The twirty-two chapters of Bapsi Sidhwa's novel, Ice-Candy-Man (1981) sparkle with a whole world teeming with numerous details surrounding day-to-day life with all its political, social and religious import. Arundhati Roy's Booker-Prize-winning The God of Small Things (1997) packs within its 340 pages surpassing beauty and superior pain ever experienced by human beings. Both prompt intense emotional responses from their readers. Despite the gap of a decade and a half between their publication, they share several key issues.
Both novels of course take the form of fictional autobiographies, both thus adhering to Bennet's claim that, "First class fiction is and must be in final resort, autobiographical." Bapsi Sidhwa, who was born in Karachi and brought up in Lahore, belongs to the minority community of the Parsees. Ice-Candy-Man chronicles the exodus of Parsees to India of the pre- partition era, explaining their world-view, customs, religious practices and politics. She truthfully voices the isolation and aloofness from which her community suffers. As Lenny expresses it: "Godmother, slave sister, electric aunt and my nuclear family are reduced to irrelevant nomenclatures. We are Parsees" (p.94).
Arundhati Roy similarly includes facts of her life -- her Syrian Christian background, the popularity of the English language among them, the Kottayam- Cochin coast, her mother's estranged marriage, her awareness of being unwelcome at her native place, the ancestral house, politics and caste divide in Kerala- and several other details found place in her novel. In an interview after her daughter received the Booker Prize, her mother, Mary Roy, said,
"It is only when I read her book that I realised that even at five she was conscious that we were unwelcome in the native home and that I expected her to be able to stand on her own feet -- ."
In Ice-Candy Man, Lenny, the daughter of a well-to-do jobholder is the narrative persona. Her narration starts in her fifth year and ends after her eighth birthday. The story of The God of Small Things to an extent is also told from children's point of view. This device lends both novels freshness and vigour. Rahel and Estha and Lenny, who are precocious, the "sensitiveness of a snail." Lenny of Ice-Candy Man recalls her first conscious memory of her Ayah thus: "She passes pushing my pram with the unconcern of the Hindu goddess she worships" (p.3). She also remembers her house on Warris Road in Lahore and how she used to find refuge in her godmother's "one- and-a-half room abode" and succeeded in getting away from the "gloom" and the "perplexing unrealities" of home. These perplexities include her own polio affliction, which she uses as an armor against a "pretentious world," her mother's extravagance, her father's dislike of it, her strain to fill up the "infernal silence" during her father's "mute meals" by "offering laughter and lengthier chatter" ("Is that when I learnt to tell tales?"). These perplexities also invlve the household staff. It includes her very dear Ayah, an eighteen year old dusky beauty, Shantha, Imam Din, the genial-faced cook of the Sethi household, Hari, the high-caste Hindu, Moti, the outcaste gardener, Mucho, his shrew of a wife, Papoo, his much abused child, -- and the Ice-Candy-Man, a raconteur and a "born gossip" who never stops touching Ayah with his "tentative toes" -- and masseur, a sensitive man who loves Ayah and is loved by her much to the chagrin of ice candy man and last but certainly impressive Ranna, the boy whom Lenny befriends when she visits his village with Imamdin and numerous others.
Both novelists excel as storytellers, the proof of which lies in the sense of curiosity they generate in their readers. As the events of each novel unravel one becomes more and more engrossed in the story and wishes to find out what happens next and next. In Ice-Candy Man, Lenny leads us on dwelling on interesting facts mingled as it were, with picturesque language. The main events, besides end of the Second World War, India's Independence and Partition of the subcontinent into Pakistan and India, revolve around Ayah. She is -- not unlike India itself -- a symbol of larger-than-life reality, truly "perplexing." Lenny also notices that, "beggars, holy men, hawkers, cart- drivers, cooks, coolies and cyclists" lust after her. Hasn't India been a much-looted country, which finally is forced to make a new beginning? With such emerging connotations, the novel sustains our interest at the personal and political levels.
Similarly, Rahel, in The God of Small Things, paints a casual cameo of Ayemenem, a sleepy town on the scenic Kerala coast as she revisits it after 23 years. The past washes over her and she leads an attentive reader over "Edges, Borders, Boundaries, Brinks and Limits" (p.3) of two separate horizons of two "small things," the "two-egg-twins," Rahel and Estha. One would also want to know the yet unknown "god" and so we so we follow Rahel. We also wonder at her hesitant, hushed tone. A trauma? Of what origin? Why? So we tag along.
