Book Review: The Crow Eaters by Bapsi Sidhwa

Babsi Sidhwa’s 1987 novel The Crow Eaters is a fun and funny, rollicking and yet perceptive novel set in the late 19th in British India. Faredoon (Freddy) Junglewalla has packed up his family of his pregnant wife, Putli, his baby daughter, Hutoxi and his over bearing mother-in-law; Jerbanoo and moved them from his tiny mountain village to the large and cosmopolitan city of Lahore in what is now Pakistan, but then was part of the British Raj.

The family is Parsi, (Zoroastrian) a religious minority in India, the small community of other Parsi Zoroastrians quickly accept the Junglewallas into their ranks. Freddy and the rest of his family, except his mother-in-law, soon begin to flower in this new environment. The novel explores the Parsi experience in India. As a minority in a country dominated by two other great religions (Islam and Hinduism), the Parsi minority must find ways to blend in and at the same time retain their unique culture as well.

Freddy, as a successful businessman, must deal with the colonial British as well as others, such as Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims to grow his business; a shop in the business district. Despite his supposed openness and forward thinking, Freddy is still sometimes surprisingly insular, nearly racist. For example when his son says that he wants to marry a non-Parsi to save her from her harsh family life, Freddy furiously says no to the idea. Then he uses a rather nasty racist argument to justify his refusal. While not ignoring the flaws in her characters, Bapsi Sidhwa has walked a literary tight rope in showing both the inclusiveness and exclusiveness of Indian society at that time.

As in a lot of family stories, the joys, annoyances, and tragedies as well as the emotional responses to such events are tightly woven all through The Crow Eaters. The book lays bare the fact that most families from all over the planet have the same fundamental existence. The only differences lay in the details of the lives of the people. Trouble with one’s mother-in-law, worrying about money and so on will seem familiar to the reader. On the other hand, other problems are unique to the Junglewalla’s time and place. For example, worrying about arranged marriages, or Parsi death rituals will not be familiar to most modern readers, but will still be compelling.

The prose is lively and easy going. The book is a joy to read; equally bawdy, emotional and serious all at the same time. This novel is well worth the time to read.

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