What the Body Remembers by Shauna Singh Baldwin

Roop, one of Bachan Singh’s two daughters, grows up without her mother. Her father, a respected however not-too-well-off a person in the village, does his best in bringing up his daughters and son.

Roop grows up believing that she is destined to a better life. When Bachan Singh gets a proposal from one of the wealthiest men in the village for his daughter, he is delighted, only to be disappointed when he realizes that it is not for one of the wealthy man’s sons. but for an already married relative of his. However, already in debt after his elder daughter’s wedding, Bachan Singh does not have much of an option but to agree. Bachan Singh might have been heavy hearted but Roop was delighted. She was convinced that she has a wonderful fate in store for her. Even becoming a second wife does not faze her. She believes that she will be a little sister to her older co-wife.

Satya, Sardarji’s wife is sophisticated, the perfect mate to the Oxford educated Sardarji. Perfect, but for the fact that she is barren. She tries hard to fight her fate, hoping that Sardarji will refuse to take a second wife, only to realize that despite his educational credentials, Sardarji is still bound by his roots. Having an heir, a son, is very important to him.

She is hit hard by the fact that the new bride has got handed all her jewellery. Everything that was hers is now Roop’s. Satya tries everything she can to ensure that Sardarji’s second marriage is ruined.

It is a touching story woven through the landscape of political landscape of unrest and eventually India’s Partition into India and Pakistan.

Roop’s initial innocence, trying hard to please everybody, believing that she and Satya would be like sisters, her compliance and her slow metamorphosis into her own person, somebody who understood that she had to fight for her rights in every way she could. She learns the ways of the world to survive, to hold on to her position, as the mother of Sardarji’s children.

Sardarji, again a complex character, educated in England, a civil engineer, outwardly a modern person, but when it came to his inner self, someone who held on to the views of his society. He tries to saddle both his worlds, wining and dining with his English colleagues, while looking down on them(just as they did him), and his life in Indian society.

Satya’s bitterness, her inability to accept her fate, trying everything she could to ensure that Roop is just a baby maker, and not Sardarji’s wife. Satya comes across as a strong person, someone who knows her rights, and tries to fight society in the way she could. A woman who argues with her husband, who refuses to be ‘sweet-sweet’ in front of her husband, a woman who believes that she is her husband’s equal.

The book is also sprinkled with instances of how underprivileged women(and girls) were in those days. At her father’s place, Roop had never tasted meat or fish – that was reserved for her brother, because the whole family’s fortune rested on him. The girls would just be married off. Roop’s unmarried aunt, who keeps planning to leave, but everybody is aware, that she will never leave.  After all, as an unmarried woman, she does not have a house of her own, to go to.

The book also deals with the way political unrest changed life as they knew it. Once Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs lived together in harmony, but with the partition looming closer, things changed, loyalties changed…Life as they knew it changed. It also reflects how Sikhs viewed the partition. While carving out countries keeping in mind the two main communities, Sikhs were the ones who were uprooted from their land and made to migrate into a new, foreign land. One stroke of the pen that made them foreigners in their own land.. A partition when one minority was almost entirely ignored…

A beautifully written story, leaves you moved, saddened, and a lot wiser. A wonderful read.

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