Included in the UGC-CARE list (Group B Sr. No 172)
Gender and Nation: Reading Partition in Bapsi Sidhwa’s Ice Candy Man


The treatment of women in the novels of Partition provides an interesting insight into the psyche of the writer. The men in the novel may be revolutionary and treat their women with respect but the writer's gaze always reduces the woman to a 'piece of property', something to be guarded and protected lest it falls into the hands of the enemy. It showed the reality in all its nakedness. Here the woman writer stands apart because of the difference in treatment of women characters, she looks not at the stark reality of the 'body' but the emotional drama of the mind, the mental dilemma of the woman. Women have been amongst the harshest critics of the dominant nationalisms that hold up a community and\or the nation state, for they have had to engage with the fact of their difference within the nation: their difference from men as citizens, as well as members of ethnic, religious, class and caste groups whose affiliation they have to symbolically bear. The researcher here is looking at discourses of gender and nation formation and their representation in the writings of women pertaining to Partition.

Key-Words: Nation, Partition, discourse, gender, nationalism, women, identity,

By the late 19th century, the image of the woman, mythic and literary had come to stand as the most important picture of conventional 'Indian' values and sentiments. In all its representations, nationalist discourse set up the Indian woman as the main repository of the highly prized notions of Indian culture and Indian tradition. Repetitively, these ideas were raised in the Images of the virtuous Hindu woman, centering on the metaphor of a sacred, innermost, private space that had to be preserved from violation and western intrusion. Therefore, the woman as metaphor for this sacred nation-state became vulnerable when Partition occurred.

Women's bodies are subjected to a gendered form of communal hostility when we look at a vast body of literature dealing with Partition and the communal riots that preceded and followed it. The locus of the trauma in research studies has been the loss of homeland, migration, dispossession and refugee dilemmas. Till recent times, most of the theoretical positions were male defined and only when women took up the task of reviewing the past, an attempt was made to balance the lopsided views and then people came to know the other side of the story.

As Julia Kristeva in her essay, 'Women's Time’, (187-203) has pointed out, cultural history is not simply a psychoanalysis and semiotics but is a powerful critique and redefinition of the nation as a space for the emergence of feminist politics. The nation as a symbolic denominator is, according to Kristeva, a powerful repository of cultural knowledge that erases the rationalist and progressive logics of the 'canonical' nation. Some of these partition narratives have presented exemplary tales of courage, strength and tenacity and thus given space to the hitherto invisible woman in nation-construction, creating a piece of profound complexity that has shaped the narratives of dislocation. Some of these writings address the ellipses of history, and especially women's histories that are inextricable from the histories of nation formation but which have been until recently only a few shines in the margins, if not wholly omitted.

The Partition riots of 1946-47 and the destabilization of community alliances that they entailed treated women's bodies as a site for the location of identity. According to the same patriarchal logic that resulted in the mass rape of women from the 'other' religious community [Muslim], the 'purity' of Hindu and Sikh women became a political prerequisite for their belonging in the new nation in the communal violence surrounding partition, Hindu and Sikh women sometimes committed suicide or were murdered by kinsmen and these acts-designed to thwart the enemy's aims to dishonor the nation by violating its women-were lauded as self sacrifice.

At the purely physical level, women's bodies are markers of the vulnerability of borders; in other words, women are the 'border' because they are "signifiers of ethnic or national difference" (Bhasin 89). Mass rapes in civil wars point to the same fact. According to the patriarchal consensus, the women of a particular community should be defended as borders, or the women of the other community should be violated as the other's borders. In a way communal violence against women is seen as violence against the males belonging to the other community and this becomes a part of the group-identity building. "In many villages-writes Urvashi Butalia where negotiations had taken place, often women were traded for freedom.” (Butalia 133)

The novel I'd like to focus on is Bapsi Sidhwa's Ice Candy Man (1988) which examines the inevitable logic of Partition as a result of fundamentalism sparked by hardening communal attitudes. What distinguishes it from the other Partition narratives is the prism of Parsi sensitivity through which the tragic event is depicted. Bapsi Sidhwa's narrator is a talented Parsi girl Lenny, who is only eight years old and narrates the story of her changing world with sophistication and wonder. The device of the child narrator enables Sidhwa to treat a historical moment as disgusting as Partition without morbidity, without exaggeration or criticism. The nation in Sidhwa's novel is symbolized by the 'Hindu' Ayah (Governess) of Lenny; whose multi-religious throng of admirers represents the 'raiders' ready to attack her at any point.

