What the Body Remembers: A Novel

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9780385496049: What the Body Remembers: A Novel

"This is a story about estrangement and division... This narrative about fathers estranged from daughters, mothers from sons, husbands from wives, becomes a metaphor for the turmoil and flux we call history, without always speaking of that history directly... This is a novel whose many themes and characters have been orchestrated, for the most part, with great confidence and without sacrificing complexity. It is an impressive debut."
—Amit Chaudhuri, National Post (Canada)

"This is a captivating jewel of a novel by a seasoned and sophisticated writer... Beyond being a compelling tale of individuals, What the Body Remembers offers a gimlet-eyed view of a pluralistic society's disintegration into factionalism and anarchy. Though the events of 1947 India are a half-world and half-century away, in light of the religious and ethnic turmoil raging on earth, they still have much to teach us."
—Washington Post
Out of the brutal drama of Partition comes a rich, eloquent, and stunningly accomplished literary debut...

It is 1937 in a small village in Punjab, India, the beginning of the tense and tumultuous decade that will culminate in the violent and still controversial Partition between India and Pakistan. Roop is a young girl whose mother has died in childbirth and whose father is deep in debt. And so she is elated when she learns that she is to become the second wife of a wealthy Sikh landowner, Sardarji, whose first wife, Satya, has failed to bear him any children. Roop initially believes that Satya, still very much in residence, will treat her as a friend or even a sister, but it quickly becomes apparent that their relationship will be far more complicated than that.

Roop's story pulls the reader immediately into her world, making it seem startlingly intimate. As the novel builds, What the Body Remembers becomes Satya's story too, as she is forced to adopt ever more desperate measures to maintain her place in society and in her husband's heart. And it is also Sardarji's story, as the India he knows and understands begins to change beneath his feet. The escalating tensions in his own family reflect those of the religious and political dynamics that will lead to the cleaving of India—and trap the Sikhs in the middle of a horror wrought by the wresting of land. In a dramatic, terrifying conclusion the tragedy and strength of Roop, Satya, and Sardarji's lives reflect the greater world in which they must survive.

Deeply imbued with the languages, customs, and layered history of colonial India, What the Body Remembers tells the story of the Partition for the first time from the Sikh women's point of view, reclaiming a strikingly intimate and vivid sense of the large and colorful canvas of India and Pakistan. Beautifully written and profoundly shocking, Shauna Singh Baldwin's debut novel is at once poetic, political, feminist, and sensual—a true triumph of language and storytelling.

"In What the Body Remembers, with her sharp focus on women in such turmoil, Baldwin offers us a moveing and engaging look at 20th-century India's most troubled years."
—New York Times Book Review

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Review:

Shauna Singh Baldwin's What the Body Remembers begins and ends with rebirth--an apt metaphor, perhaps, for the tragedy of Indian partition that forms the backdrop for her story. Though politics overshadows the lives of all the characters, the heart of this first novel is in the home where Sardarji, a middle-aged Sikh engineer, has brought his new wife, 16-year-old Roop. The only problem is, his current wife, Satya, is less than thrilled about sharing hearth and husband. Satya's inability to bear a child has led to Sardarji's recent marriage, and this fact, combined with jealousy has turned her heart "black and dense as a stone within her." Her rival is not only 25 years younger, but of considerably lower social rank, and her husband's obvious infatuation with Roop rankles considerably:

Can a young woman ever know his friends and laugh with them in that rueful way? How will a young woman know that he breathes deeply when he thinks too much, that he wipes his forehead in the cold heart of winter when the British settlement officer approaches to collect his yearly taxes? How can a young woman know how to manage his flour mill while he is hunting kakar with his English "superiors"? How will she know how to give orders that sound as if she is a mere mouth for his words? How will she know that his voice is angry with the servants only when he is tired or hungry? How can she understand that all his talk of logic and discipline in the English people's corridors and his writing in brown paper files about the great boons of irrigation engineering brought by the conquerors are belied by his donations to the freedom-fighting Akali party?
The rift between the two wives widens when Roop gives birth, first to a daughter and then to a son, and both children are sent to Satya for rearing. Eventually the younger wife demands the ouster of the elder from the household, and Satya is sent away. But her spirit is not exiled entirely, and years later, when Roop and Sardarji find themselves swept up in the bloody partition of India and Pakistan, it is memories of the elder woman's strength and wisdom that Roop draws on to survive. Baldwin develops her characters' personalities and interactions against the backdrop of changing Anglo-Indian relations; sometimes the political bleeds into the personal, as the novel juxtaposes India's struggle for independence with the smaller outrages and betrayals Satya and Roop suffer at their husband's hands--and each other's. What the Body Remembers is a powerful combination of historical and domestic drama, marking a promising debut for Shauna Singh Baldwin. --Sheila Bright

From the Back Cover:

Praise for Shauna Singh Baldwin's English Lessons and Other Stories:

"Shauna Singh Baldwin's writing is distinguished by the visceral shock of truth it delivers. These stories carry the elegiac tone of tales passed from generation to generation...Baldwin's prose is precise, nuanced and sensual. She threads her stories with ravishing glints of color."
--Toronto Star

"Baldwin devotes loving attention to details of tradition and culture--both emotionally and politically loaded, both sweet and sour...A fascinating collection rich in cultural insight. These are life lessons worth sharing."
--Edmonton Journal

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