Published September 1999
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Shauna Singh Baldwin
Lives of girls and women
Shauna Singh Baldwin gives voice to an unspoken Indian history
When Shauna Singh Baldwin was born, her mother received telegrams, and they all said pretty much the same thing: poor thing, you had a girl. Don’t worry, next time it will be a boy. “So my mother named me Shanaaz,” Singh Baldwin says, “a Muslim name that means ‘That of which emperors are proud.’ It was her way of saying, ‘Damn you all.’”
Strong-willed women, girl-children, and their struggle against patriarchy is something Singh Baldwin understands. Her first novel, What the Body Remembers (published in September by Knopf Canada and reviewed on p.59), begins and ends with the birth of a child, angry that she has been reincarnated once again as a girl. What is to some merely a circular literary device – wherein the epilogue is also a prologue (and vice versa), the birth of the same soul destined to live the same story – is to Singh Baldwin a statement of profound importance.
What the Body Remembers begins in 1937 in Rawalpindi, in the Indian state of Punjab, amid the mounting tension that precedes partition, 10 years away. The capable Satya (whose name means “truth”) is over 40 and has given her husband, Sardarji, no children. So Sardarji, a wealthy Sikh landowner and canal engineer, takes a second wife, the beautiful Roop. Roop (whose name means “form” or “body”) is 16 years old and eager to leave her village and escape the drudgery of women’s work. Satya treats Roop like a younger sister but secretly hates her, and, as Roop bears Sardarji’s children, the household is divided by passion and politics, much like the country around them. The partition metaphor also applies in another, far more insidious sense: Singh Baldwin’s characters illustrate how the lives of girls and women are unknown – almost foreign countries – to the men.
“To write this, I had to pull Sikh women’s history out from under Sikh men’s history,” Singh Baldwin notes. “It’s depressing, because Indian women writers have been around since the 16th century. We haven’t been silent, just undiscovered.
“Yet I can’t condemn my own men,” Singh Baldwin sighs over a cup of chai at Toronto’s Bombay Palace restaurant. “I may write about them with satire, or with a certain amusement, but I can’t condemn them. I have to see them in relation to the dominant culture. When I see them in relation to that oppression, I have to forgive them. Unfortunately.”
Singh Baldwin’s fiction has so far stuck to a central theme. Her last book, the 1996 short-story collection English Lessons and Other Stories, was a bleak excursion into the lives of Indian women and their attempts to establish identity in the face of masculine domination. Some readers have accused Singh Baldwin of being “sucked in” – in the words of one critic – by Western feminism. But non-Western culture is not synonymous with female oppression, and neither is equality of the sexes a new idea. Western society didn’t invent everything.
“I’m going back to feminism, as far as I’m concerned!” Singh Baldwin exclaims. “My religion says that women and men are equal. I’m going back to the Sikh faith and describing the difference between theory and current practice. The Sikh religion says I’m equal, so the men had better do something about their attitudes!”
Writers of colour are often told by their own communities that to display internal strife is to betray one’s own people, to open up a non-dominant culture to further misinterpretation and vilification. Writers of colour take an enormous risk when they critique their own cultures, one that leaves them vulnerable to censure from all sides.
“I’m a writer first,” Singh Baldwin states unequivocally. “I have no nationality as a writer. I do not assume that only the white community is oppressive. Our entire caste system in India is an oppressive society. We need to examine ourselves just as much as the white community does.
“I’m not a traitor. If I didn’t love my culture, I couldn’t write about it,” she says. It’s the literary equivalent of the “this hurts me more than it hurts you” school of discipline. Despite her criticisms, Singh Baldwin is obviously proud to be Sikh.
The author was born in Montreal, but her parents returned to India soon after her birth, where they remain. “My father went back to India because it wasn’t much fun being a Sikh in Canada in the 1960s,” Singh Baldwin says. “So he went back thinking that was the place he could wear his turban. Well, ha ha ha. He’s not part of the dominant [Hindu] culture there either. It’s dangerous to be a Sikh in India, dangerous to wear a turban.”
