Monday, October 09, 2006

Water: A Novel by Bapsi Sidhwa

Publisher: Milkweed Editions

Published: 2006

Genre: Fiction

Pages: 240

(click on the cover image for a trailer of the movie "Water")

Many movies have been based on books, but it's interesting when, every now and again, there comes along a book based on a movie, like Pakistani writer, Bapsi Sidhwa's "Water: A Novel" which is based on Deepa Mehta's film "Water" which incidently is Canada's entry for the Oscars (2006) in the "Foreign Film Category"

The book opens in pre-Independent, tumultous India. The year is 1938, Gandhi is jogging the Indian people from their apathy urging them to fight against British rule and to relinquish archaic Hindu laws like child marriage, the caste system etc; eight-year old Chuiya (Little Mouse) has just become a widow after the 41-year old man her parents married her off to, succumbed to the deadly thyphoid. Chuiya hardly even remembers being married to the man, but as tradition demands, she has to accompany his dead body to Varnasi, where he will be cremated by the Holy Ghats, after which she is expected to live in a widow's ashram.

The ashram is not a pretty place. The widows are expected to shave their heads, give up all their material possessions and clothe themselves in a plain white cotton sari without the benefit of even a blouse; they live on just one meal a day. On festival days they are given paltry alms by temple-goers and on regular days they are given a cup of rice and a fistful of lentils for every 8-hour session of singing and dancing in temple. For many widows, this was their only means of sustenance.On those days when a widow was too sick to perform, she starved.

As a widow, Chuiya is not allowed to touch non-widows, she has to take care that even her shadow doesn't fall on them because she and her shadow are considered polluted. She is expected to spend most of her time inside the ashram, praying or fasting in atonement for whatever sins caused her husband's death (the Hindus believed that widowhood was the direct consequence of a sinful past life). As widows were not allowed to remarry, 8-year old Chuiya could very well expect to spend her entire life confined to the ashram...

Why were widows treated this way in India of the 1930's? In Brahminanical tradition, a woman is recognised as a person only when she is one with her husband. Outside of marriage the wife has no recognized existence, so, when her husband dies, she should cease to exist. The same thinking is responsible for the barbaric act of Sati (the self-immolation of a wife on her husband's funeral pyre), which fortunately was outlawed in 1846.

The same thing didn''t hold true for the men,however. Men were allowed to remarry, keep mistresses or visit prostitutes. As one Brahmin man in the book justifies it, "Our holy texts say Brahmins can sleep with whomever they want, and the women
they sleep with are blessed."

The novel exposes the hypocrisy and double standards of Indian society in the 1930's, especially where it concerned women, in particular unfortunate widows - the novel and movie explore a dark, morbid side of human society, but it has its tender moments and funny ones, too.

"Water" is a must read for anybody interested women's issues, cultures and customs of India (especially pre-independent India) and in the art of crafting a novel from a film script. It is also a wonderful opportunity to immerse oneself in the delicious language so peculiar to the Indo-Anglian authors of the sub-continent. Bapsi Sidhwa has written a truly stunning novel and I recommend it highly, infact, I would go so far as to call it an "essential" read because even today there are widow ashrams in Varnasi. Their inhabitants may not be as young as Chuiya, but the very fact that they still exist in 2006 should rankle us.


J said...

Yeah, I'm rankled that they still exist, but I don't think I'll be reading this one. I saw the movie, and it broke my heart. I sobbed. It was amazing, but just too sad. (I wrote about it on my blog, if you're interested, go to the category, "movies" and you'll find it.) I actually have it on my Netflix list, but I'm kind of afraid of when it comes. I'm going to need to go get some more kleenex.

The girl in the movie was amazing, by the way. Whew. I'm all worn out, just thinking about it.

Lotus Reads said...

hi, J!

Gosh, yes, the movie made me cry buckets and while the book wasn't as emotionally wrenching, I don't mind admitting I got very teary-eyed towards the end. Just loved the language in the book and the author's ability to take very ordinary and mundane domestic scenes, transforming them into enchanting passages just by using her powers of observation and description. I am very intererested in reading your observations on the movie - thanks for letting me know.

sruthi said...

lotus... i cannot tell you how surprised i am, this really is quite a coincidence... i was just starting to think about how to write my blog, and i saw this post. i went to an indo-american conference yesterday in chicago, and deepa mehta was there. i was going to drop you a line about it anyway, because it sounded like her movies are the kind that you would write your fab reviews about! But yes she was at that conference yesterday, talked about her movie, answered questions, and raved about canada lol. I will have a post up about it this evening so you can read it!!:)

Joy said...

Ewwww, this sounds good. The comments above make it even more intriguing. :) Onto the TBR list it goes!

Les said...

Excellent review, Lotus. I probably would've have walked right past this one at B&N, but now I'll seek it out. Do you recommend reading it before or after viewing the film?

Anoc said...

i should say that i don't understand the point of writing a novel based on a movie, though the other way round could make for a better medium. so, Lotus, you are saying that the book covered more ground than the movie did - even if i cannot say how it can be done, because what Deepa Mehta did with it is a feat of cinematic alchemy.

booklogged said...

You've written a beautiful review of this book and movie. I read as far as your link to the trailer and then watched it. By the time it ended I was thinking, "I have to read this book before watching the movie." I'm still astonished that in every culture and throughout history how much pain has bee inflicted by members of the human race to others of their own. Thnk-you for telling your blogger friends about this movie and book. I may have missed them without you pointing them out.

Lotus Reads said...


