mongrel identities like that of an Anglo-Indian, Rosy.    

The household of Faredoon follows the Parsi customs of worship and dressing. Fire being the symbol chosen by the prophet; a symbol of their faith, it is revered and considered sacred. “It represents the Divine Spark in every man, a spark of the Divine light. Fire, which has its source in primordial light, symbolizes not only His cosmic creation but also the spiritual nature of His Eternal Truth.” (TCE 49). In the Junglewalla household fire is so revered that neither the candles are blown out nor the cooking fire extinguished. Jerbanoo prayed five times a day and moved from room to room each day with the family fire altar. Putli, Faredoon’s wife sang cheerfully inviting the spirits of prosperity to the house and adorned the landings with patterns of fish and the entrances with garlands of fresh flowers. The custom of decorating the threshold with beautiful patterns and flowers is a tradition that distinguishes every Indian Hindu home and the Parsi homes are no different. The custom is a beautiful amalgam of Indian and Parsi culture and tradition.

A typical Parsi family is portrayed by Sidhwa with all its religious beliefs and customs but she does not fail to acknowledge the fact that migration and displacement has had its influence on the Parsi psyche and beliefs.  From centuries they have lived in India, assimilating themselves into its cultural beliefs and tradition. Faredoon has imbibed the multicultural ambience of the country and the Western colonial influence. He has as much reverence for the Bible, the Bhagwad Gita, and the Quran as for the Avesta. They have an equal standing in his life and are positioned equally with the book of Famous English Proverbs right above his prayer table. On his prayer table stood pictures of the Virgin Mary goddess Laxmi, Buddha, Sita, Christ and Indian saints along with Prophet Zarathustra’s image and other items of worship. Like any Indian he believes in mystics and astrologers and consults them occasionally in moments of distress. Sidhwa mentions the Hindu custom of making horoscopes prevalent amongst her community for which purpose, “The birth of Parsi infants is timed with the precision of Olympic contests. Stop-watch in hand, anxious grandmothers or aunts note the exact second of delivery. This enables Hindu pundits to cast the horoscope with extreme exactitude.” (TCE 53). The faith in astrological predictions and fortune tellers is depicted through Faredoon’s association with Gopal Krishnan and his prophecy of Soli’s death. Various other superstitions and customs that characterize Parsi way of life and culture are represented in the novel like the belief in the evil eye by Faredoon and Jerbanoo.

The various streams of cultural influences, rituals, superstition and beliefs co-mingle in the Parsi ethos. Sidhwa traces the history of her people through the broader spectrum of Indian culture and tradition. Various beliefs and customs common to both the cultures are depicted minutely by Sidhwa revealing her acuteness for detail and her sensitivity as a woman.

Of the various peculiarities associated with the Parsi way of life is the presence of the ‘other room’ in every Parsi household. It is a room to which the women are confined for duration of five days every month during their monthly cycle. “Thither they are banished for the duration of their unholy state. Even the sun, moon and stars are defiled by their unholy gaze, according to a superstition . . .” (TCE 70). Putli is also banished to the other room, a tiny windowless cubicle with the minimum of necessities made available to her. She is not to venture out nor is anyone allowed to meet her. She has to spend her time in isolation with the least of human contact. The custom is a frank appraisal by the author of the patriarchal codes that subjugate a woman to secondary status as a human being, either a Parsi or a Hindu. 

Another custom followed by Parsis relates to the coming of age of children in a Parsi household, indicating their readiness for marriage. It is a custom for the young individual to hint to his family his/her desire to marry by mixing salt into the drinking water for a period of three days. Yazdi does it when he falls in love with Rosy and Faredoon had also done the same in his youth. The custom is peculiar to her community, and is a subtle manner of expression and dialogue between two generations of people. 

The Parsis are a close knit community who has endeavoured to preserve their ethnic culture and tradition despite strong influences from other cultures. Their religion, religious customs and rituals have stood the test of time. Being a small minority community they have held together and maintained their ethnic identity and culture. The first thing that Faredoon does after arriving in Lahore is to visit the four Parsi families settled there. As Sidhwa comments, “An endearing feature of this microscopic merchant community was its compelling sense of duty and obligation towards other Parsis. Like one large close-knit family, they assisted each other, sharing success and rallying to support failure.” (TCE 21).   It this community feeling again that can be witnessed at the arrival of Mr. Adenwalla, the insurance agent in Lahore which brings the whole community together in a mood of festivity. When years later Freddy that is Faredoon succeeds in business, he is much sorted after for his help and counsel by the community. 

Even in changing times Parsis have held on to their customs. Traditional attire of the Parsis is an important aspect of their ethnic identity which they have maintained with great sincerity even in an alien land and culture. Putli makes Kustis that are much in demand for Navjote ceremonies not only in Lahore but also in Karachi. Though the younger generation as represented by Tanya, Behram, Yasmin and Bobby slowly ebb away from tradition yet the link is never totally severed. All the Parsi women, Putli, Jerbanoo and others never leave their households without their ‘mathabanas’ with which they cover their heads. They wore Kustis and their saris were worn differently with a triangular piece in front. The men wore crisp pyjamas, flowing white coats fastened with neat little bows and flat turbans. In fact the distinct identity of a Parsi is conspicuously represented through his traditional way of dressing. 

