BOOK REVIEW
Water

Title: Water
Author: Bapsi Sidhwa
Publisher: Milkweed Editions, Minneapolis, MN
ISBN: 1571310568
Pages: 238
Price: US $ 16.95; Canadian $21.95

Review By Dr. Rizwana Rahim
Chicago, IL

To write a novel based on a movie is unusual enough, but to get it ready for its release has to be a PR maneuver for both the book and the movie. That happened when Bapsi Sidhwa agreed to write her new book “Water” in three months, synchronized to be released on 28 April 2006 with the movie of the same title, directed by Deepa Mehta.
Most often the trend is just the other way –- book-to-movie, that is -- in which the book-author doesn’t see, the characters suddenly leaping from the page to the screen, large or small. And, when it does materialize, several years (even decades and centuries) often pass.
This writer-moviemaker collaboration happens to be their second: the first was the book-to-movie transformation of Sidhwa’s novel “Cracking India” into a movie “Earth/1947” (1998) by Mehta. This collaboration also has a personal angle: both -- Pakistani-born Sidhwa who now lives in the US and Indian-born Canadian Mehta based in Toronto – have some insight from their individual and separate vantage points into the customs and culture of the subcontinent. “Water” and “Earth,” together with “Fire” (1996), form Mehta’s controversial movie (or ‘elements’) trilogy. In ‘Water’, Mehta confronts certain Hindu religious tradition and practices -- child marriages, pariah-status of the widows and the resulting societal problems, issues as emotionally charged today as they were seven decades ago, a period in which the movie is set.
The story (deprivation of widows in a patriarchal society of late 1930s) is largely but not only about Chuyia, about 8, and her life in an adult world, immutably harsh practices in the name of religion. Her father arranged her marriage to a 44-year-old man, without any prior discussion with her mother or the child, then 6. Two years later, Chuyia’s husband dies, and she (too young to understand anything), now divested of everything and clad in white and shorn, as the tradition demanded, is committed by her own father to an ashram for widows in Rawalpur, along the Ganges. Rambunctious as any child her age would be, she is forced to live among older widows under the tyrannical rule of Madhumati which Chuyia detests.
As she makes difficult adjustments to her new life as a widow, Chuyia finds support and comfort in some other inmates, notably beautiful Kalyani (who had come to the Ashram some years ago under circumstances not too different from Chuyia’s), Shakuntala (little older but quiet and mysterious), and Bua, an old resident.
Chuyia was instrumental, albeit accidentally and unknowingly, in bringing Kalyani in contact with Narayan, a young Gandhian idealist (circa 1938), and then acts a go-between as their romance develops (an unthinkable development for a widow as well as the Ashram). Chuyia remains largely ignorant of what she causes to happen or its import, but the reader is led, nonetheless, into the brutal and hypocritically seedy operations of Ashram, all in the name of religion.
Kalyani is unlike any other resident widow – though in white sari, she is treated better (occasional new sari, etc), and keeps her flowing hair. However, nothing describes the sordid situation better than some casual remarks: Madhumati admits that “every penny from Kalyani’s work goes to pay the rent”; Rabindra, an overtly-pro-British young man, confides into his friend Narayan that ‘Seths of Rawalpur seemed to fancy widows’. Madhumati herself cites what the Mahabharata says: ‘Just as birds flock to a piece of flesh left on the ground, so all men try to seduce a widow.’ It is Madhumati herself who pimps the resident widows out to support the Ashram and her drug and other addictions, and for which she uses a eunuch, Gulabi.
Chuyia triggers another long chain reaction when she blurts out to Madhumati the marriage plans of Kalyani and Narayan. That enrages Madhumati who hacks off Kalyani’s hair and locks her up in her room. Coming to Kalyani’s rescue, Shakuntala lets it be known that “Kalyani raked in more money than the other widows … put together,” as she struggles with Madhumati and frees Kalyani to go to Narayan.
The story doesn’t end there. Kalyani’s marriage plans are dashed, as compromising links emerge; she wants to return to the Ashram but faces unacceptable compromises. Nowhere to go and in total desperation, she drowns herself in the Ganges (staying with the theme, ‘water’). Soon Chuyia also becomes victim to sordid machinations of Madhumati and Gulabi, but things take one more turn and thanks to Shakuntala, Chuyia is finally entrusted to Gandhian reformists through Narayan. It is a relatively slim book (nearly 240 pages), with some helpful glossary of religious terms used.
The subject matter is still so sensitive that shooting of the movie in India (2000) sparked violent protests, destruction of the set and public accusations and threats by the Hindu fundamentalists against Mehta. Sidhwa, as well as many other proponents of free expression, publicly defended Mehta and her right to explore the subject no matter how sensitive or controversial. However, after nearly four years of suspension, the shooting locale moved from Varanasi to Sri Lanka where the movie was completed. These trials and tribulations are chronicled in another book by Mehta’s daughter, Devyani Saltzman [‘Shooting Water: A Memoir of second Chances, Family and Filmmaking’, ISBN : 1-55704-711-1 (hc); 13: 978-1-55704-711-3(pb)], a book that also deals with the daughter-mother personal reconciliation.
In ‘Water’, Sidhwa had it both easy and challenging. The characters and the plot were already there, all outlined and defined for her, but the challenging part was not just to transform the audiovisual part of the movie to the page, and do it accurately and with sensitivity, but to also remain within the defined confines. The book will be judged, fair or not, against its movie version. Unavoidable as it may be, there are two different parts (book-reading and the movie-viewing) in each of us, and they often turn out to be two different witnesses to the same scene. I have not seen the movie, but the book is gripping –- tells the story simply, moves fluently, sketches the details beautifully.
Sidhwa is an elegant writer, with enormous appeal. As a Parsi woman of Pakistani origin who witnessed the violence of the partition as a child, Sidhwa, as mentioned earlier, has a special perspective on women’s rights issues of the subcontinent and is a keen observer and analyst. Her novels have been translated in German, French and Russian, and her work honored in her native Pakistan (‘Sitara-e-Imitiaz’), Germany (Literaturepreis) and elsewhere (‘Cracking India’, a ‘Notable Book of the Year’ 1991 of both American Library Association and the New York Times).


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