The Ayah is mixinging towards all and it is in this that she becomes a symbol of the composite culture that India is. As the events roll ahead with a relentless speed, the group of Ayah's admirers begins to decrease. With the imminence of Partition, the park presents a picture of different religious groups keeping away from one another's company. The passions run high even when men of different religious communities talk and chat with one another. A reference to Gandhi, Nehru and Patel's influence in London evokes a respond from the Masseur who feels that in throwing out Vavell, they have got a 'fair man' sacked. The Ice candy man goes a step further:

With all due respect Malijee, says Ice candyman, surveying the gardener through a blue mist of exhaled smoke, but aren't you Hindus expert at just this kind of thing? Twisting tails behind the scene ... and getting someone else to slaughter your goats. (90-91)

When the Government House gardener tries to cool the passions by imputing the difference between the Hindus and the Muslims to the English, the butcher with his "dead pan way of speaking" remarks:

“Just the English", asks Butcher, "Haven't the Hindus connived with the Angrez to ignore the Muslim league and support a party that didn't win a single seat in the Punjab? It’s just the kind of thing we fear. They manipulate one or two Muslims against the interests of the larger community. (92)

Thus the novelist shows the gradual emergence of the pattern of communal discord in urban India. In Lenny's words,

One day everybody is themselves-and the next day they are Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, and Christian. People shrink, dwindling into symbols. Ayah is no longer just my all encompassing. Ayah-she is also a token. A Hindu. (93)

What follows partition is the unbridled ventilation of the pent up malice between the two communities on both sides of the border. While the marauding gangs of the Akalis subject the Muslims of Pir Pindo (A village in Punjab) that fell on the Indian side of the border to mass slaughter from the surrounding Sikh villages, the Hindus and Sikhs of Lahore undergo similar harrowing experience. Their fate gets impaired when a trainload of corpses from across the border reaches Lahore. Ice Candyman's relations lie dead in the heap of bodies in the ill-fated train. Imamdin's entire family has been wiped out in Pir Pindo. Ranna alone has survived to tell the horrible tale. While all these brutalities provoke Ice Candyman to join the marauding hooligans out to kill and destroy the evidences of the Hindu and Sikh presence in Lahore, Imamdin remains calm in the face of all calamities. The distinction between the two becomes marked when a gang of Muslim hooligans comes to abduct Ayah. Imamdin tells a lie, "Allah ki kasam, she's gone". In contrast Ice Candyman not only seizes her and throws her to the wolves of passion in a Kotha (Public house) but also kills out of jealousy his co-religionist Masseur.

The frail and helpless figure of 'ayah' being abducted by the marauders is a poignant one-she is symbolic of a nation being destroyed-a woman whose 'body' is her betrayal. In claiming her body, the marauders claim the 'Hindu' nation. In the words of Meredith Turshen

The unpredictability of rape serves to terrorize the community and warn all people of the futility of resistance-those targeted as victims as well as those who might wish to protect the intended targets. Behind the cultural significance of raping 'enemy' women lies the institutionalization of attitudes and practices that regard and treat women as property. 20 (59)

However, though Sidhwa emphasizes the vulnerability of women, like almost all who write on the partition; Sidhwa is different in her refusal to make women only victims. Ayah has survived and is rescued by the Godmother. What is important is that Sidhwa anticipates by several years the demand of world feminists to recognize rape as a war crime. Sidhwa recognizes the inhumanity that accompanies communal violence but also suggests the need to ask for forgiveness and to give it.

Works Cited
  1. Bhasin, Ritu Menon and Kamla. Boarders & Boundaries: Women in India's Partition. New Delhi: Kali for Women, 1998.
  2. Butalia, Urvashi. The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India. New Delhi: Penguin Viking, 1998.
  3. Kristeva, Julia. Women's Time. Ed. The Kristeva Reader. Trans. Toril Moi. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986.
  4. Sidhwa, Bapsi. Ice-Candy Man. New Delhi: Penguin, 1988.
  5. Turshen, Meredith. The Political economy of Rape' Victims, Perpetrators or Actors: Gender, Armed Conflict and Political Violence. New Delhi: Kali for Women, 2001.

Dr. Hasmukh Patel, Associate Professor and Head, Department of English, Gujarat Arts & Commerce College, Ahmedabad. Email: