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What the Body Remembers

by Shauna Singh Baldwin

A couple of summers back, The New Yorker called it “the hype of the Indian novel,” the astonishing response of publishers to Indo-anywhere young writers. Shauna Singh Baldwin’s first novel, What the Body Remembers, tempted seven editors to bid; Knopf Canada and their “New Face of Fiction” campaign were successful with a “substantial five-figure advance.” Oprah’s scouts sniffed a sample chapter or two with their Book Club in mind. By this time, Baldwin had already gained some critical approval. Her collection of short stories, English Lessons and Other Stories, was more successful than most of that ill-selling breed, and she won the coveted (it is now, thanks to Baldwin and Gail Anderson-Dargatz) Saturday Night/CBC Literary Prize.

In the almost 20 years since Salman Rushdie jazzed up India’s history with Midnight’s Children, a generation of post-colonial novelists has brought that country’s tangle of languages and faiths to English-speaking readers. Vikram Seth, Arundhati Roy, and Canada’s Rohinton Mistry (among many more) have sold plenty using plenty of styles.

Baldwin – who was born in Montreal, grew up in India, and now resides in Milwaukee – is both inside and outside this new tradition. What the Body Remembers hints at the same linguistic ambivalence that torments each of Roy’s sentences; its scope as a novel is as Victorian as Seth’s Suitable Boy; her focus on the eve of Indian independence and Pakistan’s birth in August 1947 echoes Rushdie. Baldwin’s style, though, lacks the humour, romanticism, the lyrical riffs of any of these writers. Even Mistry’s wit and wisdom are missing.

Those absences may sound dangerous, but the novel is not a disappointment even given its impossible context. The source of weakness is that the story – the nation’s plot – is much better than Baldwin’s ability to tell it. Other Indian writers scramble diction and syntax, add irony and parody in order to speak for a country of close to 20 languages and almost as many religions and sub-faiths. What the Body Remembers is not really a writer’s book, not one that appeals to the overactive envy gland of anyone who ever tried to out-Joyce Joyce. But it isn’t 1,000 pages long, either.

Baldwin moves quickly through the 10 years of growing anti-Imperialism leading up to independence. While tracing tensions between Muslims and everyone else, the novel follows two Sikh women, Satya and the teenaged Roop, both married to an Oxford-educated Indian landowner, Sardarji, who smells of sandalwood and Brylcreem. Often, such symbols of empire are forced – he likes tartar sauce and Queen Anne chairs – and too obviously suggest Sardarji’s mixed allegiances. Satya is disgusted by her husband’s affection for things British, is more nationalistic than he is, but these, too, are clumsily revealed: “She needed spices, she wanted spices – the very thing the British first came here for – perhaps she swallowed them daily just so they couldn’t have all of them. She wanted the smell of coriander and the slow frying of cumin.” Meanwhile, her husband prefers “just an omelette for dinner.”

On other occasions, anti-Empire is portrayed with poise. Satya performs a slow suicide by infecting herself with tuberculosis from a childhood friend: “She parts Mumta’s lips, takes her poison by a European kiss, and she is thinking of Sardarji as her lips touch Mumta’s, remembering how he taught her this when he returned from England, taught her to kiss.” As well, Sardarji often debates his alter ego, Cunningham, his “English-gentleman-inside” a “hoary phantom remnant of his Oxford days who saddled his mind.” It is a stretch, but Cunningham and a couple of other Brits could be considered comic. Maybe only pathetic.

Other devices, such as recurring italicized sentences meant, perhaps, to signify thought patterns, suggest Baldwin would like to escape the confines of linearity and do something interesting. These intrusions are difficult to follow, though, and defy narrative logic.

As in Baldwin’s short stories, the role of women – female babies are not wanted and childbirth is mandatory in this India – is treated with standard feminist tenets. (Roop “wants to free her breasts” from their “brassiere-bunyaan.”) Cultural abuses of women, and the arguments against them, seem stale until Baldwin documents the night of India’s independence and partition, when Muslims rape and remove the breasts and wombs of Hindu and Sikh village women, fragmenting them literally into pieces. The history and the politics are familiar, the characters are somewhat simplistic in their motives and actions, but even without the Rushdie dazzle and the Mistry mood, What the Body Remembers is an impressive first novel, hype or no hype. Baldwin’s passion for re-membering her dis-membered homeland, and her desire to tell women’s version, propel the last half of the novel and make it particularly potent.