It has been nearly two years since the last installment in this series about lost, forgotten, or underrated books with an Indian connection was published. What better time to return to your bottom shelf and dust off those old volumes than during a global lockdown when you are confined to your home and isolated for weeks? While the world is being ravaged by a deadly virus, natural disasters, and social upheaval, I decide to turn to my favorite companions for solace.
If this is to be the year of hindsight, it’s fitting to resume this series with a book that won the Commonwealth Writers Prize 20 years ago for Canada and the Caribbean. Shauna Singh Baldwin’s debut 2000 novel What the Body Remembers has all the ingredients of a literary blockbuster – romance, history, suspense, and political intrigue. Its themes are as relevant today as they were two decades ago or in British India in the first half of the 20th century. But what I fell in love with, just a few pages in, was the lyrical, sensuous prose.
WHAT THE STORY REVEALS
The book begins with the birth of a baby in India under British rule at the turn of the 19th century. The baby, a girl, despite all the rituals and prayers offered in the previous life, laments her fate. After all, to be born a woman in this world meant to be resigned to one’s kismet.
What follows is the story of two women who on the surface, could not be more different. There is Satya, the grey-eyed 42 year old wife of the wealthy, Oxford-educated landowner known as Sardarji. She is fearless,outspoken, and refuses to lower her eyes when she looks at her husband. Shrewd and practical, she runs his business affairs efficiently despite the fact that she cannot do the Git-mit Git-mit talk, that is to say, speak English. However, Satya has a bigger problem; in all her years of marriage, she has failed to deliver a child.
The Anglophile Sardarji wants sons who “will start a clean race…a new race from the Best of Both Worlds.” Unbeknownst to Satya, he marries a young village girl and brings her home to his haveli in Rawalpindi. His new bride’s name, Roop, means physical form, but also refers to beauty. If Satya’s fate is to speak the truth, Roop’s fate is to use her body to deliver babies. “Learn what we women are for,” her grandmother had told her when she was a child witnessing her mother give birth. “Learning,” said Gujri, the maid who helped raise her, “is just remembering slowly, like simmer coming to boil.”
While the novel alternates between the perspectives of the two women, it is Roop’s life we follow more closely through the years. We watch her grow up in a village with a charming name – Pari Darwaza, or the Doorway of Fairies. Roop is beautiful even as a little girl, beautiful enough to be vain and long for a life of luxury. But she is deaf in one ear, a disability she promises to keep a secret. Her father is poor and her options, limited.
To save the family from ruin, she is married off at 16 to the powerful Sardarji who is 25 years older. When he gives Roop her first presents – dazzling gold jewellery that once belonged to Satya – Roop is mesmerised. But what she doesn’t understand yet is that in this marriage, she is destined to be Choti Sardarni – the second, younger, less important wife. And yet, it is her bedroom that Sardarji goes to at night. Satya hears his footsteps, and when she learns that Roop is pregnant, she asks herself – “How to bear this?”
It is impossible to pick sides. I found my sympathies oscillating between the two women. Whom to root for? The strong-willed Satya who has been betrayed? Or the innocent and submissive Roop, whose father’s parting words were “Above all, give no trouble”?
Read the full story, ‘This novel of Sikh lives during the Partition won the regional Commonwealth Prize 20 years ago’ (The Scroll, 27 June 20209, here. Oindrila Mukherjee is an Associate Professor of creative writing at Grand Valley State University in Michigan. She can be found on Twitter.
Jagir Kaur survived bloody Punjab partition in her 20s (Asia Samachar, 30 Aug 2016)
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