WHAT the Body Remembers is the Indian reprint of Baldwin’s novel that was first published in Canada in 1999. It has won several prizes and has also been translated into several languages of the world.
In the background of the momentous changes that the subcontinent of India witnessed between 1937 and 1947, the novel weaves an intricate maze of lives in turmoil. Located mostly in Rawalpindi and Lahore, its main focus is on the family of Sardarji and his two wives. The owner of vast lands and factories, Sardarji uses his engineering skills acquired in England to modernise his country. Although married for long years to a confident and clever woman Satya, he again marries Roop, who is barely sixteen, because Satya could not give him any children.
The novel opens when Roop is already with Sardarji and Satya. Because she is from a relatively poor family of newly-made Sikhs, she is trained by the servants of Sardarji to learn new ways and social graces of aristocratic families. But her very presence makes Satya unhappy. Roop too has to put up with things that she does not like: she has to give her newly born girl and a little later her son to Satya. She realizes that she is no more than a body to produce children for Sardarji’s family. She also fears that Sardarji might send her back to her parental home because she had completed the task for which he had married her. Stung by the power and hostility of Satya, she goes to her father’s place. Her father has to call Sardarji to persuade him to live with Roop and their children, to which he agrees. This hurts Satya. In spite of Sardarji’s assurances of a life of izzat for her, she realises that she is just a body that does not know how to die.
When Roop gradually learns to organise her life in the new setting, things change around her in a big way. The simmering rivalry between various communities comes to the fore. Eventually, the British divide the country into Pakistan and India, which leads to mass murders and wanton destruction of property. The novel documents elaborately the scenes of communal tension and clashes, which includes the nightmarish experience of Roop and her children who have to face the wrath of Muslims while going to Delhi. Sardarji and his servant too have a trying time getting out of Pakistan. Roop’s father tells her how he was forced to kill his daughter-in-law with his kirpan, to make sure that her body was not desecrated by the Muslim marauders.
The novel is panoramic in its sweep. It tells happy and horrid tales of families caught in the web of their private worlds and the dangers they face in the damaged political climate of the country. Singh’s characters come alive, and her control over the novel’s plot and its movement is superb. The novel also raises crucial questions about the fate of being a woman and the tragedy that followed the partition of the country. It should be of interest to all kinds of readers.
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