Ice Candy Man also published under the title Cracking India, is the story of a young girl growing up during the 1947 partition of India. In 1947, India was given its independence from Great Britain. It was also split into two countries: India, which was primarily Hindu, and Pakistan, which was mostly Muslim. There was a great deal turmoil during this time as refugees fled both countries, and there was much religiously motivated violence as well.
The story centers on a young Parsi girl named Lenny; her beautiful servant girl, the Hindu Ayah; and the Ice Candy Man, who is Muslim. Lenny is afflicted with polio and therefore spends her days with her Ayah and Ayah’s circle of friends and suitors. Although the novel is primarily about Lenny, there are a number of sub-plots that the reader observes through Lenny’s eyes. The main sub-plot is the nicely drawn love story between the Muslim Ice Candy Man and the Hindu Ayah. It’s a love story which is much affected not only by religion but by the politics of the day as well.
The novel lets the reader look through the eyes of a young girl into a world of stark images of hatred, violence and fear. In this Ice Candy Man is thematically related to The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank (also known as The Diary of Anne Frank). However the characters are not very well drawn and tend to be condensed to mere bodily or spiritual characteristics. Lenny is defined by her polio, Ayah by her Hindu beliefs, and so on. The people from dissimilar faiths are detailed only in the loathing and disdain that they have for other religions. Most simply refuse to acknowledge the universality of the human experience.
The book also explores the politics of sex and gender as well as of religion. At this time in India, sexuality was much repressed, and this gender-role power play seems to pervade the whole book and also pervade the whole lives of the characters, especially the beautiful and nubile Ayah who is sought as a wife by many, but is restrained and constrained by her upbringing and circumstances in finding a suitable partner. As a Hindu, she may only marry a Hindu, even if she loves a non-Hindu.
Bapsi Sidhwa’s prose is finely wrought, and although the main character is a young girl, this is no novel for young readers. In its coverage of a time and place that is little known outside of the Indian sub-continent and despite its stereotypical characters, Ice Candy Man is a good solid novel, well worth a read.