Reviewed by Asif Farrukhi
IT has a sense of an ending right from the beginning. Unlike most novels, The Crow Eaters by Bapsi Sidhwa opens with a death. The great Fareedon Junglewalla is all set for dying and will reach another level of glory through this passage. He is Freddy for short, we are told, in a style at once easy and familiar, as if we are being introduced to a friend. Then he is described in bold brush-strokes as a “strikingly handsome, dulcet-voiced adventurer with so few scruples.”
A promising, even inviting beginning. However, in the very next instance we are told of his death at 65, a “majestic grey-haired patriarch” who enters the community’s calendar of great men and women, and is a name invoked in all ceremonies performed inPunjaband Sindh. His death is not only of a distinguished individual but indicative of the slow but steady decline of an entire community beautifully captured in The Crow Eaters.
The end and the beginning chase each other as the novel proceeds. With the glimpse of the end, we are told that Freddy was “prone to reminiscence and rhetoric” in his prosperous middle years but by this time we are ready to enter the narrative of days to come and days already in the past. The end of the first chapter tells us that by such a time, Freddy was “free to face the future”. A future we face in the novel and having done so, will not be able to forget easily.
It was soon after its first publication that I read The Crow Eaters, a bit of an oddity then, a Pakistani novel in English and thoroughly enjoyable to boot. Since then, many editions have replaced the modest and simple original one and Pakistani novels have become fashionable. Yet The Crow Eaters remains at the top of the list, unique and delightful. Going through it once again, this time in Urdu, translated by Muhammad Umar Memon, I found it as engaging as ever. It was once impossible to imagine that this novel could exist in any other condition. But The Crow Eaters not only manages to survive transportation into another context through translation, but at the same time remains as readable as it originally was.
It is not only its language which sets The Crow Eaters apart but its entire approach. The author’s obvious affection for the community at the heart of the novel in no way prevents her from poking fun at its all too human foibles. The humour is irreverent but irresistible. The Pakistani novel, assuming that such a thing exists, is inclined to hold its head high among lofty and abstract ideals, being mindful of all possible Sacred Cows. But Junglewalla Sahib is a lovable old rogue and not a paragon of virtue. The full-blooded mother-in-law Jerbanoo, with her hilarious ritual of washing among the “dry-cleaning” Englishmen, is a scream. Her broken attempts at communication with London policemen are some of the funniest scenes in the novel. Some of that quirky humour is lost but it is wonderful how the novel’s great sense of fun comes across in the Urdu translation.
Humour saves The Crow Eaters from rhetoric and sentimentality, both common ailments found in the Urdu novel, and here it could learn a thing or two from Bapsi Sidhwa. This added value will certainly endear the novel to those who are approaching it for the first time and in a translated form. It is evident that Professor Memon has taken great pains over the translation and as is his method, tried to stay as close to the text as possible, even to the extent of being literal at times.
In her brief preface to the translation, Sidhwa says that she had the translation read out to her and fully endorses it. The approval was also echoed by Bano Qudsia, a very different sort of writer from Sidhwa. Yet Bano Qudsia manages to extract some elements of her particular brand of tassawuf from the novel, particularly in the character of Yazdi and his love-crazed majnoon-like actions. I could not help but wonder if Sidhwa tried to return the compliment by tracing out any degree of humour in Bano Qudsia’s Raja Gidh? I wish she could grant a leave of absence to Jerbanoo and ask her to take her cleansing ritual right in the midst of other straight-laced novels. What fun if Jerbanoo invited herself to a cup of tea in the coffeehouse at the centre of Intizar Husain’s Basti where his highbrow characters carry out their history-obsessed conversations!
With great aplomb and in a beautifully produced book, the veritable Junglewalla Sahib is among us again, without losing his Pickwickean gusto to chaste Urdu.