It has been nearly two years since the last instalment in this series about lost, forgotten, or underrated books with an Indian connection was published. What better time to return to your bottom shelf and dust off those old volumes than during a global lockdown when you are confined to your home and isolated for weeks? While the world is being ravaged by a deadly virus, natural disasters, and social upheaval, I decide to turn to my favorite companions for solace.

If this is to be the year of hindsight, perhaps it’s fitting to resume this series with a book that won the Commonwealth Writers Prize 20 years ago for Canada and the Caribbean. Shauna Singh Baldwin’s debut 2000 novel What the Body Remembers has all the ingredients of a literary blockbuster – romance, history, suspense, and political intrigue. Its themes are as relevant today as they were two decades ago or, indeed, in British India in the first half of the 20th century. But what I fell in love with, just a few pages in, was the lyrical, sensuous prose.

What the story reveals

The book begins with the birth of a baby in undivided India under British rule at the turn of the 19th century. The baby, reborn as a girl yet again despite all the rituals and prayers offered in the previous life, laments her fate. After all, to be born a woman in this world means to be resigned to one’s kismet.

What follows is the story of two women who on the surface, could not be more different. First, there is Satya, the grey-eyed 42 year old wife of the wealthy, Oxford-educated landowner known as Sardarji. She is fearless, outspoken, and refuses to lower her eyes when she looks at her husband. Shrewd and practical, she runs his business affairs efficiently despite the fact that she cannot do the Git-mit Git-mit talk, that is to say, speak English. However, Satya has a bigger problem than language; in all her years of marriage, she has failed to deliver a child.

The Anglophile Sardarji wants sons who “will start a clean race...a new race from the Best of Both Worlds.” Unbeknownst to Satya, he marries a young village girl and brings her home to his haveli in Rawalpindi. His new bride’s name, Roop, means physical form, but also refers to beauty. If Satya’s fate is to speak the truth, Roop’s fate is to use her body to deliver babies. “Learn what we women are for,” her grandmother had told her when she was a child witnessing her mother give birth. “Learning,” said Gujri, the maid who helped raise her, “is just remembering slowly, like simmer coming to boil.”

While the novel alternates between the perspectives of the two women, it is Roop’s life we follow more closely through the years. We watch her grow up in a village with a charming name – Pari Darwaza, or the Doorway of Fairies. Roop is beautiful even as a little girl, beautiful enough to be vain and long for a life of luxury. But she is deaf in one ear, a disability she promises to keep a secret, and her father is poor. Her options are limited.

To save the family from ruin, she is married off at 16 to the powerful Sardarji who is 25 years older. When he gives Roop her first presents – dazzling gold jewellery that once belonged to Satya – Roop is mesmerised. But what she doesn’t understand yet is that in this marriage, she is destined to be Choti Sardarni – the second, younger, less important wife. And yet, it is her bedroom that Sardarji goes to at night. Satya hears his footsteps, and when she learns that Roop is pregnant, she asks herself – “How to bear this?”

It is impossible to pick sides. I found my sympathies oscillating between the two women. Whom to root for? The strong-willed Satya, “prickly as a cactus,” who has been betrayed? Or the innocent and submissive Roop, so lost in this new world, whose father’s parting words were “Above all, give no trouble”?

It would be very easy to make the two female protagonists foils to one another, diametrically opposed like night and day. I can think of other books that have done this with characters who end up becoming predictable. But What the Body Remembers resists that impulse. Both Satya and Roop are complex women who constantly defy readers’ expectations. It might seem like they are victims in a relentlessly patriarchal world, but within their limited powers, they do exert agency to survive in ways that impact one another’s lives. Satya’s “jelsy” drives her to acts of unimaginable cruelty. Roop’s suffering leads her to connive in a manner that will bring not only revenge but tragedy.

If this were merely a story of two Sikh wives set in colonial India, it still might have been a highly enjoyable novel, but would not be the tour de force that it is. WTBR blends the intrigues of the domestic tale with one of national turmoil in the years leading up to India’s independence. As Roop and Satya move towards an inevitable collision, India hurtles towards the great tragedy of 1947 – the Partition.

Marriage and partition

The political events that start out as backdrop gradually come to the forefront, as tensions between religious communities escalate. When the British get serious about leaving and the leaders of the Indian National Congress begin to negotiate the terms of independence, it becomes evident that “Pakistan will come”. But where exactly will the border fall in the Punjab? Will the residents of Lahore, where Sardarji is posted, find themselves in India or Pakistan? India seethes, we are told, as Hindus and Muslims begin to riot across the country, killing thousands. Who will protect the Sikhs in a new country where they will be at the mercy of the majority?

“What Gandhi, Nehru, and the Hindu congressmen do not understand,” Sardarji, the canal engineer says, “is that if you build dams between religions, you create ‘the emotional equivalent of hydrostatic pressure’.” The stage is set for the surge towards catastrophe. By the time Sardarji begins to realise this, however, it is already too late.

