Dear Ms Baldwin:
Thank you very much for agreeing to answer some questions for us. Here they are:
What is the significance of the title?
The theme of reincarnation is obviously recurrent in the novel, most particularly through Satya’s birth and rebirth, but obviously this refers to the memory of the mind or spirit?
The title has a multilayered meaning. A surface meaning rises from the fact that Roop means body, form/shape. So in a sense, the story of What the Body Remembers is what Roop remembers, is meant to remember, is expected to remember, and in some ways what she “re-members” at the end of the novel by remembering Kusum and maturing into a stronger, less ornamental woman. Remembering Kusum and all the women like her who were sacrificed during Partition would make history more whole. In addition, the title refers to ancestral memory, collective memory/the subconcious and how it feeds our fears, appropriate or not. Fear then influences our actions, especially when the State sanctions violence by promising not to hold anyone accountable.
At another level, the metaphor of the 30s and 40s in undivided India was the body – the country as body, woman as womb for the tribe. And the story (of Partition and loss of the country’s “children”) is what the whole country remembers as part of its creation story, its birth pangs.
If Satya had not died in the novel, do you think that Roop’s confidence and freedom would still have grown within her marriage?
Hmmm. An alternative plot line :-). Maybe. Confidence and freedom are much easier to find when you feel secure, and though learning English was giving Roop some status and security, I wonder if she could ever have superseded Satya. Satya could see the danger from Roop, and either Satya would give in to her destructiveness towards Roop or have to swallow her pride and let Roop be the one at Sardarji’s side. Either way would involve a loss of self-respect for Satya. Neither was acceptable, nd so the third way or the middle path was self-destruction. Remember she did not simply “die”, she self-willed and planned her death for maximum meaning, as proof of love almost, and to the very end, she displayed her power by taking the third child from Roop. But then the beginning of atonement was when she gave that child back to Roop. And I think another aspect of her atonement was to become their protector through Partition.And there is additional symbolism to Satya’s death before Partition — Churchill said “truth is the first casualty of war”, right? He would know.
If the word feminist means the radical idea that a woman is a person and it is feminist to write a story with women protagonists, yes this is a feminist novel. If “feminist” means the silly idea that men are the enemy, no, this is not a feminist novel, because as you see in the novel, the colonized brown man, like other men, has his own problems.I believe women’s history matters as much as men’s history, so it’s a humanist novel.That said, I think it was rare to find men or women who could transcend their gender, in the times of which I am writing. And women were peculiarly affected by Partition, in ways that have still not been acknowledged. During the Partition it is estimated that 75,000 – 100,000 women were raped and abducted on both sides of the border. There were 55,000 abducted Muslim women in India and 33,000 Hindu and Sikh women in Pakistan. Instances abound in which Hindu, Sikh and Muslim women jumped (or were encouraged to jump) to their death down village wells to uphold the family honour. Sikh, Hindu and Muslim men sometimes killed women and children in their families to protect them from conversion and falling into the hands of other men. Over a period of eight years, 30,000 women were recovered by social workers, but families were unlikely to take “shamed” women back. Mass abortions, abandoning and adoptions resulted, and areas of silence are still vast. If you’re interested in exploring further, I have a short story, Family Ties in English Lessons, about the effect of such an abduction and rape case on a little girl in Delhi during the 1971 war.Like many novelists, I look at areas of silence in culture and history and try to look past the priveliged narratives of the past. The history of Partition was first written by British memoirists and historians. Just as Sardarji created the problem between Roop and Satya and got off (almost) scot-free, so the British created the problem between Hindus and Muslims and got off (almost) scot free. In the story, the children are caught in the middle, just as the Sikhs, children of the two great faiths of the subcontinent, are caught in the middle. And it’s not only the British — by the end of the novel, Roop realizes “each of us has betrayed something, someone, or a part of ourselves.”
Was there conflict between creating realist characters and addressing political ideas and themes in the novel?
No. Ultimately all politics is personal, for the sensory and the abstract unite in our actions. Politics ebbs and flows into our lives and we have to make sense of its relevance to us and the kind of world we want the next generation to inherit. Sometimes events buffet us and all our utopian visions go awry, but that doesn’t mean we (or my characters) are passive or unresisting.I grew up with the stories of Partition refugees – my characters were real to me right from the start. And as I began to write and ask questions of older women, the political ideas and themes that had to be expressed became obvious. It helped that I’ve lived as a minority in different “post-colonial” democracies — India, Canada, and the US, and for a short while as a child, the UK — so I’m rather aware of minority problems and the problems of East vs. West.
