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Author Biography: Shauna Singh Baldwin was born in Montreal and grew up in India. She is the author of English Lessons and Other Stories and the co-author of A Foreign Visitor's Survival Guide to America. The story that was to become her first novel, What the Body Remembers, was awarded the Saturday Night CBC Literary Prize. She presently lives in Milwaukee.
"[She] displays the gifts of a first-rate social observer [and] passionately records the longings, losses and compromises of her characters' lives."
—Winnipeg Free Press
"The characters shimmer with life, their predicaments grab the reader by the throat, their fate has the reader on the edge of the seat—. An enthralling read [that] offers a glimpse of humanity that is both intimate and universal."
—The Times (UK)
"An impressive debut."
—The National Post
"…a shining new novel—What the Body Remembers heralds the arrival not only of a significant new talent, but also of a fresh perspective on history, rarely experienced before."
—The Readers Showcase
"Shines—an ambitious debut."
“Wonderful! Wonderful! I just finished What the Body Remembers — what an amazing novel! I
feel it has expanded my understanding of the world vastly. And as a writer, I feel nourished, replenished. I drink your words!”
“An epic of heartbreak and honour set in Northwest India in the dying light of the Raj…. Painstakingly researched, its characters frankly convincing, and set against a rich backdrop of gods, politics and tradition, this novel earned its Montreal-born author the Commonwealth Writers Prize 2000 for Best Book in Canada and the Caribbean.”
—National Post, Dec. 30/2000
"I very much admired the strength and control with which the author keeps her complex story going, and at the same time keeps it clear, and true to the spirit of India."
“If you’re one of those readers of novels who likes to think ahead, you might want to clear some space on the bedside table for What the Body Remembers… It’s not going to be out for another year, but already the buzz is stuff of the highest voltage…. The Next Big Thing.”
—Stephen Smith, “Grub Street”, The Globe and Mail
—The Globe and Mail
“Baldwin describes the scenes of the Independence movement with great verve. For the subcontinent, Partition was the most momentous event of the 20th century. But men who were affected by it…have written most of the literature. This is a woman’s perspective. And because women suffered most when their homes were uprooted, this book becomes a more intimate account.”
“While What the Body Remembers will be read as a story of familial relations, it will be remembered more as social history — the customs, traditions and mores of rural Punjab, many still unchanged.”
—India Today, September 1999
"an impressive first novel, hype or no hype. Baldwin’s passion for re-membering her dis-membered homeland, and her desire to tell women’s version, propel the last half of the novel and make it particularly potent."
—Quill & Quire
“A richly textured often poetic story … Newcomer Baldwin’s theme — the grueling uses to which women’s bodies and spirits are put, and their abuses at the hands of men — combines with the political analogue of India’s struggle for independence to produce a lush, sensuous drama.”
“What the Body Remembers is an engaging story of life in pre-partition India, and a compassionate look at the lives of its two protagonists — Sikh women who are practically voiceless within their own culture…History is merely a background to the domestic story, but its intimacy is what makes this novel work…What the Body Remembers is a worthwhile read.”
“…a shining new novel…What the Body Remembers heralds the arrival not only of a significant new talent, but also of a fresh perspective on history, rarely experienced before.”
—The Readers Showcase.
“…Baldwin both overwhelms and educates as she takes readers on this crowded and eventful ride through the complexities of life in 20th century India.”
“Shimmers with life…An enthralling read.”
—The Times (UK)
Rawalpindi, Undivided India, 1937
Satya's heart is black and dense as a stone within her. She tells herself she pities Roop, but hears laughter answering her—how difficult it is to deceive yourself when you have known yourself a full forty-two years.
She has a servant summon Roop to her sitting room in the afternoon, when Sardarji has gone to a canal engineers' meeting. When she comes before her, Satya does not speak, but rises from the divan and takes Roop's chunni from her shoulders, as if in welcome, so she can study the girl. She takes Roop's chin and raises her face to the afternoon sun, willing it to blind her, but it will do her no such service. She studies Roop's features, her Pothwari skin, smooth as a new apricot beckoning from the limb of a tall tree, her wide, heavily lashed brown eyes. Unlike Satya's grey ones, they are demurely lowered, innocent.
