Bapsi Sidhwa's Laughter, Tea and Novels
By Sebha Sarwar
Bap si Sidhwa, one of Houston's and Pakistan's best-known novelists, is housebound at age 76, suffering the long-term effects of the polio she experienced as a child. Now that she and her husband have moved outside the city to Sugar Land to be closer to family — even as they come to terms with not being able to fly to Lahore, their first home, so easily — many of us who know and admire Bapsi feel even more compelled to visit her for tea, stories, and laughter, always laughter.
Sometimes, I'm astonished to realize that there was a time when I didn't know her. That was 1994, when I'd landed in Houston without a plan after finishing graduate school.
"You don't know Bapsi Sidhwa?" Marv Hoffman asked me, eyebrows raised. I had encountered Marv, co-founder of Writers in the Schools, where I had just begun teaching.
Back then, I didn't know many people in Houston's literary or South Asian community, and there wasn't much Internet to tell me who was in the city, or that Bapsi had adopted Houston as her second home.
I shook my head. "I do know her work — very well — but, no, I don't know her personally."
Of course I knew her work. Anyone who reads and follows English literature emanating from South Asia is familiar with Bapsi's writings.
Born in Karachi, Pakistan, in 1938, nine years before the subcontinent was slashed into two countries, Bapsi has produced five novels, many short stories and essays, and has been heaped with honors — including a Bunting Institute fellowship at Radcliffe/Harvard, the Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Writers' Award and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, to name a few. Her novel "Cracking India" led to Deepa Mehta's feature film "Earth," which brings to life the violence and grief caused by the 1947 Partition. Other writers hold her in awe.
"I read Bapsi Sidhwa's intelligent and moving novel 'Cracking India' when I was starting out as a writer," notes novelist and University of Houston professor Chitra Divakaruni. "I have learned so much about writing from that book. I still remember certain passages."
Long-time Houston resident Zeba Shah adds: "In Pakistan, a country with such ethnic and cultural diversity and gender and class inequities, only a writer with Bapsi's sensitivity and keen sense of observation can reveal the Pakistani thinking so realistically, whether men or women, chauvinistic or liberal, free or suppressed... but then, they are her people."
After my conversation with Marv, he and his wife, writer Rosellen Brown, took it upon themselves to make sure I met Bapsi. I don't remember who else was present at the sit-down gathering they organized in their Montrose home, but I do recall that Bapsi talked with me about her experiences living in different cities — including Lahore, Kabul, Mumbai and Houston — as well as about books, history and the writing process. At the end of the evening, she invited me to her house on Cheena Drive.
The dinner at Marv and Rosellen's opened the door to many lunches and teas with Bapsi. In 2002, she joined the board of Voices Breaking Boundaries, the grassroots arts organization I formed, and she hosted board meetings in her living room. After the larger group would leave, a few of us would head to her backyard. My favorite moments were those hangouts, sitting under the warm sun, listening to Bapsi's stories. And always, at the end of the day, we laughed together.
"Bapsi is both an icon and an anomaly," Rosellen Brown and Marv Hoffman write from Chicago. "Her name is widely known in Pakistan, as we discovered on a visit with her to bookstores in her home country, but she is a woman (one of few of her stature), a member of the Parsi religious minority, and she has always written in English. All of these have situated her far outside Pakistan's mainstream, but they have been the wellsprings of her extraordinary writing."
Bapsi has made appearances at literary festivals in India and Pakistan, attracting throngs of fans, who grew up reading her work. In 2013, despite health challenges, she attended the Mumbai festival, as well as the new Lahore Literary Festival that drew 30,000 people.
"Bapsi is a major figure in Pakistan, as she should be, after her years of hard work and struggle as a female writer writing in English in a country where, at the time, this was practically unheard of," says Rich Levy, a poet and executive director of Inprint, a Houston nonprofit that supports writers and readers. "I wish she were equally appreciated in Houston. She has taught creative writing at top universities, including Brandeis, Mount Holyoke, and the University of Houston, and received many prizes and accolades, all richly deserved."
In Houston, Bapsi is known and respected in literary, academic and feminist circles. Elizabeth Gregory, director of the University of Houston's Women's, Gender and Sexuality Studies, says: "Just knowing that Bapsi Sidhwa lives here makes Houston a more serious, literary place, with international cred. Her skill and vision sit lightly on her thoughtful, generous nature."
Activist Sissy Farenthold observes: "Bapsi has meant so much to those of us in Houston. She brought another life experience — her own life experience — to life for us. And beyond the writer that she is, Bapsi is a wonderful person. We are blessed to have her."
Sidhwa's influence is felt further afield, as well.
"Bapsi Sidhwa has had tremendous influence on Pakistani literature through her insightful work and through tirelessly mentoring other Pakistani writers, especially women," says Pakistani novelist Sorayya Khan, who's based in Ithaca, New York.
And from Karachi, Oxford University Press editor Ameena Saiyad says: "At a Karachi reading in her honor, Bapsi became overwhelmed with emotion and could not continue. She handed her book to me and asked me to begin reading from where she had stopped. I was touched by her sensitivity and close attachment to the theme and characters of her novels. She writes from her heart and puts her soul in her writings." - Courtesy Houston Chronicle