DEPICTING THE POWER OF THE MALE – a book review

Jackie Kabir
Zaitoon, a young girl of sixteen, is going to the hilly regions to be married to a “tribal” whom her father has chosen for her. She has been brought up by Qasim since the partition of India in 1947. As the British fled the country after ruling for over 200 years, they sowed the seeds of communalism. The Muslims and the Hindus have since been rivals. There were riots in every part of the subcontinent in order to make it their respective strongholds. No one knew which part would belong to whom even till the last minute while the country was being demographically changed. Lahore, a stronghold of the wealthy Hindus, was supposed to become part of India. But it went to Pakistan. Jullander, Sikh territory, was allocated to India. Qasim flees from Jullander; on the same train travel Sikander and Zohra with their two children from Ludhiana. When the train reaches Lahore men squatting on both sides torch the train and kill as many people as they can. Munni loses her parents and holds on to Qasim, who finds solace in holding a child who reminds him of his lost one. After that they live as father and daughter.
Qasim befriends Nikka and Mirium during his stay in Lahore. They become something like his family. As Zaitoon grows up Qasim takes her to his ancestral home to be married to a “tribal” boy. Zaitoon, having been brought up in the plains of Lahore, finds it difficult to assimilate in the hills’ way of life. The family she marries into also does not understand her way of dealing with things. Bapsi Sidhwa depicts the journey of the girl towards the hills in meticulous detail. The girl’s “bold and large” eyes meet those of an aspiring Punjabi soldier from the army, both knowing their paths would not merge into one. In The Pakistani Bride the desert life of Dubair and Pattan is compared with city life, with great dexterity.
“Unlike the sluggish, muddy Ravi that sprawled through Lahore, the river here was a seething, turquoise snake, voluminous and deep and for the hundredth time she (Zaitoon) thought of Marium and Nikkah.”
Zaitoon’s story is paralleled with that of a white woman living in Pakistan. Carol, an American, marries a young, vibrant Pakistani she earlier falls in love with at college. They come back to Pakistan. Carol loves her city life where she is among the cream of society. She attends all the high-profile dinners with her husband. There is a party every evening and “she felt like someone from Gone with the wind.” The best part comes in her sentiment: “I don’t feel I’m programmed. People are kind and hospitable. I’m having a ball.”
Regarding the city she lives in, she declares: “I love Lahore; it’s beautiful and ramshackle, ancient and intensely human. I’m a sucker for the bullock carts and dainty donkey carts. They get all snarled up with the Mercedes, bicycles, tractors, trucks, and nasty buzzing three-wheeled rickshaws. The traffic is wild.”
The restrictions on her behaviour, however, makes her quite tired. She is shocked to hear that her husband is ashamed of her; that she laughs too loudly and touches men. To her dismay, she is informed that “If you only look a man in the eye it means he can have you.”
They enjoy the hospitality of a Major Mushtaq working at Dubair, close to which are the hill tracts. As Carol is frustrated with her husband’s obsession with her she gets entangled in physical intimacy with the major, who has also been deprived of any female proximity. But when Carol asks the major to get a divorce from his wife and marry her, he explains the intricacy of his familial niche. He says he is married to his cousin and so if they even think of filing for a divorce their families will make both their lives more than complicated. Even though Carol feels betrayed she finally comes to her senses and sees that her desire to leave her husband for the major has been whimsical and impractical.
While depicting Qasim and Nikka Pehlowan, Sidhwa does not forget to uncover the nature of politics in her country. The political parties often adopt mean ways to win or defeat their opponents. People like Nikka Pehlowan become prey to their stratagems. Bapsi Sidhwa also portrays the Hira Mandi: men’s age-old desire to enjoy nights at the feet of beautiful and charming dancers. Nikkah and Qasim go to Shahnaz’s quarters. As soon as her sensuous dance arouses the passions of her admirers, she retreats into the darkness of the background. The men have to quench their desires by drinking of her beautiful, naked body with their eyes before succumbing to inescapable slumber.
Zaitoon and Carol’s paths only cross once in the entire story. They seem to have shared a secret that no one else has shared. Carol gives some presents to the girl who will soon be a woman and like herself will learn the convoluted ways of married life. It seems that the author has bound them together just by that meeting. They both inhabit a society where woman are need to be protected by their male counterparts. In every situation a woman needs a man to make her life smooth, make the decisions for her, maltreat her yet love her at the same time, put her in situations she has no control over. This is what the power of the male is all about — power to make the choices for a woman, be it for a simple young girl from Lahore or a free spirited American-born white girl.
Sakhi, the boy Zaitoon gets married to, treats her as one of his possessions. He has been brought up to behave or think in that way; the society he lives in has taught him thus. It has also prescribed how a girl should act at her ‘in laws’. Zaitoon finds it extremely difficult to abide by the rules. Which is why she sits near the brook and looks ahead in the desert with a longing she never knew existed. She even waves at a distant truck looking like a toy in the faraway horizon. And her husband, stalking her, throws a stone at her. She is hurt and determined to leave him and eventually it is her only desire. Hope keeps her going. She waits for the right time. Will it ever come? Even if it does, will she be able to make it to the place, where the army patrols? How can a girl of the plains find her way in the formidable hills of Pakistan? And if she gets caught she will have to pay with her life, for that is the price exacted of a runaway bride. So will she take the chance?
This the readers will have to find out for themselves. It is a fine book that must not be missed.


Jackie can be contacted at: jackie.kabir@gmail.com.

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