A man could tell those eyes anything and they would believe him, a man could kiss those red lips for hours and they would look fuller and more luscious for the bruising.
Roop's hair is long, to her thighs, softened by amla and scented with coconut. Unlike Satya's, it has no need yet for henna. Satya lifts Roop's plait around her shoulder and examines the tip—too few split ends; it has felt the scissors once at least, if not more.
Roop is a new Sikh, then, an uncomprehending carrier of the orthodoxy resurging in them all. Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, they are like the three strands of her hair, a strong rope against the British, but separate nevertheless.
She unbinds Roop's hair. It falls, a moonlit river, down the valleyof her spine.
She examines Roop's teeth and finds all of them whole, the back ones barely visible. She hopes that as they come they will bring pain. Roop's tongue is soft and a healthy pink and from it a man will hear no truths he cannot explain away. She presses her fingers to Roop's cheekbones, they are high, like her own. Some remnant of Afghan blood in their past; in other circumstances she might have been Roop's aunt or cousin.
Satya's hands drop to Roop's neck and encircle it lightly, for she is not trying to frighten her. And she sees Sardarji has given her a kantha necklace, one of her own. She knows the gold of this one well; she ordered it from the goldsmith herself, she knows every link in it and the sheen of its red enamel. She wore it last to a party full of Europeans. Its brilliance and its weight had comforted her, compensation for her tongue-tied state; the European ladies ignored her once they found she spoke no English.
She sees her kantha now, covering the hollow at Roop's neck and she wants to press her thumbnail in that hollow till Roop's red blood spurts and drips over them both.
She wants this.
She moves her hands, with no sign she recognizes the kantha, no hint she knows that Roop standing before her is a silent thief.
With such a tremulous placating smile.
Satya examines Roop's brow. Time is ploughing her own in three horizontal furrows, deepening by the day, but Roop's is still smooth. She pulls Roop's hair back over her ears and sees her own earrings. They are the ones Sardarji gave Satya, after her first pilgrimage to the first ineffectual sant, pleading for prayers. Satya knows these earrings well: three tiers of Burmese rubies surrounded by diamonds—real diamonds, not white sapphires—red-hearted flower shapes ending in large Basra teardrop pearls.
And Roop is wearing them.
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.
But she moves her hands away.
"Come lie with me in the afternoons. You are alone on your side of the house, I am alone on my side. My pukkhawalla is better—he's from my village, our men are strong."
Roop stands, uncomprehending. If she had been a blood-niece, or a cousin-sister, Satya would shout at her to stay away, to turn now and run before she gets hurt. And if Satya had been Roop's mother, Roop would be her daughter and none of this would have been necessary.
"Come," she says again. "It is useless for me to fight Sardarji's will; he is my husband, he has married you. Somehow I must accept that—and you."
Roop's face lights up like a diya at Diwali.
Satya does not feel sisterly at all.
"Oh, Bhainji," Roop says. "I'm so glad. I told Sardarji, I will be no trouble, I will be just like a younger sister."
And her silly tears fall on Satya's hand as she leads the girl to the bed.
Satya places herself in the path of the light from the inner courtyard, dismissing the servants hovering in attendance on the gallery that runs past her rooms. She lowers the reed chics past the casement till the sitting room, cool and dark, holds the sun at bay. The jute sack covering the block of ice in the corner slips to the floor. Exposed, the ice absorbs afternoon heat, weeps a dark puddle over the polished wood.
On the gallery, a pukkhawalla spits a red stream of paan, squats, his back to the wall. With a rope over one shoulder, he leans into pulling rhythm.
Back and forth, back and forth.
The rope worms through the wall and over a pulley near the ceiling, sets the huge wing of silk above the two women creaking.
Back and forth, back and forth.
The breeze from the pukkha moves from Satya to Roop and back again, doing nothing to cool Satya. She is white-hot inside, though if she could speak it out loud, it would be better to call it hurt or pain.
"Come, lie down," Satya says.
She leads Roop from the sitting room to her bedroom and places a soft pillow beneath Roop's head to cradle her ruby earrings. She hears Roop's jutis plop to the floor behind her as the young girl draws her feet up, kundalini-snake on Satya's bed. She leans over Roop the way Sardarji leaned over Satya the years she cried for children, brushing tears from Roop's heavy lashes with her lips. She strokes her head as a mother would, says, "Sleep, little one, we are together now."
