Sunday, 20 January 2013

Week Three - Jeanette

What The Body Remembers by Shauna Singh Baldwin (1999)
Recommended by Luisa

Guess what Luisa got for Christmas?

Wilkie Collins’s autograph. Wow, wow, wow!

Given how much I too love Mr Collins (he spars for favourite author with George Eliot), I was especially excited to read Luisa’s choice for 2 Readers. I had some debate with myself as to whether this should be an ‘S’ or a ‘B’ but, using the way I file ‘Billie Ray Martin’ in my record collection (M) as a guide, I plumped for B, secretly thrilled that I would get to read Luisa’s selection sooner rather than later.

Luisa, with her Cleopatra fringe and equally sharp wit, was a big part of my four years of living in an ex-council flat in Hackney. She and her husband Hayden would spend evenings with my best friend Kathryn and I, all of us downing cheap soave, dissecting the minutiae of pop culture and laughing ourselves senseless. This, I thought, this is London life. Things moved on, as things are wont to do; I went to Sheffield, she and Hayden went to Colchester. I think I’ve only seen her once since our mutual flights from the capital. However, funnily enough, we’ve chatted more on books since we stopped seeing each other regularly.

I’d never heard of What The Body Remembers, or its author, Shauna Singh Baldwin. The Wikipedia page on Baldwin is succinct, but it does contain this rather wonderful fact:

Baldwin and her husband own The Safe House, an espionage themed restaurant in Milwaukee, Wisconson.

What The Body Remembers is not an espionage novel. But one of its main themes is how governments can smash trust between people.

Beginning in 1937, when the British still administered India, the three main characters are Sikhs living in the Punjab. Satya, fiery and complicated, has all the force of a Hedda Gabler or a Miss Julie. Infertile and outspoken, she has a tense relationship with her husband Sardarji, a skilled engineer working with the British rule and – in Satya’s opinion – collaborating with the colonists.

            That eyebrow of Satya’s had risen, ‘You did it for them, na?’

            ‘Yes of course, for them.’
            ‘Don’t say hein, Satya,’ he corrected. ‘It’s rude; it’s simply not done.’
            ‘What should I say? Tell me. Feed me the words you want to hear, so I can say them to you.’
            ‘You should say “Really, is that so?” if you disagree,’ he told her.
            ‘So you want me to say, “Really, is that so?” instead of telling you to your face when you are making excuses for yourself.’ And she had painstakingly learned those four English words, so her every repetition dripped sarcasm.

Sardarji, partly because of Satya’s quarrelsome ways, and partly because he wants a son, takes a second and much younger bride, Roop. Satya quickly dismisses Roop as docile and uninteresting (she isn’t), but Sardarji falls in love. He favours Roop over Satya, and a brilliantly unnerving Baby Jane-Blanche Hudson style psychological violence develops between the two wives.

Underpinning, and in some ways reflecting, this three-person melodrama is the wider three-faith political situation in India. On the opening page of the first chapter, Baldwin writes:

Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, they are like the three strands of her hair, a strong rope against the British, but separate nevertheless.

Yet as the voices for separation of India and Pakistan louden, that rope frays. The final one hundred or so pages of What The Body Remembers deal with the events and the tragedies surrounding partition. The stories Baldwin tells are individually harrowing, but never does she dumb down or gloss over the political backdrop to the story. Readers are treated with the intelligence to understand difficult ideological machinations.

The novel is beautifully structured and many different power relationships are examined: man and woman, mother and child, colonists and colonised, religious majority and religious minority. Such tensions are cleverly and subtly brought out. For instance, Sardarji presents Roop to the Peshawari Muslim Rai Alam Khan and the Englishman Mr Farquharson.
           ‘Does she sing?’
Sardaji says proudly, ‘Oh yes, She sings shabads beautifully. I call her my little brown koel.’
Mr Farquharson gives Sardarji a puzzled look.
‘Our hymns.’ A little annoyed. ‘Surely you know what shabads are.’
Mr Farquharson leans back in his chair, ‘Oh’, he says scornfully, ‘yes, perhaps I do remember now.’ He pulls on the pipe again. ‘Sardarji, why don’t you teach her to sing Muslim hymns as well?’
Mr Farquharson would pull a tiger’s tail, then wonder why it mauls him.

I took my time with What The Body Remembers. The text is sprinkled with Punjabi words, whose meanings can usually be divined through careful reading, adding real texture and rhythm to the book. It’s not a difficult read, as such, but it is a book that it is pointless to skim. Even the minor characters have terrific depth to them and, although the pace is slow, it never drags.

What The Body Remembers is a profound book, a novel with real ambition, and my favourite recommendation so far.