Singh Baldwin completed secondary school in India, but moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where she still lives, to complete her MBA. She writes literary fiction, but also works as an information technology consultant to banks and data processing companies. She grew up in a country that boasts a distinctive traditional dress, yet spent most of her childhood in pants. (“I used to play polo with the army guys. They let me exercise their horses in the morning. So I was always dressed in britches.”) These days she wears Sikh dress more often then not, but she has short hair. (“I cut my hair because otherwise I would have come out of school with an MBA and been given a secretarial job. I didn’t wear a nose ring either.”) She is a curious amalgam of three cultures – Canadian, Indian, and American – and she likes to keep people guessing.
“I hate purity with a passion. I refuse purity. I’m pure blood, but my religion is a hybrid – it takes from the Hindu and the Muslim faiths. I love the hybrid world,” Singh Baldwin says. “I take what I like and I chuck the rest. Use what I can use. I’m reinventing myself every day.”
And reinventing what it means to be Canadian too. The author – who is a Canadian citizen by birth and a landed immigrant to the United States by marriage – was living in Milwaukee when she won the Saturday Night/CBC Literary Prize for the short story “Satya,” which became the first chapter of What the Body Remembers.
“I wrote, ‘Yes, I am Canadian’ on the outside of the envelope,” Singh Baldwin laughs, “because I didn’t want them to see the return address and throw my entry out. I also wrote: ‘Nationality: Canadian’ on the cover page just to make sure.” The Great White North is, well, a little less white for her loyalty: she is a member of The Writers’ Union of Canada, and her two books have been published first by Canadian houses.
Which doesn’t mean that she simplifies her writing for the non-hyphenated crowd. What the Body Remembers is set in India and is written outside the English language’s Judeo-Christian symbology. The book has a different cultural context, employs a different set of symbols – Sikh, Muslim, and Hindu – and wields a different language. Indian terms, often denoting complicated cultural philosophies, are scattered throughout the text and left undefined, contrary to accepted practice.
“I think in English,” Singh Baldwin allows. “But I also think in Punjabi, in Urdu, and in French, depending on what is the most applicable word. There are problems with English – one of my characters once said that English has a lot of words for doughnut, but not enough words for members of one’s family – but there are problems with Punjabi too. There are problems with every language. There are problems with every computer language, which is why we have a plethora of them. You have to know how to map between databases.
“At the same time, I know the reader may be monolingual, so I have to make allowances without short-changing the bilingual or mutilingual reader. My assumed audience is global. That’s why there’s no glossary, no explaining, no italics for Indian words. They are not foreign,” Singh Baldwin says firmly. “They are part and parcel of this universe. People of the dominant community don’t have to explain anything. So I refuse to explain.”
One thing she will explain is the difficult process of writing, and how Satya and Roop’s stories affected her emotional and physical well-being.
“This book moved into my life. It had to be fed in the morning and cleaned up in the evening,” Singh Baldwin remembers. “My husband would come into the room when I was writing and not know whether I was going to be curled up into the fetal position, or in tears. This book was a whole-body activity. I had to feel it to write it.”
The writing took its toll, but Singh Baldwin had help getting through it. “I always put on a shawl when I write, because it takes me back to India. Any shawl will do, as long as it’s around my shoulders. It’s the symbolism of the shawl: as protection.”
She may need that protection again soon. Singh Baldwin will not talk about her new projects, except to say that she is going “deeper.” She’s inviting back that house guest, the difficult one that demands care and feeding and tears.
Writers, like Satya’s unforgetting soul, just never learn. They are destined to repeat their path, to stumble around their central theme, greedy for the knowledge that keeps their eyes wide open, gives them words that fall to the page. Why, if writing is so hard, does Singh Baldwin do it?
“To live twice,” she answers. “One life is not enough. I need a few more.”