Title: What the Body Remembers
Author: Shauna Singh Baldwin
Publisher: Rupa and Co.
PP: 626 pages
Price: Rs. 395
The book tells a story which resonates deeply with my own views; being a middle-ground-sort of person in a world that forces people to take sides is tough, especially if you were a woman, and were not afraid to speak out.
Ms. Baldwin’s writing is beautiful; sometimes I paused and re-read a paragraph or a sentence just to admire how she describes things and tells her story. Sentences like, “Afterwards, she can return to her room, moon-shadow crawling like a lowly untouchable along his bungalow walls,” immersed me in the irony of Roop’s situation as the second wife; she was needed and wanted, but received only a “look from the corner of her husband’s eyes,” in return.
The character Sardarji came to me as patriarchy personified. Kind and generous, but for all his education, could never truly understand his wives. His adherence to British education and standards, which caused him to forget the “music of the dilruba” and resulted in his refusal to listen to Satya’s views, was also reminiscent of the rigidity of the patriarchal society.
For most of the book, my favorite character was Satya. She was so strong and fearless. I love how she questioned the gap between the intention of Sikhs to treat women as equals and the reality of women not being valued or treated the same as men. The following passage is such a good example of how Satya’s wishes express the struggle between the reality and her wishes for it:
Surely, there will come a time when just being can bring izzat in return, when a woman will be allowed to choose her owner, when a woman will not be owned, when love will be enough payment for marriage, children or no children, just because her shakti takes shape and walks the world again. What she wants is really that simple.
Towards the end of the book, all of the characters worlds are rocked by the religious divisions between Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims which intensify as the departing British prepare to divide the land into India and Pakistan.
During this period, I especially appreciated the growth in Roop. She goes from being timid to finally finding her voice and having the courage to stand alone. Throughout the book, I really HATED Sardarji. On some level, I could sympathize with is struggle to rise in the British government that was in India. However, I felt so angry with him for how he treated Satya and I did not fully understand or appreciate his need to take a second wife. Towards the end of the book, there is a powerful scene at a train station in which the iciness in my heart for Sardarji began to defrost
Closing the back cover, I cannot help but ponder about the ending. Even though this novel is set in 1937 India, the story rings true with religious disputes everywhere, forcing moderate people to take sides. Watching extreme religious groups enforcing their prejudices and judgments with violence makes me wonder, what would stop the tragedy in this book from happening in my country?