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The simplicity of an honest emotion

in her author’s note at the end of Their Language of Love Bapsi Sidhwa claims “I am a novelist by inclination and not a short-story writer — even my short stories, as you will no doubt notice in this collection, tend to be lengthy.”

Bapsi Sidhwa

Length, or the lack of it, is not the only quality that separates a short story from a novel. There is of course the matter of the subject that lends itself to the shorter format. Then there is the narrative style which must drive the reader relentlessly, without lulls, to the heightened knife-blade of a conclusion. Edgar Allan Poe perhaps the highest and the original practitioner of the short story format once wrote, “A short story must have a single mood and every sentence must build towards it.” But finally and most importantly, according to this reviewer, the short story must unfurl and examine under the harshest scrutiny an emotion that is true and resonant.

In all these matters, in spite of her protestations, Sidhwa succeeds and with some aplomb. There are eight stories in this collection and rather refreshingly they aren’t strung through a particularly obvious theme. Some stories like A Gentlemanly War — set against the 1965 war and dealing with the author’s encounter with Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, then Foreign Minister — is intensely autobiographical. Then there are the stories of Ruth, the American housewife living in Pakistan, and her dalliances with important men and cultural barriers. There is also the story from which the book gains its name — Their Language of Love — which, though based on a newly-wed Gujarati couple in America, examines the personal code of love that is crafted uniquely by each couple in a relationship. A more universal theme.

If there is a theme that runs across a few stories in the collection, it’s the examination of the Parsi identity whether through the parable-esque story of Pir Khurkain in ‘The Trouble-Easers’, dwelling on the universality of religion. Or its collision with western values in Breaking It Up, where a conservative Parsee mother visits her daughter in America to break up her marriage with a Jewish-American boy. Sidhwa’s deliberation of the Parsi is neither weighted towards rebellion nor traditionalism, rather it seeks to explore without judgement the various facets of the Parsi life and their sometimes fractious interactions.

Sidhwa’s prose finely honed to rinse the maximum effect from every word and her creation of detail is mesmerising. Sample this bit of writing: “Mother and I climb into its spacious interior, which smells of boot polish and varnish, our incongruous evening-saris rustling and puffing up with the electricity generated by the friction of the leather cushion against our silks. We avoid touching each other because of the tiny shocks delivered by static.” Not only does it convey the awkward urgency of the moment — the narrator along with her mother and brother are going to meet the home minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, to curry favour with the government, at their own estate which has now been co-opted by the Pakistani military — it also foreshadows the subtle friction and emotional distance between the mother and daughter.

What Sidhwa achieves through this collection is not the production of an affect but a subtle and nuanced effect. She mines her experiences to find a thoroughly honest emotion and moulds it expertly to create a narrative that examines the truth of it.  


Bapsi Sidhwa
Rs 499
Published by Penguin

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