Lives of Girls and Women

When Shauna Singh Baldwin was born, her mother received telegrams, and they all said pretty much the same thing: poor thing, you had a girl. Don’t worry, next time it will be a boy. “So my mother named me Shanaaz,” Singh Baldwin says, “a Muslim name that means ‘That of which emperors are proud.’ It was her way of saying, ‘Damn you all.’”

Strong-willed women, girl-children, and their struggle against patriarchy is something Singh Baldwin understands. Her first novel, What the Body Remembers, begins and ends with the birth of a child, angry that she has been reincarnated once again as a girl. The book begins in 1937 in Rawalpindi, in the Indian state of Punjab, amid the mounting tension that precedes partition, 10 years away. The capable Satya (whose name means “truth”) is over 40 and has given her husband, Sardarji, no children. So Sardarji, a wealthy Sikh landowner and canal engineer, takes a second wife, the beautiful Roop. Roop (whose name means “form” or “body”) is 16 years old and eager to leave her village and escape the drudgery of women’s work. The household is then divided by passion and politics, much like the country around them.

The partition metaphor also applies in another sense: the characters illustrate how the lives of girls and women are unknown – almost foreign countries – to the men.

“To write this, I had to pull Sikh women’s history out from under Sikh men’s history,” Singh Baldwin notes over a cup of chai at Toronto’s Bombay Palace restaurant. “It’s depressing, because Indian women writers have been around since the 16th century We haven’t been silent, just undiscovered.

“Yet I can’t condemn my own men,” Singh Baldwin sighs. “I may write about them with satire, or with a certain amusement, but I can’t condemn them. I have to see them in relation to the dominant culture. When I see them in relation to that oppression, I have to forgive them. Unfortunately.”

Singh Baldwin’s fiction has so far stuck to a central theme. Her last book, the 1996 short-story collection English Lessons and Other Stories, was a bleak excursion into the lives of Indian women and their attempts to establish identity in the face of masculine domination. Some readers have accused Singh Baldwin of being “sucked in” – in the words of one critic – by Western feminism. But non-Western cultures are not synonymous with female oppression, and gender equity wasn’t invented in Europe.

“I’m going back to feminism, as far as I’m concerned!” Singh Baldwin exclaims. “My religion says that women and men are equal. I’m going back to the Sikh faith and describing the difference between theory and current practice. The Sikh religion says I’m equal, so the men had better do something about their attitudes!”

Writers of colour are often told by their own communities that to display internal strife is to betray one’s own people, to open up non-dominant cultures to further misinterpretation and vilification. Writers of colour take an enormous risk when they critique their own cultures, one that leaves them vulnerable to censure from all sides.

“I’m a writer first,” Singh Baldwin says unequivocally. “I have no nationality as a writer. I do not assume that only the white community is oppressive. Our entire caste system in India is an oppressive society. We need to examine ourselves just as much as the white community does.”

The author was born in Montreal, but her parents returned to India soon after her birth, where they remain. “My father went back because it wasn’t much fun being Sikh in Canada in the 1960s,” Singh Baldwin says. “So he went back thinking that was the place he could wear his turban. Well, ha ha – he’s not part of the dominant [Hindu] culture there either.”

Singh Baldwin completed secondary school in India, but moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to complete her MBA. She writes literary fiction, but also works as an IT consultant to banks and data processing companies. She grew up in a country that boasts a distinctive traditional dress, yet spent most of her childhood wearing pants. (“I used to play polo with the army guys. They let me exercise their horses in the morning. So I was always dressed in britches.”) These days she wears Sikh dress more often than not, but she has short hair. (“I cut my hair because otherwise I would have come out of school with an MBA and been given a secretarial job. I don’t wear a nose ring, either.”) She is a curious amalgam of three cultures – Canadian, Indian, and American – and she likes to keep people guessing.

“I hate purity with a passion,” she says. “I refuse purity. I love the hybrid world. I’m reinventing myself every day.”

She doesn’t simplify her writing for the non-hyhenated crowd, either. What the Body Remembers is set in India and written outside the English language’s Judeo-Christian symbology. The book has a different cultural context, employs a different set of symbols – Sikh, Muslim, and Hindu – and wields a different language. Indian terms, often denoting complicated cultural philosophies, are scattered through the text and often left undefined, contrary to accepted practice.

“I think in English,” Singh Baldwin allows, “but I also think in Punjabi, in Urdu, and in French, depending on the most applicable word. There are problems with English – one of my characters once said that English has a lot of words for ‘doughnut,’ but not enough words for members of one’s family – but there are problems with Punjabi, too. There are problems with every computer language, which is why we have a plethora of them. You have to know how to map between databases.

“My assumed audience is global,” Singh Baldwin says. “That’s why there’s no glossary, no explaining, no italics for Indian words. They are not foreign. They’re part and parcel of this universe. People in the dominant culture don’t have to explain. So I refuse to explain.”

One thing she will explain is the difficult process of writing, and how Satya and Roop’s stories affected her emotional and physical well-being. “This book was a whole-body activity,” she says. “I had to feel it to write it. My husband would come into the room and I’d be curled up in the fetal position, or in tears.”

Why, if writing is so hard, does Singh Baldwin do it? “To live twice,” she answers. “One life is not enough. I need a few more.”

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