Thus, the "ragged ends" as mentioned by E.M.Forster, whet us so in the two novels as the events unravel gradually, consisting of time-bound and well-ordered experience of the two talented writers. In Ice-Candy Man, for Lenny, in a few years" time a whole world, which is also her world, undergoes a sea change marked by "blood dimmed anarchy." Her focus, switches from her own "sense of inadequacy and unworth" and the "trivia and trappings" of her learning, to the world outside, which she finds, is dark and dangerous. With greater perception, she notes the fast, unstoppable and violent changes that leave her and those around her, particularly Ayah "wounded in the soul."
Almost all the characters in the two novels are unpredictable. And they are convincing as well. The change that the characters undergo is natural and real. Ayah for instance, at the outset is just a maid at the Sethi residence. She looks after infant Lenny. All of a sudden she is swept off her cozy corner into a vortex of political upheaval. She is forced to change from being an ordinary domestic help to a public entertainer in a matter of few months. What shocks and saddens the reader is, the coarse treatment meted out to her for no fault of hers. Here's someone who was till now secure, in the next minute rendered helpless. She becomes just a puppet in the hands of a fate worse than death. She is just an example of the several millions of displaced, looted and raped Hindus and Muslims during one of the harshest political phases in the history of the subcontinent. Equally significant is Lenny's godmother. With perseverance and strength of mind, she traces Ayah in the clutches of the rogue ice candy man, who under the deception of marriage forces her into prostitution. Godmother restores her to a rehabilitation camp. Ayah remains there till a strong desire ignites her to return to (roots?) Amritsar, to India after partition. All the other Hindu-Muslim-Sikh characters that were jolly good friends before turn into enemies, once the news of Partition of the country is announced and implemented.
If we look at The God of Small Things, we find characters as surprising as they would be in real life. Ammu and her twins; Rahel and Estha; Baby Kochamma the antagonist; Mammachi a jealous and possessive woman who hated her son's wife for being his wife; and Pappachi, an entomologist who failed to persuade the authorities to name after him a particular species of the wasp he discovered -- and so took his frustration out on his wife and children by beating them on a regular basis; their son Chacko an intelligent man but a failure at home (with a broken marriage) and the world (with an unsuccessful career), his English wife Margaret Kochamma, who misunderstood Estha and blamed him for her daughter's death and comrade Pillai, the corrupt and opportunist politician -- all are victims of their own powers of darkness. Ammu although educated, fails in finding a proper footing in life like Ayah of Ice-Candy Man.
She, not only depends on others for survival but causes irreparable damage to her own children and Velutha, the hapless paravan. She is also a victim of Baby kochamma's jealousy. Her desperate love for Velutha despite the impending doom due to his untouchability continues till his brutal death in the police custody. Eventually, she is forced to separate from her children and goes through extreme misery, dying in a hotel room from a bout of asthma, unattended and unwept -- a pariah whom her family of aristocratic extraction despises. Death certainly seems to equal all. Rahel and Estha too carry the guilt of Velutha's death for, when the police questioned them, they (Estha especially) coerced by the spiteful Baby Kochamma, confirmed his alleged sexual assault on Ammu. The fact that they did so under duress doesn't lessen their burden of guilt. It is a small mercy that the two of them finally find peace and comfort in each other's company.
Roy and Sidhwa have been so successful because among other things they have portrayed men and women in their true colours. One of the main parallels between the two books is the fact that neither glosses over the ugliness without being crass. The jealousy and possessiveness of the ice candy man, who poses as a poet par excellence, the impersonal and cruel manner of people in a war, dog-eat-dog regime in hard times, the diagonally opposite mentality of Gandhi who loved "lame children" and "the untouchable sweeper" and several other small but significant details embedded in Ice-Candy Man, never fail to enthrall the reader. We also come across many unsavoury realities. Here's a sample that shows the active hostility between religions:
The Sikhs milling in a huge blob in front wildly wave and clash their swords, kirpans and hockey- sticks and punctuate their shrieks with roars: Pakistan murdabad death to Pakistan! -- And the Muslims shouting: " so? We'll play Holi-with-their-blood -- " [Ice-Candy Man, p .134]
As observed by Iyengar, in a novel "Action, passion, contemplation, feeling , even the unconscious mind find place" (p. 146). In Arundhati Roy's novel, as in Sidhwa's, one finds different shades of human thoughts, feelings and behaviour truthfully voiced. Every character in each of the two novels, lets us glimpse into their inner reserves, and we are constantly surprised at the reality of it. In The God of Small Things, Baby Kochamma's " unchristian passion" for Father Mulligan turns her into a hypocrite.