In the beginning of the novel, he is a faithful servant to the British. After returning from England, he thought of Indians as “them” and not “us.” He has frequent conversations with his inner Englishman, the incorrigible Cunningham, and he believes that men like him “can pull India and all the people below them into modernity.” It is Satya who recognises his frailty and points out that “his mind is their colony.” But he will not heed her warnings, for she is a woman, and she adds, “I too am a colony – your colony.”

The personal and political narratives are woven together seamlessly, making it difficult to discern where one ends and the other begins. Like Satya and Roop, India and the soon-to-be Pakistan are “two nations married to one conqueror.” When Roop starts to show signs of discontent, Sardarji conflates his domestic troubles with his worries about the state.

“Roop’s behaviour is just a symptom of the moral collapse happening everywhere. No one thinking of the country that could be after three hundred years of foreign rule. Just every man thinking his own quom, his own needs, are most important, while all of India falls. Further and further behind…this is what the Guru calls haumai, too much of self-ness.”

His own haumai, of course, is lost on Sardarji.

Reasons to remember

While the political events drive the plot, the theme of patriarchy remains the underlying preoccupation of this book. We are reminded, over and over, that men see women only from the corners of their eyes – “Their eyes are like horses’ eyes; they do not see what lies directly before them.”

All the women here are dependent on men for protection and sustenance. “Why do so many women live their whole lives afraid, afraid to be free?” asks Roop. Rich or poor, in the end they are united by their kismet. As Satya tells Roop, “We are each alone, though a crowd of our quom might mill about us, little sister. Always each woman is alone.”

In these pages you will meet numerous minor characters; Abu Ibrahim who wears his salwars two inches above the ankles so he is ready all year round for the monsoon floods. Farquharson, the shortsighted Englishman born in India who is too vain to wear glasses and whose hip flask is empty of cognac by noon. Mani Mai, Roop’s maidservant after marriage who keeps watch over her like a “baleful hawk” from where she squats on the floor. Miss Barlow, the English governess who has come to India to “save the innocents” with her Bible and eats foods squashed into tins. They are all essential to the story and unforgettable in their own way.

Since I am writing about this book during an ongoing pandemic, I must not forget to mention the eerie coincidence of infectious diseases that also play a cameo. First, there is the plague that killed Sardarji’s mother while he was away in England. When all her servants and relatives ran away for fear of catching the disease, it was Satya who stayed to tend to her till the very end, an act for which she received no acknowledgement from her husband upon his return. Then, later in the book, Satya’s cousin, the ill-fated Mumta, is struck with tuberculosis, and tries in vain to cough away from those around her so that she does not spread the disease to anyone. Although fleeting, these events were a bizarre echo of these times.

It is the rich descriptions, however, that linger long after the last page is turned. This book would make a gorgeous movie. Baldwin skillfully evokes the historical and social setting; from the narrow lanes of teeming bazaars to the posh Faletti Hotel in Lahore, from the Irrigation Department’s whitewashed bungalow in Khanewal to Lawrence Gardens which is full of ancient trees and the scent of night-queen, every location comes alive with cinematic vividness.

However, it is Sardarji’s ancestral haveli in Pindi that captures the imagination the most. Whether it’s the blue and gold raw silk pukkhas dangling from ropes in the haveli’s ceiling, Satya’s silver paandaan from which she so deftly makes paan, or the smell of ripe apricots brought in baskets from the orchards, I found myself luxuriating in the sensuous details. I’m surprised this novel has not yet been adapted into a lavish Bollywood production. This is just the sort of book you can get lost in when the world outside is in chaos. There might never be a better time to add this one to your bottom shelf.

The interview

To commemorate the 20th anniversary, Delhi-based Tara Press is publishing a new edition this year. Baldwin spoke to about her book. Excerpts from the interview.

It’s been 20 years since What the Body Remembers was published. What do you remember about that year?
Feeling amazed that agents and publishers loved Satya, Roop, and Sardarji and all the other characters as I did. The excitement when my agent held an auction. Adding 15,000 words in response to my coordinating editor Diane Martin’s questions. Weeping when I received this third book in my hands, as I had not for two before. And my husband David standing ready to comfort asking, “Are those good tears or bad?” Sending the first copy to my grandmother Raminder Sarup Singh, praying she would like the novel, since it was based on her memoir and life.

Wearing a black salwar kameez and a sequined crimson chunni I bought in Lahore to the launch of What the Body Remembers in Toronto. Worrying people would gaze at “exotic” me, rather than listen to the text. Feeling surprised when they did listen. A woman in a bookstore in Ottawa recommending my novel to me – she had heard an abridged version on CBC’s Between the Covers. A surreal feeling, watching a woman reading What the Body Remembers on a flight between Toronto and Calgary. The launch in Delhi at the Canadian High Commissioner’s residence. Returning to Milwaukee and learning the book had received the Commonwealth Prize (Canada-Caribbean).

Returning to Delhi a week later for the finals on April 14, Baisakhi day. Receiving a call in my Claridges hotel room, asking if I would be willing to dine at a table with fellow shortlister Salman Rushdie. Saying “Of course,” and realising after I put the phone down why they’d requested permission – Rushdie was making his first visit to India since the fatwa and protesters marched against him in several cities.

Watching the two British judges as I read the passage describing the Jallianwala Bagh massacre on April 14, and knowing my choice would cost me the grand prize.

