An alternative version of the past

September 4, 2022

Sidhwa’s first published novel is less of a source of entertainment and more of a glimpse into a forgotten era

Photo courtesy Houston Chronicle
Photo courtesy Houston Chronicle


oments before I began writing this essay, I flipped through my Penguin edition of Bapsi Sidhwa’s The Crow Eaters. As my fingers clasped its orange spine and my thumb raced through the book’s sallow pages, the pull of nostalgia swept me into a distant era. I’ve read the novel three times – once as a teenager, then as an overworked subeditor in search of a comfortable distraction and finally a few weeks ago. The third reading wasn’t steered by just a quest for relief but also had a deeper stimulus: I wanted to understand the text to self-assuredly write this essay. This piece straddles literary trivia with literary criticism to create a broader picture of what poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz referred to as Sidhwa’s “tour de force”

Every book has its destiny and The Crow Eaters is no exception. It is known as Sidhwa’s first novel, even though it was written after The Pakistani Bride. A post on the author’s website reveals that the novel, which was about her own Parsee community, “bubbled up from within [her] and [she] had to force [herself] to end it”. After completing the novel, Sidhwa sent it off to her literary agents on both sides of the Atlantic who were trying to find The Pakistani Bride a home. Discouraged by the rejection slips and the agents’ inability to find a publisher, she didn’t write for a year.

However, fate had other plans for Sidhwa and pulled her out of her self-imposed literary exile. Justice Javid Iqbal (Allama Iqbal’s son) and his wife took an interest in the manuscript and enjoyed reading it. Justice Javid Iqbal urged Sidhwa to call it The Crow Eaters – a term that refers to the loquacious nature of her characters. He also urged her to self-publish. This decision proved to be fraught with challenges as the publisher wasn’t equipped to proof the manuscript competently.

Another friend of Sidhwa’s sent the manuscript to Indian author Khushwant Singh. The novel was subsequently released by a publishing house in Delhi – albeit after the author agreed to reduce forty pages from the book so as to keep the selling price low. The book sold well and was lauded by reviewers for its humour and ribaldry.

According to the post on Sidhwa’s website, Justice Javed Iqbal reportedly “tore off the front and back jackets from some books [when the Pakistani edition was released] and distributed them among the writers in Lahore”. The novel caught the attention of Faiz Ahmed Faiz, who referred to it as a “good second-rate book”. The poet believed only Shakespeare, Milton and Dante were first-rate writers.

Through its depiction of the pre-Partition era, The Crow Eaters acts as a preamble of sorts – perhaps even a happy prelude – to Sidhwa’s masterpiece Ice-Candy Man, which examines Partition’s innumerable tyrannies.

In his commendation for the book, Faiz Ahmed Faiz noted that Sidhwa’s portrayal of the Parsee community may earn the ire of the microscopic minority. At first, the Parsee community wasn’t pleased with The Crow Eaters. When the book was being launched at Lahore’s Intercontinental Hotel, an anonymous caller told the management of a bomb threat at the premises. While the tip was a hoax, it served as an alarming sign that the community had reservations about the novel. Their perceived opposition could be attributed to the fact that no one had ever written about Parsees in an unflattering vein. On her website, Sidhwa asserts that the community “could not stand to see [itself] depicted as less than perfect”.

The fate of Sidhwa’s unwanted manuscript changed overseas when an editor at Jonathan Cape accepted the book. The Crow Eaters went on to win the David Higham Prize – an accolade that the author had to relinquish after Pakistan withdrew from the Commonwealth during Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s government.

Since then, Sidhwa has been published widely in the West as well as in India and Pakistan. She has been billed as the first English language novelist who lived in Pakistan to gain widespread global acclaim. In Hybrid Tapestries: The Development of Pakistani Literature in English, critic Muneeza Shamsie writes that “Sidhwa was the first to give the ‘homegrown’ Pakistani-English novel a clear, contemporary voice”. Shamsie asserts that Sidhwa’s “prose was markedly different to that of any other resident fiction writer”. She is also of the view that the bawdy humour found in The Crow Eaters doesn’t have a literary precedent in English fiction from Pakistan. Shamsie also argues that the emphasis on the Parsee community in Sidhwa’s novels stands out as an “assertion of a minority identity in Pakistan”.

After my third reading of Sidhwa’s first published novel, I saw it less as a source of entertainment and more as a glimpse into a forgotten era. For the modern reader, Faredoon Junglewalla’s migration from central India to the Punjab opens the portal to a colonial milieu where the dynamics between communities are vastly different from what we see today. As a result, the novel presents an alternative version of the past seldom found in history textbooks. Through its depiction of the pre-Partition era, The Crow Eaters acts as a preamble of sorts – perhaps even a happy prelude – to Sidhwa’s masterpiece, Ice-Candy Man, which examines Partition’s innumerable tyrannies.

The writer is a   freelance journalist and author of   Typically Tanya

An alternative version of the past