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Retrospective
Apr 14, 2001 05:17 PM 4856 Views

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''Again I am born a woman, a foolish girl-child who has entered the world with her eyes wide open and so will never lower it before a man. Foolish girl-child with two whole lungs to scream and a body that remembers the thoughts remembers the un-thought, the good deeds and the bad….''


Words are powerful tools that hasten the flow of expressions from the mind of a writer on to a blank sheet of paper. The thoughts that aid this endeavor maybe be haphazard and random inside the lobes. But when creativity fuels the mind they find a specific voice and reach out to touch hearts with their starkness.


Shauna Singh Baldwin is a writer to exceptional ability to pain vivid characters in authentic settings embroiled in situations inspired by factual events. Her first novel 'What The Body Remembers' embodies these traits to the fullest.


It is a sweeping, gimlet-view of a society that was first plagued with pluralistic ideals, but once this mode began to dissolve anarchy and factionalism replaced the ideals. Her story is wistfully set during the most tumultuous time in Indian history, the pre-and post Independence era namely 1937-'47. The protagonists consist simply of Sardarji (an affluent Official in the State Irrigation Department, Punjab), his first wife Satya (who is unable to give him an heir to the family name) and his second child-wife Roop (the girl he marries and spawns three children with, two being sons).


Quite a run of the mill story, you think.


But no, 'What The Body Remembers' is a captivating journey into the human heart and its experiences as a witness to the events that turn lives and a whole country inside out. It is not a mere story that features the tussles between two women for the attentions of one man, though this context does form the crux of the story. In fact it is a deep insight into the complexities that drive a person to doing what is right and what is ordained of him or her. We get a tricolor view of a society that used to exist, maybe it still does exist, but its intricacies don't come out into the open too often. The book is divided into eight significant parts, each section distinct in its own way for its tale telling. The narration alternates from Roop to Satya and To Sardarji's variegated viewpoints and interpretation of events. It begins with a piece of poetic prose titled 'Undivided India' that opens the reader's interest to the upcoming chapters, it reads like an exposition. After that we trace Roop's beginnings, her childhood as a rebellious, inquisitive and impressionable girl and her metamorphosis into a woman of seventeen, ready to be wed. Singh descriptions of life at 'Pari Darwaza', Roop's home and the representations of the members of her immediate family are intricate and very veritable in their manifestation. I found her use of authentic Punjabi words in the flow of words uttered by most of the characters highly meritorious. Whether they are words denoting food (an integral element in the skin of Punjabi traditions) like 'pindi cholas', 'spinach saag', 'parshaad' , items like 'phulkari' shawl or expressions like 'kismat' 'churail', their incorporation into the fascia of the story line creates a rather poetic effect on the mind of the reader. Roop's hasty marriage to Sardarji brings the child within Roop crashing down to earthly reality. She slowly in painful tones begins to understand the place for a woman in the way of the world she lives in. Despite being a woman Satya does nothing to ease Roop's predicament, instead as the First wife she protects her interests and her position. For jealousy at being pushed aside by a younger woman governs her actions; a natural way for a rebuked woman to comport oneself. The internal strain between the two women echoes the external struggle the country is undergoing in the outset of the yarn. At a casual glance it may cross your mind that the rivalry between the two lies independent of what is happening outside of their domestic sheaths. But no, the political, religious and social turmoil plaguing the foundations of the country are interlaced in each and every instance. The book ends on the note depicting the ravages of the Partition of India after the momentous independence from the British.The title has a significant place in the creation of the book and the development of the characters. For the body, whether physical, astral or psychological, plays a very important role in the lives of the three protagonists and the condition of India at that time in history.


The Prologue begins with the metaphor of rebirth and the book also ends with the same. A very simple way of ensuring the procreation of life, it always goes on.


Shauna Singh Baldwin may not have Jhumpa Lahiri's ironic streak or Bapsi Sidhwa's brutality of description, but she has managed to create a jewel of a novel, passionate in its intimacy that grabs the reader by the throat. A very formidable piece of work from an author who lives in Canada but is in touch with her roots like no other Indian.


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