My old neighbor, the film critic Amita Malik and I, sitting on either side of Rushdie at dinner at the InterContinental Hotel – like we could protect him! My nani, parents, brother, and mamaji attending the dinner. Missing my husband, but calling him to tell him about it.

Fun times, so unexpected.

Can you talk a little about the process of writing a historical novel? This book must have required a lot of research. What kinds of research do you remember doing for it? What was one interesting thing you learned that you did not know?
I thought I knew Indian history from my school days in Delhi; I didn’t know anything. I thought I knew about the Partition of India, but I knew nothing but the Mountbatten version.

I didn’t even know my grandmother’s story until she came to visit me in North America and I asked her to write her memoir for the family. As soon as she began, however, her tears – for friends left in Rawalpindi and Lahore, for the life she and my grandfather had lived – came.

In the late ’90s, Indian historians were just getting started, changing the locus of the narrative, correcting the record. Very few people were on email. International calls were expensive. Companies issued press releases when they created websites. There was no Google, cellphones were not smart, you saved film for important photos because developing was expensive.

The problem with writing about the Partition is that the stories came to India and the setting remained in Pakistan. As described in Reluctant Rebellions, David and I travelled to Pakistan in 1997. What became West Pakistan was, and is, camel country, while India is elephant country. When we returned, I set about researching birds, trees, minerals, rivers, plants.

Diligent interlibrary loan librarians brought me books about the Partition from all over the world. I found that the Milwaukee Public Library had many books stamped “PL-480” – India had paid for US food aid in the 1950s and 1960s with “cultural remittances.”

Studying and writing from the point of view of the colonised meant I needed to read between the lines of published histories of India, and interview people, especially women. Polygamy was outlawed in India in 1956 for Hindus and Sikhs, and only a few second wives like my grandmother were still living. Muslim school friends helped me find and interview first wives.

You wrote a novel about the Sikh community in Punjab during the Partition. This is not the usual subject that Indians in America were writing about at the time (or, for that matter, now). How difficult or easy was it to sell this idea to American publishers and readers? Did you think of this audience at all when writing?
Thirty-three publishers in the US rejected my second book, English Lessons and Other Stories. Several told me they liked the stories but could not see a market for stories about Indian women. Some Indian publishers said so even after it was loved into being by Goose Lane editions, which was then a small press in Canada.

So, I didn’t believe anyone would be interested in a novel set in Pakistan about Sikh women. That left me free to research and write it just as I wanted to read it.

Then Satya, my short story that preceded What the Body Remembers, won the 1997 CBC literary award. Agents and publishers wanted to read the novel, which gave me the energy to complete it.

Roop or Satya? I kept asking myself as I was reading this. Did you have a favourite?
No – you can’t play favourites with characters!

How did you occupy both these very different perspectives at the same time?
I don’t know. Maybe because I was 37 at the time, between the ages of Roop and Satya.

When you began writing fiction, Bharati Mukherjee was already established as an Indian diaspora author in North America, while Chitra Divakaruni was writing at the same time as you. These were writers who were bringing stories of Indian women to the American audience. Were you influenced by them or by anyone else in particular?
I never thought of my writing as “bringing stories of Indian women to an American audience.” My stories are from the point of view of people I love. Since What the Body Remembers, I’ve written from the point of view of French, Russian, American, Canadian, Costa Rican, German and Indian characters. Even from the point of view of a dog. I’ve also written as a Sikh, Hindu, Muslim, Jewish, Christian and atheist. That’s the fun of it.

I read many Indian classics in translation, but can’t say I was influenced by them. I read 19th century novels because, being out of copyright, they were available in India. I now realise how little I understood them. I remember discovering Margaret Atwood as a teenager growing up in India. I was puzzled why Atwood, living in Canada, felt the need to describe misogyny.

In the ’70s and ’80s, writers writing stories set in India were still British (Paul Scott, MM Kaye). They’d sprinkle in a few desi characters. Ruth Prawar Jabhvala and Anita Desai wrote about Indians in India in English, but no one wrote the kind of stories I wanted to read. So, I figured I should stop complaining and fill that hole in the universe.

I ended up writing postcolonial fiction (What the Body Remembers, The Tiger Claw), diasporic and transnational fiction (English Lessons and Other Stories, We are Not in Pakistan, and The Selector of Souls) a few years before those terms entered the vocabulary of acquisition editors.

After completing What the Body Remembers, I got cold feet about publishing. I could not find a single work of non-fiction supporting my information about the violence against women during the Partition. I was getting ready to return my advance when my cousin mailed me Urvashi Butalia’s The Other Side of Silence. Her book corroborated the plausibility of the plot and gave me the courage to publish.

At the end of WTBR, we hear a lament – that men have not changed.
No. Satya’s last line is: “But men have not yet changed.” Satya still hopes they will.

I read it as your observation in the year 2000 about events that took place 50 or more years ago. If you wrote the book now, would you end it the same way?
Yes. Because that’s how Satya would think when reborn in 1965.

Oindrila Mukherjee is an Associate Professor of creative writing at Grand Valley State University in Michigan. She can be found on Twitter.