Yeay, I so look forward to your write-up. How lucky you are to have been able to attend that conference! And yes, Deepa Mehta is definitely one of the trinity of film makers that I have such profound respect for - the other two being Mira Nair and Gurinder Chhadha (sp?)

Hi, Joy!

If your TBR list is anything like mine, I'll bet you're sorry to have to add to the already overburdened list :) But, at 240 pages it's a quick read! Hope you enjoy it.

Hello, Les!

Thanks, glad you enjoyed the review. I saw the movie twice before I read the book. I didn't even know there was a book until I spotted a copy in an Indian bookshop on my trip back home. I found the book helped explain a lot of the traditions and customs of marriage and widowhood in Indian society. If I had to do it all over again, I might still prefer to read the book after watching the movie.

Hi, Anoc!

You bring up a good point - but in the case of "Water", I think the book provided nice backstories for Chuiya, Shakuntala and Kalyani (the movie, due to time constraints couldn't show us what the lives of these protagonists were like before they became widows). Also, by providing extensive dialogue (internal and spoken) we are able to understand many things about the narrators that the movie could only hint at.

Hello, booklogged!

You are so welcome! Being able to write for such appreciative readers like you all truly makes it so worthwhile. Look out for the movie at the Oscars this year - I'm keeping the fingers of my right hand crossed it wins and the fingers of my left hand are crossed for "Rang De Basanti" which is the Indian film competing with Water! :)

Rosemary Esehagu said...

Hello, Lotus.

You've convinced me about this book, and I have added it to my reading list. I don’t know when I’ll actually have time to read it; I hope it is sometime soon. Oh, how I feel the strong restrictive force of schoolwork!

I'll let you know what I think once I read it, and who knows, I might have some questions for you.

Anoc said...

well, you may be right. personally, i wouldn't bother with the novel, because the effect of the movie on me has been so very profound and moving.

and since you mentioned Rang de Basanti, don't you think there are real ramifications of shame here? that a movie by an Indian director, about a deeply Indian subject, had to be shot in Sri Lanka and released abroad, and that it will represent her adopted country's cinema at the oscars? i find it utterly shameful that a bunch of goons disrupted the making of an exceptional film.

jenclair said...

The trailer was beautiful and intriguing. I've added the book to my list and will add the film to my Netflix que. Thanks, Lotus.

Cereal Girl said...

This is another reason why feminism has to be international.

I enjoyed Fire but haven't seen Water yet. Thanks to your recommendations it's next on my list.

Have you seen The Grave-Keeper's Tale?

hellomelissa said...

i love books that help you to learn about a time and place in history through a fictional character. it helps the plight of the character come alive for me. thank you for another great recommendation, lotus.

Lotus Reads said...

hi, Rosemary!

Would welcome a chat over a virtual cup of coffee anytime! I have recently read two books on Nigeria, including your own wonderful "Looming Fog" and I, too, have things I would love to ask you. Unfortunately, my copy of "Looming Fog" is at my parents'home in Bangalore (couldn't carry it back due to weight restrictions), but hubby will collect it for me when he visits in November.


I agree with you wholeheartedly, India's loss was Canada's gain for sure! Don't get me wrong, I loved "Rang de Basanti" even though I found the ending rather inapporopriate, but "Water" is in a different class altogether - it's definitely more Oscarworthy than many of the others we have submitted in the past.

You're welcome, Jenclair
It's an eye-opener and to think it happens to this day!

Hi, Cereal Girl!

"Fire" was really something, wasn't it? No, I haven't seen 'The Grave-Keeper's Tale". I meant to go for a screening at TIFF but unfortunately there was a scheduling conflict. Do you know if it's "rentable"? Have you seen it?

No problem, Melissa! Thanks for always being so enthusiastic about what I review!


Angela in Europe said...

And stuff like this still goes on today! Amazing that in a world where women can be CEO, presidents, mothers or artists practices even more barbaric than this continue.

Anocturne said...

@angela in europe: true, m'dear, so true. they say that we've come a long way, but really, it's not all that far underneath it all.

Susan in Italy said...

Hi Lotus, I'm wondering about some specifics about widowhood in the 1930s. If a woman was widowed after having children, what would happen? (I suppose I could stop being lazy and google this). I'm thinking that if the children were minors, they still needed support from a parent and if they were of age, they might be able to support her. Was the ashram the last chance for widows who had nothing else?

Lotus Reads said...

Hi, Angela and Anoc

Yes, it does go on today, but not to the same extent it did in the 1930's. For instance, widows from rich households no longer have to go to the ashrams because they are no longer considered "bad luck". Poorer widows however are either sent to work in people's homes or in a worse case scenario they go to the ashrams.

There is a wonderful photo slide presentation of the widows of Varnasi as they are today. Take a look if you can:

Widows of Varanasi

Lotus Reads said...

Hi, Susan!

Thanks for the interest - in those days, whether a widow was rich or poor, childless or with children, when her husband died she was considered a non-person, not just that, the family actually considered her jinxed and they were only too relieved to be able to send her off to an ashram and far away from them. They'd justify it to themselves with the mistaken notion that a widow cannot expect to do anything nobler than worship god all day.

nomadica said...

Thanks for this review! I'll add this to my list. Looks like Bapsi Sidhwa and Deepa Mehta have a good working relationship, since Mehta's Earth was based on Sidhwa's novel.

Lotus Reads said...

Hi, Nomadica

Yes, they do, however, I remember reading somewhere that Bapsi Sidhwa wasn't happy with the title "Earth" - I think she much preferred the book title "Cracking India" but since Deepa Mehta was committed to naming her movies after the elements, Bapsi Sidhwa gave in :)