Shauna Singh Baldwin discusses her novel recently republished in India with Anjana Rajan
“A story should challenge you to ask yourself — what would you do if faced with these circumstances? And I like to add, especially if no one is watching, and no praise or blame will ensue,” says Shauna Singh Baldwin, author of “What the Body Remembers”, a 1999 novel recently republished in India by Rupa. The novel follows Satya and Roop, two wives of Sardarji, a landowner and engineer in the service of the British Raj, and the changes thatrock their lives between 1937 and ’47 as India gets its freedom and the Punjab they know is divided and lost to them forever. While she says no revisions were made to the story, the author notes she was surprised “to find many lines and ideas that are still radical in 2011.” Patriarchal conditioning is still entrenched she says. “I am surprised that in 2011, daughters are still considered a liability, and parents still pamper sons till they become little maharajas.” No wonder so many voices and personal histories, especially of women, are still silenced in the name of what is important. In an email interview, the U.S.-based author, “delighted to see the book back in print in India”, discusses this novel and fiction writing in general. Edited excerpts:
On the continuing relevance of “What the Body Remembers”
Five million people gave their lives during Partition (in both countries of the subcontinent) and 17 million were displaced. This novel revisits an area of that great wound and I felt it should be available in the subcontinent. There are still so few books to help us understand this cataclysm in contrast with the number of books about other major civil wars.
Seeds of the novel
My nani came to visit me in Milwaukee, USA, and I asked her to write her memoir. She was kind enough to write about 60 pages that are now a treasured family document. We continued the process by mail when she returned to India. Though I had grown up in India and met her almost every day, I realized I didn't know her story. I knew only the story she was authorized to tell. And I also began reading more specifically so I could ask more informed questions.
On researching for the novel
Though born in Canada, I grew up in Delhi, where 40 per cent of the population consisted of refugees from Punjab. The pain of Partition was a familiar ache, along with the immigrant's obdurate determination to survive and succeed. Partition survivors brought their stories with them, but of course the setting of their childhood memories was forever gone, left behind over the border. When I began writing [this novel], I thought of the setting as similar. But I soon realized I needed to travel in Pakistan. And that I could since I am Canadian. My husband and I went to Pakistan in 1997, and I learned how different are the landscape and culture of that region — it's camel country, while India is elephant country. People there eat meat — there are so few vegetables, daal is rare!
I was lucky to visit Rawalpindi and Lahore before 9/11/2001. Many buildings in Pindi still showed evidence of the fires and pogroms of March 1947. (After 9/11/2001, I'm told the American military presence has vastly changed the landscape; and homes are being rebuilt as Pakistanis prosper). I talked to people who had never met a Sikh woman (or man), though a school text book showed Z for zalim (tyrant) adjoining a photo of a turbaned Sikh man. At the time of the creation of West Pakistan there were four million Sikhs, but in 1997 there were only about a thousand. The term “ethnic cleansing” was not part of the English language in the ’40s. As guests, we experienced no animosity, especially since we passed the test of whether we would eat with Muslims — in the historical memory of Muslim refugees (muhajirs) and the original populace, we were told Sikhs and Hindus feared caste contamination, and did not eat with Muslims.
Most Hindu and Sikh first wives have passed away since polygamy was outlawed in India for Hindus and Sikhs in 1956 and that made it a challenge to research relationships between first and second wives, and between the wives and their husbands. I interviewed first wives from the Muslim community, and a few polygamous men who, having emigrated from India, maintain families in the old country as well as in the West. To understand how my grandmother's story of surrogate motherhood was different from the experience of other second wives, I interviewed second wives in her generation.
Besides reading Indian, Pakistani, British and American memoirs and history books, I interviewed former British colonizers, including a British woman who had stayed on in Pakistan, and included several of their racist remarks. I wasn't interested in the “Freedom At Midnight” view of Indian history, and read between the lines and against the grain, often telling stories told by one class or community from another point of view, using educated guessing and imagination.
On feedback from people who had shared their memories
I was most concerned about my grandmother's reaction, because the character Roop is pretty, but also selfish, ambitious and devious. I'm so glad to say she liked it. After publication (and the Commonwealth prize for the Canada Carribbean region), she gave permission for me to acknowledge it as her story. Her one request was, "Next time, tell me a story I don't know!" Others who had shared memories with me spoke Urdu and Punjabi and are unlikely to read this story — I can only thank them.
“What the Body Remembers” became a touchstone for many families to open discussions about lost family members, events, feelings…. I hope it will prompt readers to ponder what we are capable of — good and bad — when no one is watching, and law and custom are absent.
On the power of fiction over factual histories
When we read news reports and other non-fiction, we read in our own voice, and are never called on to relinquish our own point of view. When we write or read fiction and plays, we have to set aside the Self to become the character. So fiction augments empathy, wakening each sense in ways non-fiction cannot. If you want to simply convey information, non-fiction is best. If you want to talk about memory, love, anger, complexity, ambiguity, nuance, often fiction is much more effective.
Still we must remember the experience is real, not the description. As Toni Morisson once said, “They had to live it — you only have to write it.”
Women are subjected to the most negative messages (from more powerful men and women) saying women's life stories aren't real or important. But women's life experiences can be recreated through a writer's imagination, and the truth told to power. Whether power will listen or change is a different matter, but we know that written and oral stories have made a difference throughout history, and can do so again.
On choosing a novel format over memoirs
Fiction, that lie that tells the truth, allows the writer to show multiple points of view and opinions on events. It's most appropriate for subjects that are fraught with vast areas of silence, shame, guilt and even disgust. And fiction is very appropriate for stories where the facts are simply unknown and educated guesses have to be made so the reader can explore a progression of changes. Small progressions can be explored through poems, paintings and short stories but for the larger progressions, the novel form can take us where we need to go. For instance, in “What the Body Remembers”, the characters disagree with official history as they discuss M. K. Gandhi, Lord Mountbatten and British PM Atlee, showing the complexity of these public figures in a way straight-forward telling by documentaries and non-fiction cannot.
As you get further from a cataclysmic event, new generations need more context along with the facts. For instance, in my second novel, “The Tiger Claw” (Penguin, India 2004), the story of Noor Inayat Khan, the Indo-American spy who worked in the French Resistance, I included a contextual statement familiar to most French people who survived the Nazi Occupation of WWII: that if a Jewish person escaped from a Nazi transport during a deportation, he/she would be condemning another to go in his/her place, probably another family member. That one addition, not mentioned in many early accounts about the Holocaust because so well-understood, gives the lie to anti-Semitic post-war propaganda, that the Jews were “passive” and went to their deaths supposedly like “sheep to the slaughter”. Indeed it shows their great courage and self-sacrifice.
I am close to completing a novel about a woman who strives to do enough good deeds to balance her karma after committing infanticide.