Book Reviews

Review Published in HINDUSTAN TIMES

Rescuing Punjab From The Mists of Memory

WHAT THE BODY REMEMBERS

By Shauna Singh Baldwin
Harper Collins India
28/10/1999

The Partition did not only re-draw the map of the subcontinent, it upset forever a way of life that existed before, took away the locales from the stories, the lilt from the music. In the void, it left bitter memories, incredible sagas, half-forgotten nightmares. A shattered generation struggled with the broken pieces and even now it needs only a casual scratch to bring out the most painful of memories and the bitter sweetness of nostalgia.

Pre-Partition Punjab, for instance, exists only in the fading memories of our parents. Villages like Pari Darwaza, where Roop, the novel’s protagonist, grows up, cannot be found any longer. Such villages with a Sikh lambardar and Muslim cultivators living in easy camaraderie that stopped short of breaking bread with each other were lost forever in the holocaust that came with the birth of Pakistan. Any work of fiction, like Shauna Singh Baldwin’s book, that bring back those days, that gathers full tales from elusive snippets of memory, therefore, is valuable. All the more so since it also mirrors the cultural life of Punjab of those days and, through the tale of a Sikh girl, brings into focus the community’s way of life.

Baldwin has chosen her historical swathe well and dealt with it using considerable skill and compassion. The three decades before Partition ware a period of dramatic events, of heightened idealism and nationalism of an inevitable, if reluctant, realization of communal divides-“For its only when a fish is pulled from water that it truly understands it is not fowl.” She explores expertly the deep wells of racial memory- everything that the body remembers- that which has been felt- the fervour or fear, the whispers and the howls, of our fathers and mothers and theirs before that. And running through the book is a thinly veiled feminist dub-theme, of the place of women, of sisterhood, of survival.

Roop’s journey from childhood in Pari Darwaza to adulthood in the riot-torn Delhi of 1947 meanders through many themes and moods, making the book in many ways a multi-coloured and multi-layered phulkari, the kind Roop keeps, like so many of our Punjabi mothers, as a memory of her mother. She marries, as a second wife, as a memory of her mother. She marries, as a second wife, an Oxford-educated Sikh engineer working in the lrrigation Department of the British Raj and travels with him to the canal colonies of Punjab, to Lahore, and to the hill station of Simla. She learns to live with, counter and finally respect his childless first wife Satya. The two wives rival each other for the love of their husband, Sardarji, One acquiesces with his efforts to further his career with the Englishmen; the other never leaves a chance to remind him of where he truly belongs. Incidentally, there is something irksome about the husband being referred throughout the book as Sardarji- a main character could usefully have a name. Especially a character otherwise convincing and well-formed, working as a good professional with the British, woken up to history’s realities, tormented by torn loyalties. He still thinks of his working-class English girlfriend of yore and sings: “Kitty, isn’t it a pity / In the city / You work so hard? / Baley, Baley. / Yes, baley, baley, as in Daler Mehndi.”

Soon, the juggernaut of historical events takes up the characters of the book and involves them willy-nilly in its unstoppable currents. Like so many millions, they, too, must escape and run, survive of be killed, fight or simply give up. The indomitable spirit that so many showed after 1947 is well caught in a cameo, towards the end of the book, of a gutsy young Sikh boy selling umbrellas on a railway platform crowded with people who, suddenly and inexplicably, had became refugees in their own land.

Of the various technical devices used by Baldwin, particularly interesting is the use of Cunningham, an alter ego, or an English gentleman-inside, that Sardarji has carried with him since his Oxford days, who keeps reminding him, using British standards, of what is done and what is simply not done. Sardarji keeps only 10 per cent away from him- “his turban, his faith, the untranslated, untranslatable residue of his being,” In the throes of Partition, Cunningham, no longer able or willing to use British standards, falls silent and the 10 per cent takes over.

Shauna Singh Baldwin’s novel is well-conceived and by and large well-executed. There are some fine points where one can differ and which one would have ignored in a less-accomplished work. One is the use of Punjabi words and this must be a dilemma faced by all authors writing of an Indian milieu in English. Of course, these words lends authenticity, atmosphere and punch. But some are virtually untranslatable and if they are followed inevitably by an English translation, the process gets tiresome-“Bari Sardarni… Bari means larger,” (Incidentally, in this case it means elder of the two.) There is also an implausible scene in which Roop’s husband and brother-both Sikhs-fight in English in a per-Partition Punjabi village, translating every now and then for the village audience. But the one that takes the cake is the sentence, “It is a siapa.” Siapa is Punjabi for mourning and I wonder how a western or non-Punjabi reader is going to figure that out. But, as I said, one can sympathise with Baldwin’s dilemma on this count.

Some other finer points of Sikh culture have been somewhat loosely handled-the man leads all four times around the Holy Book on a Sikh wedding and not only in the first three; the Kirtan Sohila, though part of the prayers after cremation, is not the prayer for the dead, but part of the daily prayers, recited before going to sleep; it was Guru Gobind Singh’s mother, Mata Gujri, and not his wife, Mata Sundari, who was with his two younger sons when they were bricked up alive in Sirhind. These points notwithstanding, I enjoyed the novel and read it straight through on a trans- Atlantic flight.