What the Body Remembers
by Shauna Singh Baldwin
Washington Post Book World
February 13, 2000
by Bella Stander
The blurb on the front cover of the reviewer's copy touts What the Body Remembers as a "stunningly accomplished literary debut." Surely this is a backhanded compliment, for Shauna Singh Baldwin's first book was her 1996 collection of short stories, English Lessons, which won acclaim in her native Canada (where it was first published) and in India.
Debut or not, this is a captivating jewel of a novel by a seasoned and sophisticated writer. It begins and ends with a soliloquy by the perpetually angry Satya ("truth"). Sandwiched between is a rich and multi-layered narrative that traces the fragmentation of India, from 1928 to just after Partition in 1947, through the lives of Satya, her husband, Sardarji, and Roop, the girl who becomes his junior wife.
If hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, imagine the rage of a barren, shrewdly intelligent and beautiful 42-year-old who finds that her husband has secretly taken a 16-year-old bride. In the opening chapter, set in 1937, Satya "welcomes" the gorgeous Roop "and sees her own earrings -- Satya wants to tear them from the girl's ears, watch as Roop's tender lobes elongate and rip apart, wants to take back what is hers, rightfully hers." Instead she invites her new "younger sister" into her bed for an afternoon nap and watches her as she sleeps. Her thoughts are those of every woman who's been displaced by a younger model: "How can Roop not look at her, Satya, and think, 'This is what I might become?' . . . Had Satya been like her once? Had she ever been so witless and yet so charming? Young women these days think they are invincible, that they have only to smile and good things will happen to them."
As Satya continues her reverie, the reader almost forgets to wonder why she would offer to share her bed with her naively trusting rival. It's only much later, with the unfolding of Roop's story, that the real reason comes out: Sardarji has taken to visiting her for afternoon lovemaking. As is typical of Baldwin's writing, the truth is all the more powerful for being gradually revealed. So we also learn that, despite the egalitarian tenets of the Sikh religion, in traditional Punjabi culture a woman's main value is as the mother of her husband's sons, and therefore she has no need of much (if any) formal education; that any imperfection, such as Roop's partial deafness, must be hidden lest she be rejected as a wife; and most chillingly, that rape matters only if a woman has male relatives to be "dishonored."
Certainly Baldwin, a second-generation Punjabi born in Montreal and reared in India, takes some well-aimed jabs at men, who "only see women from the corners of their eyes. Their eyes are like horses' eyes: they do not see what lies directly before them." When Roop flees with her children to her native village, an uncomprehending Sardarji journeys to her father Bachan Singh's house, where she remains hidden while he talks to her father and brother before all the other village men -- Muslim and Hindu, as well as Sikh. "It does not occur to Sardarji or Bachan Singh or anyone else to ask Roop to come in and speak, perhaps give her own explanation." (Nevertheless, Roop, craftier than she appears, gets what she wants and gives Satya her comeuppance.)
Yet Baldwin doesn't condemn these men; they can't help who they are or what they say and do, any more than the women can. Even Sardarji, whom one wants to despise for emotionally abandoning Satya and essentially purchasing Roop as a baby-maker, is trapped. Among his fellow Punjabis, he's venerated as a rich and powerful landowner, even more influential due to his Oxford education and position as a civil engineer. But the English are as contemptuous of him as Baldwin obviously is of them: "Sardarji has become that strange rare being, the contradiction and exception to the rule of Indian inferiority, a convenient oddity providing hope of advancement to Indians, convincing his British masters of their magnanimity." And those masters don't recognize the "time-honoured tradition of adopting a son," so Sardarji must beget one or risk losing the wealth he has so painstakingly amassed; hence his marriage to fertile Roop. Of course, as the reader will note from the map supplied (while possibly bemoaning the lack of a glossary in a book replete with Punjabi words), Sardarji's holdings are in what becomes the Muslim state of Pakistan--and the Sikhs wind up fleeing to India.
Beyond being a compelling tale of individuals, What the Body Remembers offers a gimlet-eyed view of a pluralistic society's disintegration into factionalism and anarchy. Though the events of 1947 India are a half-world and half-century away, in light of the religious and ethnic turmoil raging on Earth, they still have much to teach us.
© 2000 Bella Stander