Books: A partition of the truth

This epic of the Sikh experience in India simplifies history to amplify the grievances of a single community. By Aamer Hussein;What The Body Remembers by Shauna Singh Baldwin Doubleday, pounds 12.99, 476pp
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
THERE IS an amusing image in A Passage to India of an elephant hired by Aziz to impress his English guests, "waving her painted forehead at the morn". Shauna Singh Baldwin's ambitious first novel has something of that elephant: tinsel and trappings barely conceal a cumbersome body, and infinite memory.

Its abiding theme is revealed early. Roop, a teenaged Sikh girl in 1937, reads novels about Sikh women who hold their own against Muslim tyrants. But Roop isn't a "good-good sweet-sweet" Punjabi girl; she has "one bad ear that doesn't listen". She consents to marry, for purely mercenary reasons, the Sardarji - an older man who already has a wife. The slender plot, narrated in a mannered present tense, delineates the struggle of the two wives. Insipid Roop and childless Satya compete for their husband's favours and, compellingly, for the position of Supreme Matriarch.

Roop makes an attempt at autonomy by going back to her father's house and arranging the abduction of the children her rival has taken. Satya retaliates by stage-managing her own death by tuberculosis. Roop rules unthreatened. The story's over, but Partition intervenes (as in too many Subcontinental novels) to add an epic dimension. Now Roop, who crosses to independent India from the new Pakistan, can claim her identity as a brave Sikh heroine.

Roop never quite rises to the role that one suspects the author designed for her. Satya, though she plays a subsidiary part, does come across with a Rebecca-like sultriness. But there's more to the novel than the stuff of popular melodrama.

A masculine narrative parallels the story of marital jealousy. Long sequences from Sardarji's point of view - some humorous at the expense of cloistered women, others history by-numbers - chronicle the rise of Indian nationalism and Muslim separatism. Some attempt is made to address Muslim aspirations in the suave, sinister voice of Sardarji's friend, Rai Alam. Yet in a novel that describes Mughal invaders, local landlords and "low-caste converts" alike as "The Muslims", seeing all as tyrants, the ambivalent nature of the call for Pakistan is distorted. Instead, there's a procession of stereotypes: veiled women, violent marauders, romantic poets.

One strand here is reminiscent of the myth-building in Serbian ballads: a community that considers itself graced by God, keeping alive its memories of persecution. The Sikhs are relative newcomers to the Indian spiritual scene. More homogeneous than other Punjabi groups, in spite of the caste and clan difficulties Baldwin touches on, here they have all the ardour and prickly vulnerability of recent converts.

In keeping with the title's strained metaphor, Baldwin gives us Sikh accounts of massacres by "The Muslims" passed down in lullabies, legends and paintings - as bodily memory. Yet Ranjit Singh ruled the Punjab for two decades in the 19th century. His reign was characterised by historian Percival Spears as a minority dictatorship in which Hindus and Muslims were employed as subordinates. Baldwin's is a fascinating but elliptical alternative history, which glosses Sikh victories.

The tragedy of mass displacement is not obscured by Baldwin's partial perspective. But the novel restricts a long cycle of revenge, in which three religious groups played an equal part on both sides of the new border, to a story of British bunglers and intransigent Muslims.

Beneath its trappings of myth, local colour and dialect, this is an angry novel. It is angry with men (even Sikhs), with the British, with Indian social hierarchies and, most significantly, with the larger Muslim minority that gains its new homeland. This anger bears witness to the sores that, 52 years after Partition, seem to be erupting on the body of a literature which - in the many masterworks that the cataclysm produced - prided itself on compassion and impartiality. Though Baldwin's characters envision hostilities as age-old, indelible, even `"karmic", this is less a matter of what the body remembers than of what it chooses to and is made to remember.