Roy also relates the ugly reality of the nexus between politics and law, the representatives of which are the "touchables," Comrade K.N.S Pillai and Inspector Thomas Mathew, to find a convenient means to dispense with Velutha, a Paravan and an "untouchable" with a false allegation of indecent behaviour towards the members of Kochamma family.
Baby Kochamma tried to seduce Father Mulligan with weekly exhibition of staged charity. Every Thursday morning, just when Father Mulligan was due to arrive Baby Kochamma force-bathed a poor village child at the well with hard red soap that hurt its protruding ribs. [p.23]
They were not friends, Comrade Pillai and Inspector Thomas Mathew -- . But they understood each other perfectly. They were both men whom Childhood had abandoned without a trace -- . They looked out at the world and never wondered how it worked, they knew. They worked it. They were mechanics who serviced different parts of same machine. [p. 262]
The existence of conflict at various levels is found in both the books. In Ice-Candy Man, the friction that hovers over the people of the same faith is pretty obvious.
The Rogers of Birdwood Barracks, Queen Victoria and King George are English Christians: they look down their noses upon the Pens who are Anglo-Indian, who look down upon the Phailbuses who are Indian Christians, who look down upon all non-Christians." [Ice-Candy Man, p. 94]
Or of the simmering religious tensions,
The Sikhs -- their little boys running -- are keeping mostly to themselves -- we walk past a Muslim family. With their burka-veiled women, they too sit apart -- A group of smooth-skinned Brahmins and their pampered male off-spring from a tight circle. [p.97]
Besides the rivalry between Masseur and Ice-candy-Man for Ayah's favours, there is a far larger conflict between India and Pakistan regarding who should live where. Once it is decided to divide Punjab between India and Pakistan, rioting starts. Things just fall apart, and Muslims and Sikhs and their Hindu supporters become vengeful towards one another. Friends become foes. They kill and loot indiscriminately. Both sides are in the vice-like grip of a frenzy beyond control. Passages decribing bloodshed and muder highlight the brute in human beings. After Master Tarasingh's rousing address against the division of Punjab, the mob turns "maniac." Even the police were targeted. And then there is towering inferno in Lahore. Lenny observes,
The whole world is burning. The air on my face is so hot. I think my flesh and clothes will catch fire. I start screaming: hysterically sobbing -- how long does Lahore burn? Weeks? Months? [Ice-Candy Man, pp.137, 139]
At the individual level, it is man's desire and selfishness that causes conflict. It is ever alive between the Ice-Candy-Man and Masseur over Ayah. It is perceptible even to the child Lenny, who notes
Where Masseur is, Ayah is. And where Ayah is, is Ice-Candy-Man -- While Masseur's voice lures Ayah to the dizzy eminence of one Minaret, it compels Ice-Candy-Man to climb the winding stairs to the other minaret -- He has many eyes and they follow us. [p.121]
Lenny also carries the guilt of betrayal. Out of childishness she reveals the whereabouts of Ayah, a Hindu, to her persecutors. For days she was haunted by the picture of Ayah, a study of desolation (p.184).
In The God Of Small Things too, conflict exists at the individual and the societal levels. The novel graphically shows that people are helpless to resolve these levels of friction. Velutha, the outcaste can never co-exist peaceful with the "touchable" communities for as long as there is the stigma of untouchability attached to him and countless others like him.
Velutha is "hghly intelligent." "An excellent carpenter with and engineer's mind',but he is also "The God of Loss', "The God of Small Things" -- He left no footprints in sand, no ripples in water, no images in mirrors." [p.265]
On the other hand Chacko can get away with his debauchery or "his man's needs" as his mother terms it because he is a "touchable'. Roy has justly put it when she says, "Change is one thing. Acceptance is another" (p. 279). Ammu is at logger heads with the society at large because she married outside her community and a divorcee too. It is visible at Sophie Mol's funeral: "Hough Ammu, Estha and Rahel were allowed to attend the funeral, they were made to stand separately, not with the rest of the family. Nobody would look at them" (p. 5).