And Roop sleeps, overcome by the afternoon heat.
While Satya watches her.
So trusting, so very stupid.
On Roop's arm, thrown back over her head, are Satya's gold bangles, and on her fingers, Satya's rings. Her feet are small and narrow for her height. Around her ankles she wears Satya's gold panjebs. On her toes, Satya's toe rings.
Satya could unfasten them from Roop while she sleeps, but thievery has never been a trait in her family.
Why is Roop so trusting? How can she be so confident she will produce a child? How can Roop not look at her, Satya, and think, "This is what I might become"? How can she not see danger in blundering deep into the tigress's den to steal her chance of ever bearing a cub?
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.
Look at me, she wants to tell her. Barren, but still useful; she manages Sardarji's whole estate. Does Roop think it an easy task? Does Roop think it means just giving orders?
"No, little 'sister,'" she will say, "Sardarji's mukhtiar, Manager Abdul Aziz, does my bidding because he respects my judgment, he knows he cannot cheat me, I am too watchful. Not a pai of Sardarji's money is spent on mere ornamentation or given to the undeserving."
The money she gave to the sants, though . . . that was a contribution to their future.
Perhaps Sardarji felt she gave the holy men too much—then he had only to say one word! One word in her ear and she would not have spent another pai on intercessors, but would have prayed to Vaheguru herself.
Only, she has never felt that Vaheguru listens to a woman's prayers.
When Sardarji's sister, Toshi—that churail! that witch!—when she began her insinuations that Sardarji should marry again, Satya laughed. Said, "Yes, what a good idea!"
And she said she would find a good Sikh girl herself, a woman for her husband.
She said this for ten years while her heart sank lower and lower and her body betrayed her every moon-month with its bleeding. And in that time, the man who could best protect her, her father, lost his power. Thin, maudlin, lazy—that is not a man. When the British turned land rights to paper, he could prove nothing, not even fitness for working! He lost the land. Never even knew it until he tried renewing his land pledges for more liquor, more opium, then more liquor. By then it was too late. In the end he locked himself in a room with all the British-supplied gin he could muster and drank himself to death—one gulp, one drink, next drink, next gulp.
When he was gone, Satya's only brother sold the last of the land to buy a lorry and sent their mother, practical, accepting old Bebeji, to live with a cousin. He lived in that lorry only three days before a band of dacoits drove him from it and left his robbed, bleeding corpse half hidden in a wheat field by the roadside. A Sikh tenant-farmer's wheat field, not even some high-up landowner's wheat field! What a way to die: young, and for no reason. Not even a martyr's death, or a soldier's. Just a useless, meaningless death.
Satya will not die that way.
No, when she dies there will be a reason.
1. The life of a girl in India in 1937 followed patterns, that had worked for centuries. She was usually given scant education and a vegetarian diet (meat and eggs, when they were available, were reserved for boys), and taught that her purpose in life was to be married and bear children. She and all women must depend on a father, husband or brother for economic support and physical protection, and not having social insurance, men were interdependent on blood relations. A girl who was still unmarried at seventeen was a failure. At sixteen, Roop has learned to be a “good-good, sweet-sweet Sikh woman” (p.111), and to be “silent and obedient” (p. 112). She has “learned shame” (p. 115). Yet as a child she was bold, fearless and eager for adventure. How much has she really changed? Does Baldwin intend us to accept that she has changed? How is Roop different from her sister Madani? How are Roop and Madani different from their Muslim friend Huma?
2. Gujri, a Pothari plainswoman, was given to Roop’s mother as a wedding present, “like Mama’s dowry pots and pans.” Gujri has no choice but to accept her position as a virtual slave: she was given away by her father because at the age of seven she had already been married and widowed, and “her whole village thought her unlucky” — meaning that she was cursed and would bring bad luck to others. She could never marry again “lest she kill another husband” (p. 24). What does Gujri’s story say about the position of women in India? What does it say about the power of superstition?
3. Jeevan, Roop’s brother, “has inherited his eyes from Papaji. Like all men, he sees like a horse, blind to things that lie directly before him” (p. 70). This phrase recurs several times in the novel. What does it mean? Does it apply to all of the men in the book, including Sardarji? Is it something women in all cultures might say about the way their men perceive the world?
