Ok, so I’m taking this Indian Literature in English class (Indian as in from India, not as in Native America, which I wouldn’t bring up except that on at least three separate occasions I’ve mentioned this class only to have the person I’m talking to say, ‘Indian, as in…’ and then hold two fingers up behind their heads to approximate feathers and dance around in a circle, doing that hand-clapping-over-the-mouth-while-you-go-‘awawawawawawawaw’ thing like the Lost Boys do in Disney’s Peter Pan, which, come on, people, grow up) and we’ve read a stack of books so far (ok, really only three, but it’s only October, people) but I haven’t been blogging them because I really didn’t like the first two. Also, I forgot I had this blog.
All the books have centered around Partition, which you can read an infallibly accurate Wikipedia account of here, but which was essentially the British cutting India into two countries (India and both West and East Pakistan, the latter of which is now Bangladesh) so that the Hindus and Muslims could have their own spaces and wouldn’t all kill each other (and the Sikhs could just hope for the best), and then getting the hell out of Dodge. Inevitably, 15 million people were forced to relocate with no more than what they could carry, and over a million people were slaughtered.
Ok. Shauna Singh Baldwin’s What the Body Remembers is a hefty 515-page text that begins in 1928 (nineteen years before Partition). Roop, a young Sikh girl, lives in a predominately-Muslim village where her father is…deputy? Something. Her childhood is bright and cheery and full of pond-frolickings and games played with pebbles, but glimpses are caught here and there of the inequality between the sexes. All the meat and eggs are reserved for Jeevan, her older brother, and she and her sister live only to marry and do ‘what women are for.’
With the early death of Roop’s mother, her father is in a rush to marry off his two girls but the wedding of the first one so depletes his resources that there is little dowry left for Roop. Luckily, she’s a stunner, and at the borderline-spinsterish age of sixteen is married to a wealthy landowner who’s first wife, Satya, is barren. Satya, obviously, takes this new development poorly, and spends her free time tormenting young Roop.
What is endearingly fabulous about this novel is that each of the characters is flawed, and none of the characters are loathsome. Roop, though proud and a touch lazy, is so innocent and well-meaning that you can’t help but root for her. Plus, she’s the main character, so you don’t really have a choice. Satya, oddly, is equally sympathetic. Baldwin gives her the very first chapter of the book, establishing a rapport so that when Sardarji marries Roop, it feels like a betrayal. Even Sardarji, the oft-vilified Indian Man of Several Wives, is genuine and loving through his arrogance and entitlement. What with one thing and another, by the time the British do their slicey-slicey thing with the country and things start to go terribly wrong, you’ve spent four hundred pages with these people, and you’re hoping against hope that everybody lives (someone crucial – I won’t say who – dies on p. 357, so you know there’s no guarantee of happily-ever-after).
The book has its flaws, I’m sure. I just forget what they are. You forget, people, that it’s 515 pages, and that I’m in the middle of midterms, which means I started this book at least two weeks ago. But if you’re in the mood for a good long read about warm, exotic places (just the thing for a rainy fall, no?) then I quasi-highly recommend this one.