Estha's conflict within himself turns him into a silent creature. But in his inside there is an
uneasy octopus that lived -- and squirted its inky tranquilizer on his past -- ." [p.12]
He carried with him -- the memory of a swollen face and a smashed, upside-down smile -- of a bloodshot eye that had opened, wandered and then fixed its gaze on him -- ..and what had Estha done? He had looked at that beloved face and said: "Yes." [p. 32]
Thus he lives forever condemned with that incomprehensible " yes" which served to prove an innocent man guilty. Sidhwa and Roy raise serious questions and doubts regarding mankind's culture and refinement in the course of their fictions. Are we going back to back to our hedonistic past? Besides making us self examine, their novels, also "render life in terms of beauty, thereby giving us the twin blessings of light and delight."
The use of English Language and the style of dispensing it, is the crowning glory of the two novels discussed. Both the novelists with the same colonial background, handle English with virtuosity. It is an English which is their own. To quote from Iyengar again, "-- Indian English consists marked not by "incongruities and faults" but by "special qualities and characteristics" (p. 145). For Sidhwa and Roy the English language is like a harp on which they play their own soulful melodies which never fail to reach out and touch the thinking, feeling humanity. The elements of rhythm and imagery combine to produce "special qualities and characteristics" in their creative endeavours. Both have to find a "form" that can accommodate their "content', which is a blend of their own life as well as that of those around. They, by far succeeded in their effort to bring in the kind of tone and style -- frank, fresh and appealing that suited their narrative personae. In Ice-Candy-Man, we find an amazingly proficient use of the English. The prolific use of metaphors and idioms brings out the ethos of life lived during the political turmoil caused by Independence and Partition later. Lenny says she was "born with the awareness of war' (p.31). Highlighting the necessity to be diplomatic, Dr. Bharucha says the Parsee minority in the subcontinent must "hunt with the hounds and run with the hare." (Ice-Candy Man, p.16).
The working of native psyche is well brought by an ingenious use of various devices by Sidhwa in her novel. She shows us with graphic clarity, how, little Lenny's mind sees, grasps and ponders over the world around her through her nightmares, witticisms, description of people, their mannerisms and feelings in idioms and metaphors both homegrown and alien. An enslaved country's total plight is shown in the line
Queen Victoria's "statue imposes the English Raj in the park" [p.18]
When the Second world war was over Lenny observes, " an astonishing tidal wave of relief washes "over the world' (p.31). The English won their war but engineered serious trouble by agreeing to partition the country into India and Pakistan. The frenzied mob, possessive of land, resorted to unprecedented violence soon after the news was announced. Lenny observes,
Before the conflict Muslims and Sikhs lived in peaceful harmony. They celebrated and participated in each other's festivals such as Baisakhi joyfully. But once the big trouble started "One man's religion is another man's poison" (Ice-Candy Man,P.117) All this scuffle between two countries was caused and furthered when "the Radcliff commission deals out Indian cities like a pack of cards" (p. 140). And at the end of a gory day "the moonlight settles like a layer of ashes over Lahore" (p.137).
the terror the mob generates is palpable -- like an evil, paralysing spell. The terrible procession, like a sluggish river, flows beneath us. Every short while a group of men, like a whirling eddy, stalls -- and like the widening circles of a treacherous eddy dissolving in the main stream, leaves in its centre the pulpy and red flotsam of a mangled body. [p. 135]
Besides idioms which evoke a terrible national tragedy, Bapsi Sidhwa also makes use of devices such as nightmares (pp. 21, 22),jokes involving bathroom humour, (pp. 30, 35) poetry by the popular Urdu poet IqbaI, parsee entrance into India (p.37, 38), their customs, prayers, fire temples, and funerals in Towers of Silence (pp. 37, 38), elaborate discussions and debates on national politics by the haves and the have-nots (pp. 91, 93, 131) detailed accounts villages such as Pir Pindo inhabited by people of different religions (pp. 105-111) and the bitter change of later times, forced conversions (p.180), forced child marriages (p.188) and many other minute yet grave details succeed in bringing to the reader a whole gamut of a tragi-comic and tragic incidents. The love affair between Ayah and Masseur is told in a ballad-like song. The song depicts the story of a rose and the bumble-bee that desires it. Finally,
"And then one day --.