4. Roop’s father, Bachan Singh, has sent his daughters to school, “against all advice,” and has “hoped for many things for his Roop... He has indulged her all this time in case her kismat brings her a husband who will not be kind.” (p. 121). Bachan Singh knows that the future course of her life will be almost entirely determined by the character of the man she marries. Roop sees Sardarji for the first time on their wedding day, and she knows almost nothing about him except that he is rich. What do you think about the tradition of arranged marriage? Is it very different from today’s computerized dating services? Are Roop’s expectations of the emotional aspects of marriage different from your own and those of other women you know?
5. After the birth of Roop’s first child, “the whole canal colony” is disappointed because the baby is a girl. Satya sends her tea with salt instead of sugar, as punishment. Sardarji’s only words of comfort are “Don’t worry... The next one will be a boy” (p. 202). What are Roop’s own feelings about her child? How does she reconcile her feeling that she is a failure with her joy, and her satisfaction that she “has done what women are for” (p. 190)? How does she express her intense love and concern for Pavan?
6. What do Sardarji’s comments about American society, in his letter to Satya from New York (p. 241), indicate about his political beliefs? What are his assumptions about social class based on? How much is he influenced by “his ‘ten percent,’ his turban, his faith, the untranslated, untranslatable residue of his being” (p. 147)?
7. In Pari Darvaza, Roop’s village, the Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims live, work and socialize together with very little friction. Bachan Singh as lambardar is the leader of the Sikh community and he is good friends with Abu Ibrahim, the pir, spiritual leader, of the Muslims of the district. Roop and Madani play a pebble-tossing game with Huma, Abu Ibrahim’s daughter, and the men of Pari Darvaza regularly get together in the fields to gamble on cockfights between Bachan Singh’s black partridges and Abu Ibrahim’s brown ones. The verbal byplay between the men is barbed but still friendly. Abu Ibrahim tells his partridge to fight “like Babar the Great,” and Bachan Singh ripostes by asking his bird to “avenge each Guru beheaded at the hands of the Mughals.” The men laugh, “a little uneasily” (p. 33). This scene both foreshadows the coming conflict and shows something of how it might have been avoided. Do you think Baldwin believes that a united, multi-faith India was a real possibility? A united multi-faith India exists today — could it have been brought into being without the separation of Pakistan?
8. During their long marriage, Satya, whose name means “truth,” is in many ways Sardarji’s closest ally, “every inch of her tuned to his needs” (p. 374). Besides managing the business aspects of his landholdings, she considers it her duty to keep him from straying too far from the traditions he was born to. In their arguments, she always defends Indian traditions and knowledge, and when Sardarji says she doesn’t understand, and complains that she is quarrelsome, she replies, “I tell you the truth.” She challenges his admiration for European achievements, and speaks scathingly of the English: “Everywhere they tramp across our land, they see and remember only themselves” (p. 276). And she warns him that “one day you will wish you had listened to me, prepared yourself. There is a Hindu aj coming when the English leave...” (p. 328). Why do you think Baldwin gives this prophetic wisdom to Satya? How important are these arguments between husband and wife to the meaning of the book?
9. Both Satya and Roop largely accept the traditional female role, yet both of them also rebel against it, in different ways. Which of them do you think is more like a modern woman? Why?
10. Why does Sardarji take Roop and the new baby, Aman, to the hospital with him, to see Satya when she is dying? Why does Roop agree to go?
11. After Satya’s death, Sardarji thinks that “if he were Shah Jahan, he would build her a marble Taj Mahal to show the world how much he loved her” (p.374). Satya is now “inaccessible” but she is not completely gone. Her voice comes into Sardarji’s mind and continues to whisper the truth to him. She also speaks to Roop (p. 460, 465), lending her elder-wife’s strength and coolness to the younger when Roop and the children are in terrible danger. According to Sikh and Hindu religious belief human souls are continually reborn on earth until they have earned entrance into heaven. Satya has not yet been born again, but she is still a conscious spirit who cares intensely for those she has left behind. Do you think Shauna Singh Baldwin meant this to be taken literally?
