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IN BRIEF

Fiction

August 09, 1992|MICHAEL HARRIS

THE CROW EATERS by Bapsi Sidhwa (Milkweed Editions: $13; 263 pp.) A businessman who bribes public officials, toadies to rulers of any political stripe, burns down his store to collect the insurance and tries to murder his mother-in-law is an unlikely role model, but that's what Faredoon (Freddy) Junglewalla is for the Parsees of Lahore, India, in the early 1900s. Not only is Freddy rich, he's also handsome, sociable, religious, devoted to his wife and children and genuinely concerned about the Parsee community--a mere 100,000 descendants of 14th-Century Persian immigrants trying to preserve their identity in the midst of India's millions.

We might expect this 1981 novel to deal seriously with what Western readers would consider the split in Freddy's personality, the darker consequences of his credo that the person who satisfies his own "needs and wants" makes himself and everybody else happier. But no. Instead, Bapsi Sidhwa ("Cracking India") has written a picaresque, comic tale, garnished with 19th-Century authorial commentary, though with coarser humor than the 19th Century would have tolerated. It recalls the past in charming detail (young people desiring to marry signal their intention by putting salt into the family's drinking water) and emphasizes the unity of Freddy's response to life, the necessity of behaving as he does in order to succeed.

The only dissenting voices are those of the mother-in-law, who represents the portion of woe to which even lucky people like Freddy are fated; and his second son, Yazdi, who becomes a vagabond, helping the poor. Freddy's view of Yazdi's defection is rooted in his sense that poverty, in a country like India, is irremediable; that pity can be extended only to members of one's family, tribe and faith. "(He) gave up all hope for the recovery of his son's sanity, for it is insane to look beneath the surface of India; it is insane to look beyond the narrow confines of one's destined sphere."

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