Thematically, these stories are bound together by the author’s life and experiences. Sidhwa has lived through these stories — either the telling of them, or by experiencing them herself. That she has chosen to render her real life into fiction is not something new for Sidhwa. She has used her past as material for fiction very directly, and very often. In her novel Ice Candy Man, she appeared as Lenny, the young girl who was struck with polio. The Crow Eaters is drawn from her observation of the Parsi community of Lahore. An American Brat is the novel she wrote once she had made the United States her home, and gone through the experience of raising her children there.
Similarly, in each of the stories of Their Language of Love, Bapsi appears as either the listener of a friend’s story, or one of the lead characters. Not all facts remain intact when fictionalised, especially not the plots, and only Sidhwa knows which of the twists in these tales are from real life.
As stories, they work mainly because they are held up with rich, evocative language. Sometimes, the language is overripe, such as sentences that appear in the expository preambles to the moments of action in the stories. In “A Gentlemanly War,” she writes: “But to trace the fluctuating history of Prohibition, which has existed since the inception of Pakistan, is to track the incursion of religion in the opportunistic politics of the country.” Elsewhere, she writes sentences that span a lot of material in general swoops, but become nearly meaningless. In “Ruth and the Afghan,” she writes, “This was only partly because of the incorrigible persistence of their misdemeanours.”
There is something at the cusp of colonial in Sidhwa’s language. She is a poster child of proper English usage and refuses to take poetic license with the language despite the playful hints and witty turns of phrase. That is not a fault, but a characteristic, and one for which her legions of fans adore her. She was swamped, recently, at the first Lahore Literary Festival, by people of all ages. No other author was given such attention.
These fans of her work will adore Their Language of Love, because it is more of the same old Sidhwa work. Many reviewers have been overly harsh in calling it leftover from the notes of her novels. Sidhwa admits that some of the stories did audition to be included in her novels. But these stories stand on their own as well.
There is the fantastic tale told by a mother to her child in “The Trouble-Easers,” about two angels who guide the life of a wood-cutter and his family. That Sidhwa layers the narrative by having it told indirectly to the reader is a good thing for the story. The fantastic elements don’t jar in the otherwise literary collection. There are tales of infidelity, also, and stories of immigration to the West. Parsis show up now and again.
The most lasting impression is of two older women, which could only have been written by a woman who has seen things, and experienced aging. “Sehra-bai” is the story set at the end of the life of a woman who has just suffered a stroke, and is reliving a bitter memory as if it were a recent occurrence. The memory involves infidelity, and in the hands of a lesser author, or a less experienced author, it would have suffered. In Sidhwa’s elegant brush-strokes, and with her empathy extended to all participants in that story, the narrative becomes pitch-perfect. Sehra-bai’s daughter, who resents having to look after her invalid mother and yet has a martyrdom streak, is expertly woven into the narrative as the vantage point for the reader to view and evaluate the worth of this one memory that makes Sehra-bai’s last days so miserable.
The best story of the collection, “Breaking it Up,” is told very directly, and without any flourishes of language. This is classic story-telling by the vintage Sidhwa. Zareen arrives at her daughter Feroza’s house in the United States. Feroza is living with two women, and a man David, whom she wants to marry. That Feroza is planning to marry outside the Parsi community is something her mother cannot tolerate or condone. The methods she tries to break them up are material that could start the anti-romantic comedy genre. But there is nothing funny about breaking apart a connection of love, or of destroying the root of that love in either party. Zareen is successful at the end, but at the cost of something she is just beginning to fathom, as Sidhwa writes: “Standing forlornly by him Feroza looked insecure and uprooted. As Zareen waved and smiled, an ache caught her heart and the stiff muscles in her face trembled.”
Bapsi Sidhwa is 75 years old, and the best of her writing life may be long gone. The gold dust of her talent and understanding of human nature in Their Language of Love adds naturally to piles of treasure she has already provided for readers of fiction about Partition, about Parsis, and about people growing up, and growing old.
The reviewer teaches rhetoric at the Lahore University of Management Science
Their Language of Love
By Bapsi Sidhwa
Penguin Books, India