12. Mr. Farquharson says to Sardarji, “I recommend you reread The Causes and Course of the French Revolution. I think you will find it quite enlightening” (p. 236). Baldwin makes it clear that his words are a warning: without the British, Sikhs will have no protection from the Muslim majority in Punjab, Sardarji’s province. Mr Farqhharson is often rudely patronizing about the abilities of Indians: “It will take more than civil engineering to civilize these people” (p. 194). What do you think of the portraits of the English characters, Farquharson and Miss Barlow? How accurate do you think they are? Are they fair? What about the internalized “Cunningham,” who advises Sardarji on what is “done” and “not done” — is he meant to be anything more than a comic sidelight on Sardarji’s character (p. 147)? Why do you think Sardarji admires the English?
What do you think of Baldwin’s portraits of the Indian characters? How accurate do you think they are? Are they fair?
13. What is the meaning of the cut glass bowl, filled with crimson liquid, in Roop’s dream (p. 403)? Why must she carry it, “without spilling a drop”?
14. What three people from the scenes of the Tuesday Lunch Club at Faletti’s hotel (p. 226–232; 397–410) reappear to play very different parts on the night of Partition, August 15, 1947? Who helps Sardarji escape the murderous rioting in Lahore?
15. On August 14, Sardarji sends Roop and the children out of Lahore, accompanied by the nursemaid Jorimon and under the protection of Narain Singh and Dehna Singh. The hellish journey takes them along a road thronged with terrorized people trying to escape from the territory of the about-to-be-declared new country, Pakistan. How is Roop touched and changed by the shocking experiences of that night?
16. During the days that Roop waits for Sardarji at the railway station in Delhi, she is tormented by scenes of misery and death – those being played out before her eyes, and those she has seen and heard of over the past few days. She broods particularly over the fate of women, who cannot live if their izzat, their honour, is taken from them. The men of their own families will kill them, to save their honour and protect them from shame – so if they are not murdered by the men who dishonour them, they will be murdered by the men who say they love them. How does Roop respond to these unbearable thoughts? What does her action mean in relation to the way she and the other women in the novel have always behaved?
17. The historical tragedy of the aftermath of the Partition of India is an enormous subject for a writer to take on. Do you feel that Shauna Singh Baldwin has successfully and truthfully portrayed the horrors of those few weeks and months? In particular, what do you think of the way she has structured her telling of the climactic events of August 1947?
18. The theme of “what the body remembers” recurs often throughout the book in various forms: see, for example on pages 249, 258, 375, and 435. What other instances can you think of? How does this idea of the persistence of knowledge through the generations relate to the other large themes or subjects of the book – history, and the lives of women in India?
19. Baldwin is Canadian, writing about people in another place, time and culture a few years after the Quebec Referendum of 1995. Do you think the characters’ predicaments can be read as allegory for the predicament of non-French minorities, should separation occur in Canada?
Posted July 4, 2003
I wish to get this novel so that its translation could be done in Pakistani Shahmukhi Punjabi. If this novel is available in Gurmukhi then please let me know and also the detail how I can get it. SaeedWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 13, 2002
powerful and gripping, 'what the body remembers' offers you the finest portrait of indian women and the dividing india through the eye of two suppressed punjabi women--roop and satya, as they are struggling to survive in the masculine indian world. their sagas are heart-wrenching, tragic and yet noble. as you go through their stories line by line you cannot help feeling and taking in all the pains they have borne. and as nicely summed at the end of the book--no matter how hard women have tried, how many good deeds they have done--'men' have never changed. wonder-full book.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 8, 2001
Wonderfully written book. A great piece of work. Although written from women's perspective, it is heart shaking even for the men. It takes you back to the era that no one from the region would have ever wanted to witness. The final culmination of the hatred filled in the human mind on the name of the religion by the colonolists and how the local politicians flamed it resulting in bringing out the worst in the humans. The suffering of the innocents tears you apart. The book is extremely well written and will make every young reader from the region think about their own grandparents and what they went through. A great saga of the Sikhs being caught in the middle. The book touches your soul for ever. The mind and the body will remember it for ever.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted March 20, 2000
I found this book to be so exact and so real to the life of many women in India durring the partition of East Punjab and West Punjab. My family saw many terrible things durring that time in India. This story is written from a womens view point and the stroy told was the most interesting I've ever read. I would recommend this book to anyone who has a thirst for different culture.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.