Every Parsi has to be initiated into their religion through an initiation ritual. The Navjote ceremony is a formal ceremony for initiation into their faith that every Parsi child undergoes. According to the teaching of Zarathustra, every child born to Zoroastrian parents is not considered a Zoroastrian until he has had the Navjote ceremony. Putli is full of motherly pride when her children are initiated into the faith at their Navjote ceremonies. “Then, invested with the outward symbols of the faith - the undershirt, sudreh and the kusti, they were girded to serve the Lord of Life and Wisdom.” (TCE 124). The traditional Parsi ceremony of initiation into faith closely echoes its counterpart in the Hindu custom of ‘Upanayan sanskar’. 

Sidhwa mentions each and every aspect of Parsi life through her narrative, meticulous with her details and personal knowledge. When Behram (Billy) gets engaged to Tanya, the simple ceremony of blessing the couple and finalizing the engagement is portrayed by the novelist. The ceremony restricted only to ladies is accompanied with traditional songs. Later their wedding is officiated by two priests, and vows are taken in accordance with the rites and customs of the Mazda and the blessings of God are invoked on the couple. 

The Parsi community is distinctly known for its rituals related to death, which gives the present novel its name, apart from the fact that they have earned the epithet as a result of their ability to “talk ceaselessly at the top of their voices like an assembly of crows.”  (TCE 56). Parsis leave their dead in open roofed enclosures atop hills, to be eaten by vultures, known as the Tower of Silence. The structure of the tower is given in detail by the novelist revealing the importance related to the ritual. Every Parsi cherishes the thought of a traditional burial in the Tower. Jerbanoo is aghast at the thought of her remains being given a burial ‘beneath mounds of maggot-ridden earth’ rather than the customary Parsi burial since Lahore did not have a Tower of Silence. Nostalgic, she spoke with great respect and admiration about her late husband’s burial at the Tower in Sanjan. “It was his final act of charity! Every Parsi is committed to feeding his last remains to the vultures. You may cheat them but not God! As my beloved husband Jehangirjee Chinimini said, “Our Zarathusti faith is based on charity.” (TCE 47).

When Soli, the eldest child of Faredoon dies, all the customary rites are performed. His body is taken to the Fire Temple and all the rituals related to death are carried out.  The priest’s dog that had two eye-spots above his eyes was brought into the room for it was believed that his four eyes could ward off evil. The fire-altar was brought in and the priest recited from the Avestan scriptures. Later the corpse-bearers carry his body on an iron bier after reciting a prayer to Ahura Mazda

Traditional yet adaptable to change, the Parsi outlook to life follows the evolutionary pattern. They adopt new life and thought but are still ingrained deep in traditional values.  The new generation though modern in lifestyle, attire and thought still follows tradition. Putli recognizes her two sons-in-law and other members of her community who had volunteered to do the duty of corpse-bearers. If tradition is adhered to then change is also inevitable and Faredoon removes the white sheet covering Soli’s face. 

Someone said, ‘Faredoon, this is sacrilegious! Pull yourself together!’ And Freddy, fighting desperately to keep his voice steady, said, ‘They had stood all this while to see my son: let them. What does it matter if they are no Parsis? They are my brothers; and if I can look upon my son’s face, so can they!’ (TCE 179)

Sometimes moving away from tradition is a necessity more than choice and Soli’s body is laid down to rest at a small graveyard instead of the traditional burial at Tower of Silence for Lahore does not have a Tower

Sidhwa wraps up her narrative beautifully with the motto of life followed by Faredoon which he passes on to his children on his death bed with an imminent independence and partition on the horizon, representing the attitude of his community which has mingled and made their home wherever they went, “We will stay where we are . . . let Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, or whoever, rule.” (TCE 283).

In Sidhwa’s fiction, the multiple streams of fact and fiction, history and myth meet in harmony representing the story of a community and people who have endeared through rough times and trying situations, overcoming obstacles and emerging triumphant. Parsis have become an integral and prominent part of the subcontinent’s fabric of life contributing richly to its economy, art and culture. Bapsi Sidhwa’s novel The Crow Eaters can be rightly referred to as the family album of an entire community and generation of people, their history, tradition and culture; a melodious medley of cultures and streams of thought and tradition. Alamgir Hashmi thus remarks:

Bapsi Sidhwa writes from a deep historical consciousness. Her evocation of a part of Lahore life as lived in the first half of this century is convincing-and charming . . . looking  . . . through the diminutive lens of insidious comicality as an outsider who knows better; as a member of the Parsi minority in Pakistan who knows her people’s secrets, real strengths, and foibles. Her novel, beyond particular situation and character, aims at a sweep that encompasses a people [Parsis] . . . (Hashmi 139)

Works Cited

  1. Sidhwa, Bapsi. The Crow Eaters (TCE). New Delhi: Penguin Books India, 2001. All parenthetical references from the text are to this edition.
  2. Kapadia, Novy. “The Parsi Paradox in The Crow Eaters”. The Novels of Bapsi Sidhwa. Eds. R. K. Dhawan & Novy Kapadia. New Delhi: Prestige Books, 1996.  125-135.
  3. Hashmi, Alamgir. “The Crow Eaters: A Noteworthy Novel”. The Novels of Bapsi Sidhwa. 136-139.  


More by :  Dr. G.A. Ghanshyam Iyengar

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