Sunday, November 30, 2014

Reading Bapsi Sidhwa's "The Crow Eaters" in Context

A few days ago. I wrote an update on my South Asian Literature course. As I noted, we are working our way through Bapsi Sidhwa's The Crow Eaters.

Students--two on each day--are taking turns making presentations, with the rest of us joining in, any time, with comments and questions, which help to augment or critique the presentations.

I have told the class that we are trying to decode the text, thereby generating meanings. I have told them that this helps us to understand how a text means, an idea prominent in contemporary literary theory. L have cited, in particular, Roland Barthes's S/Z: An Essay, a stimulating, book-length study of Sarrasine, a short story by Honore Balzac.

The Crow Eaters presents the life of the Parsees, a small minority group in India that came there centuries ago from what is today Persia, pushed out by Arab expansion.

The Parsees retain their traditional Zoroastrian religion, which largely distinguishes them from the Hindus and Moslems. I wanted my students to gain some knowledge of this religion, to complement what they learned about Hinduism and Islam through reading Mulk Raj Anand's Untouchable and Ahmed Ali's Twilight in Delhi respectively.

The Crow Eaters depicts the struggles and triumphs of Freddy, an entrepreneur, who, while trying to improve the condition of his family, has to contend with a troublesome mother in law who lives with them. At the same time, we observe how he copes with the British who are the colonizing power. He tries his best to thrive under those circumstances.

Before the Thanksgiving Break, which ends this weekend, I gave the class an examination consisting of two questions. Each student was required to answer one question.

One of the questions was "Discuss the image of women in the works we have read in the South Asian literature course." I also noted that they could include the film "Salaam Bombay," which we had watched. The second question was "Discuss the Western influence or presence in the works we have read. I explained that "Western" in this context means British and American.

The students tackled these questions quite well and some of their answers were outstanding. Whether they dwelt on Mulk Raj Anand's Untouchable, Ahmed Ali's Twilight in Delhi, Michael Ondaatje's Anil's Ghost, Bapsi Sidhwa's The Crow Eaters, or the film "Salaam Bombay," they displayed a good, nuanced understanding of the issues.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Update on my South Asian Literature Course

My plan for the South Asian Literature course this semester has undergone some changes. After teaching Mulk Raj Anand's Untouchable, we moved on to Ahmed Ali's Twilight in Delhi. However, hardly had we gone beyond the half-way point than my health, which has been uncertain for many months, deteriorated, and I had to be hospitalized again, at the Abbot Northwest Hospital in Minneapolis.

Fortunately, after slightly over a week, I was released. During my absence, an English Department colleague graciously stepped in and taught Michael Ondaatje's Anil's Ghost. When I heard that she was teaching this novel, I was delighted, having taught it myself several years ago, as part of the South Asian Literature course.

Upon resuming my teaching of the course, a week ago, we started reading Bapsi Sidhwa's The Crow Eaters. When I was choosing texts to use this semester, I made a point of including Sidhwa, largely because I wanted some example of writing from a Pakistani writer. Having taught The Crow Eaters before, as well as Sidhwa's other novel, Cracking India, I knew that Sidhwa's writing is accessible to undergraduate students.

We are approaching the midway point of this novel now. Then, we will read Romesh Gunesekera's Reef, another novel I have taught before. Like Ondaatje's Anil's Ghost, Reef affords memorable insights, from a fictional point of view, into the Sri Lankan experience.

Time seems to have gone by very fast, and I know we will not be able to read Salman Rushdie's Shalimar the Clown. What a pity. In the future, I plan to change my strategy: I will use Rushdie's novel early in the semester, to ensure that my students have some experience of reading and reflecting on this very gifted, albeit controversial writer. I also doubt if I will be able to introduce any poetry, although I prepared myself to teach some poems from that part of the world, such as Michael Ondaatje's.

Though I have some regrets, I take solace from the fact that by the end of the semester, my students will have a fairly good idea of South Asian Literature, a tradition that, rich and vibrant as it is, appears rather remote to many people.