Harem politics

What the Body Remembers

Shauna Singh Baldwin<em> Doubleday, 320pp, £12.99</em>

ISBN 0385600437

Shauna Singh Baldwin's debut novel, set in Punjab between 1937 and 1947, the final decade of the colonial era in India, concerns the lives of three Sikhs: Roop, a village girl whose exceptional beauty destines her for marriage high above her social stratum; Sardarji, the wealthy landowner who takes her for his bride; and Satya, his upper-class first wife who has failed, after two decades of marriage, to produce an heir. The uneasy relationships between the three protagonists offer rich emotional possibilities which Baldwin exploits with empathy.

Roop (whose name means "body") and Satya ("truth") represent two facets of womanhood - the reproductive and the intellectual. Satya is the perfect match for Sardarji, a dependable companion and his intellectual equal. She is, however, barren. Roop, in contrast, is able to give Sardarji the sons on whom the continuation of his line depends, yet as his second wife she is valued solely for her fertility. Each woman perceives the other as a threat. Baldwin highlights the similarities between their characters, that they are by nature "sisters", but shows how they are set against each other by their relationships to their husband. Both women are trapped in a complex, sticky web of culture and history that restricts their freedom but, at the same time, offers them security and protection. This exploration of patriarchy, and the conflict it catalyses within and between women, transcends the particular world of the novel.

Sardarji is sympathetically portrayed. He is never callous towards his wives; his humanistic instincts frequently conflict with the social expectations of the world he inhabits. Oxford- educated, a scientist and engineer, he is ambivalent about the gathering momentum for independence, fearing the loss of the progress he feels the British have brought to India. At his core, though, is his "10 per cent" - the part of him that is unadulterated Indian Sikh. He is typical of a character populating much postcolonial fiction, a cypher for the interface between local and imperial cultures. Although Baldwin employs a diverting device - Sardarji's interior dialogues with his English alter ego "Cunningham" - his oscillations between his divided loyalties never surprise or engage us and, in this respect, he is a less successful creation.

While Roop and Satya struggle for ascendancy in the domestic setting, a parallel battle is being fought between Hindus and Muslims as the British prepare to divide the country into independent India and Pakistan. The grim politics of partition and the sectarian violence it spawned have been extensively examined in fiction, but Baldwin offers a fresh perspective. The philosophy of Sikhism and the quiet dignity of its adherents run strongly through the narrative, and the reader is led to feel the tragedy of a people dispossessed of their historical homeland, Punjab, in the hasty and arbitrary creation of Hindu - and Muslim - majority states. Patriarchy is at work here also. The bloody confrontation arises out of masculine ambition; women from all backgrounds have no role but to suffer: "men etch their anger upon woman-skin, swallow their pride dissolved in women's blood."

The conflicts at the heart of Sardarji's household have a luminous intensity. Baldwin achieves some telling resonances between the personal sphere and the wider political climate, but is less adept when handling the large scale. This is particularly evident in the final chapters, when actual partition occurs. There are exceptions among her minor characters, but the principal cast exists on the periphery of the turmoil - affected by the violence around them, yet shielded by the hidden hand of the author from too painful a personal involvement. Scenes that could test the protagonists fall somewhat flat, Baldwin shying away from full engagement, taking refuge instead in the amplification of them. As a result, a faint fog of blandness descends over the latter stages of the book.

This article first appeared in the 17 January 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The plot to keep us puffing