When all was hushed --
No stars, and in the sky no moon --
The bee stole the rose's youth -- ." And then
"the rose awakens, weeps, shrivels, swoons!" [p.120]
Ayah's love affair with Masseur, like that of the rose, ends in tragedy, because Ice-Candy-Man arranges his murder out of sheer, destroying jealousy. According to H. Coombes, "In a good writer's hands, the image, fresh and vivid is at its fullest used to intensify, to clarify, to enrich -- its use enhances the complex fullness of the whole" (p. 43). Arundhati Roy uses her images in this way. Right from the beginning "with extraordinary linguisticinventiveness, Roy funnels the history of south India through the eyes of seven-year-old twins" (John).
She also created memorable lines dipping her pen in the glorious colours of nature as, In Ayemenem, "black crows gorge on bright mangoes in still, dustgreen trees. Red bananas ripen. Jackfruits burst. Dissolute bluebottles hum vacuously in the fruity air" (p.1). Most of her novel is loaded with alliteration lending her narrative, rhythm and balance. For example. "The nights are clear but suffused with sloth and sudden expectation" (p.1). or "Paradise pickles and Preserves." Roy's novel is a treasure trove of rare similes, metaphors and idioms
The God of Small Things vouches for the fact that the author "had real affection for the English Language" (p. 51). For, besides fresh idioms and figures Roy has assimilated different kinds of experience and fused her sense perceptions, emotions and thoughts into an appealing work of art by using narrative techniques such as keeping to syntactic minimum and capitalized phrases, ("Ammu explained that Too Briefly meant For Short a While," p.7), crop of italics, the technique of stream of consciousness which is evident in abrupt flashbacks and an equally quick switch on to the present. And then there is an abundance of repeated structures such as, "The orange too orange. The lemon too lemon" (p. 98). or "Nothing mattered much. Nothing much mattered" (p.19).
Roy also includes incidents of utmost interest such as the Syrian Christian origin in Kerala, Kari Saipu's story, state politics involving comrade Namboodripad, the story of Kunti and Karna enacted in Kathakali, Kerala's proud art, its cheap commercialization for promoting Tourism, the popularity of highly paid gulf jobs in the state and many other facts making the book what it is- a rarity. Just as Arundhati's novel contains small things such as insects and flowers, wind and water the outcaste and the despised, so also in Sidhwa's writing we find plenty of "spring flowers, birds and butterflies, scent and colour. It is an interesting fact that there is a particular mention of "roes" in both the novels. In Ice-Candy Man, when Masseur was found killed, Lenny senses a "reek of violence with the smell of fresh roses." (p.174). Similarly in The God of Small Things Estha gets the sick sweet smell of blood, Velutha's blood which is like "old roses on a breeze" (p.32).
Like Ammu and Velutha of The God of Small Things, we have Ayah and Masseur in Ice-Candy Man. Balanced against Baby Kochamma is Ice-Candy-Man. Velutha is the God of small things, Rahel and Estha whereas Ayah is like a Hindu goddess for Lenny. The children in Ice-Candy Man visit Dr. Bharucha for medical attention, and those in The God of Small Things go to Dr.Verghese. In both the novels kids note politics plays a role even in the hospitals. The bitter-sweet relationship between Godmother and Slave sister in Ice-Candy Man is akin to that of Baby Kochamma and Kochu Maria in The God of Small Things. There are destructive elements of caste and religious divide and violent politcs in both the books. They also contain trauma suffered by children and adults, uprooted lives and victims of mental and physical insecurity. And most significant of all is that Sidhwa and Roy draw parallels in making the readers turn inwards and ask themselves, what went wrong with our unity in diversity?
Coombes, H. Literature and Criticism. Baltimore: Penguin Books: Rpt. 1974.
Iyengar, K. R. Srinivasa. The Adventure Of Criticism. Bombay: Asia Publishing House, 1962.
John, Binoo K. "The New Deity of Prose." India Today. 27 October 1997.
Roy, Arundhati. The God Of Small Things. New Delhi: India InK, 1997.
Roy, Mary. "My Daughter and I." India Today. 27 October 1997.
Sidhwa, Bapsi. The-Ice-Candy-Man. New Delhi: Penguin Books India, 1989
Last modified 4 August 2001