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What the Body Remembers, Shauna Singh Baldwin.

January 23, 2015

What the Body Remembers, Shauna Singh Baldwin.  Anchor (2001), Edition: Reprint, Paperback, 471 pages.

4 stars

An impressive and engaging novel about a Sikh woman who grows up as an eager girl in a rural village, lives as a submissive Second Wife, and becomes strong enough to get what she needs in the violence of the Partition of India.

The setting for What the Body Remembers is the Punjab region of northwestern India, a region that was divided between India and Pakistan at the Partition. The story begins with Roop, the main character, growing up in a rural village as the daughter of the local headman. Her father and his family are mostly Sikh’s, but their village also includes Muslims and Hindu, all living together in relative harmony. A Hindu woman in her father’s household even takes Roop to worship with Hindus and teaches her the Hindu stories. Whatever their religion, the villagers share certain values and practices. Women are considered much less important than men, who only look at women out of the corner of their eye. Definitions of whom and what are “unclean” is a constant concern. Reincarnation, or “what the body remembers,” is believed to shape a person’s life.

Within that context, Roop is a bright, ambitious girl, sure that her karma means that she will have a good life. Her father’s corps fail, however, and Roop is not able to have the elaborate wedding she had envisioned. Instead she is married quietly to the village landlord, Sardarj, whose First Wife, Satya, has failed to give birth to a son. Although Roop is given unimaginable luxuries, she must deal with her new husband and his First Wife.  Both Sardarj and Satya are full-blown characters developed sympathetically in the novel. Sardarj has been educated in England and is a civil engineer in the British bureaucracy. He wears the suit and tie of Europeans with his Sikh turban, seeking to convince the British that he is just like them except for his strongly held religious beliefs. His vision is for an India where British and Indian work together for the nation’s progress. Within his mind he argues constantly with a British adviser, who pushes him to be more European. He is aware however of what the British are doing wrong, such as deliberately playing the Hindus off against the Muslims. Through Sardarj, Baldwin is able to explore what colonization meant to those subjects trying to reconcile themselves to it.

In his private life, Sardarj has to deal with the growing stress between Satya and Roop. Satya is a strong competent woman, able to handle many of her husband’s business affairs. When she is unable to bear him a son, she becomes bitter and jealous. She treats Roop with cruelty and disdain. While Satya is hardly a likable character, readers can see why she thinks and acts as she does. When Roop gives birth to a daughter, Satya demands the baby to raise as her own. When Roop gives birth to a son, Satya takes the son and returns the baby girl. When the girl is returned, Roop believes she must be strict with her because the baby must learn that it is woman’s place to be submissive. Roop endures until she believes her life is threatened. Then she returns to her village, only to discovers how little concern her father has for a mere daughter.

Roop’s brother steps in to demand better treatment for Roop, and she returns to Sardarj, but the politics of Indian Independence loom larger than the private narrative in the last section of the book. Hindu and Muslim ignore the Sikhs in their division of the country, and Punjab is split between them. Old friends become enemies. The order that Roop had once known is destroyed. By this time, however, Roop has grown into a woman capable of shaping her own life.

Shauna Singh Baldwin is among the emerging authors who have lived in various parts of the world and cannot be easily labeled as belonging to a particular country. She was born in Montreal, grew up in India, and now lives in the USA. Her name indicates that she comes from a Sikh family. Her careful details of life in twentieth-century India attest to her extensive research for her novel. Her book excels in its depictions of how ordinary people live through major changes in their lives. In particular, she shows how traditional practices that I knew about abstractly actually play out in the lives of individuals. Most of all, Baldwin writes with deep insight into the varied and sometimes conflicting thoughts of her characters.  This is a complex book, covering a long eventful period of time.  Baldwin does an excellent job of weaving a variety of subplots into the arc of the larger story.

Other novels also deal with the ways in which the Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs went from having close friendly relationships to violence at the Partition. My Temples, Too, by Qurratulain Hyder, is about another part of India and a different group of people, but narratives of friendship and division are similar.

I strongly recommend this book to all with interest in India and all who are interested in how a woman, dismissed as unimportant by those around her, finds meaning and control in her life.  My only hesitation is that the book is dense with words and details of mid-twentieth-century India.  Newcomers to Indian literature may feel overwhelmed.

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