To the extent and in the regions that the economics of the forties persist, women in India still face the same issues of devaluation and powerlessness. (Which of course means that where the software boom and globalization have widened the area of choice, women are doing better in India — certainly far better than in Pakistan). Polygamy is still practised in the India by Muslims who follow a different personal law, though outlawed in 1956 for Sikhs and Hindu men. As a result, surrogate motherhood is now more rare.Economics is key to understanding the continuing importance of sons; in economies with no social security or health insurance sons and other male relatives are all people have in sickness or old age. As any traveller to India or Pakistan knows, these economics and the absence of social insurance persists in these and other non-welfare underdeveloped nations
today, often legacies of colonialism, and the result of multinational neo-colonialism. Requirements of providing for old age lead to an overvaluation of sons and an undervaluation of women, even by women themselves. Sometimes readers in North America who are accustomed to Social Security/Social Insurance and Medicare confuse that recognition of economic dependence and self interest with “low self-esteem”.
In many countries with no pensions for old age, polygamy was instituted as a charitable meritorious act to protect widows, women and children from destitution. Today, even though its allowed for Muslims, the common man can’t afford to maintain multiple households.
You ask how relevant the issues I raise in the novel are today:
The major politicians and intellectuals whose rhetoric led to fratricide – Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Jawaharlal Nehru are dead. Mountbatten, Churchill and Atlee wrote self-laudatory memoirs for the benefit of history. These men were memorialised and worshipped by the beneficiaries of Indo-Pak Independence as founders and protectors of nations. There has been no discussion of reparations or apology by Britain for Mountbatten’s acceleration of the date of Partition beyond the capabilities of his administration or its scheduling on a date of mere personal meaning. If this had happened in Europe, we would have seen UN trials for war crimes. Such political impunity says people in developing countries are expendable. Similarly Indian/Pakistani men who killed neighbours aged to senility without being held personally responsible. Political and personal impunity invites more catastrophe.
In winter 1997, India and Pakistan exploded nuclear devices. A year later, soldiers battled one another and the Himalayan cold in Kargil. Partition violence erupted, re-enacted down to the mutilation of soldiers’ bodies;1947 seemed to be dormant in collective memory, corroding from within, assigning collective guilt for every individual crime. The press in the UK expressed “dismay” with no reference to the drawing of the Radcliffe line.
That’s the press/media in Britain. But you might ask: what about the relevance of Partition to other countries? Can Partition violence take place in a modern developed country? In a democracy that is ostensibly not a theocracy?
As the US and Canada moved to avenge the crime of Sept 11, 2001, “vigilantes” followed the visual link between Bin Laden’s turban and the turbans of Sikh-Americans till two hundred and forty three hate crimes against Sikhs and then Muslims were reported in three weeks. Racial profiling of Arab- and South-Asian-Americans began and 1200 unnamed people were detained without charges. A year later, 550 are still unaccounted for.
So we can see it doesn’t take theocracy for minorities to become hostages of the majority.
When the sense of exclusion from the majority community rises, women’s bodies/reproductive capabilities in a minority community become a medium of messages between their men. In November 2001 rumours flew, accelerated by the net, that Sikh “girls” were targets of conversion by Muslim men in UK. With both sides assuming their women to be brainless possessions, the situation rapidly escalated. Purism reverberated again, just as in Partition. The real concerns were economic – as usual, and they rose in the aftermath of the feeling of exclusion from the majority community after Sept 11. Even British mainstream reporters did not think to interview a single Sikh woman to ask if she planned to convert based on the persuasions of a single Muslim man.
After a terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament in December 2001, state-sponsored fundamentalist Hindus in Gujarat state in democratic India deemed Muslims collectively responsible and in January 2002 they killed more than 2000 and made 200,000 people homeless refugees in their own country. As in Partition, the targeted-minority-du-jour could not call on the state to intervene to protect them — the state was pretending it did not know. All the minority could do was bear it, survive and/or find somewhere to live till the next time they become targets for the fears of the majority.
These events had effects on globalization, the development of nations, and the software boom. They were flashpoints where the past bled into the present and reached into our future. In the words of Kashmiri poet Agha Shahid Ali – “They make a desolation and call it peace…Your history gets in the way of my memory…your memory gets in the way of my memory…my memory keeps getting in the way of your history.”
What can be done? It is possible that televised truth-telling might bring perpetrators of the violence out of anonymity towards personal responsibility, a midway between full amnesty and adversarial trials that could tie up Indian and Pakistani courts for years. A beginning was made with the 1997 BBC film, “Division of Hearts” in which for the first time, men on both sides admitted murder(s) of women; it was not widely shown on the subcontinent. Filmed confessions may also break the action-reaction patterns of intercommunal violence that results in the anti-Sikh riots of 1984, a Babri Masjid and a Godhra, Gujarat. And as for the survivors of the cataclysm — perhaps Britain, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh could jointly locate and dedicate a public memorial in the no-man’s land on the Indo/Pak and Indo/Bangladesh borders, where the displacement of seventeen million refugees might one day be acknowledged. Economic development to the point where old age and sickness are not catastrophic events would change the valuation of boys above girls.
Since I define my “likely audience” as anyone capable of reading the book in English or in translation, I hope readers will find my novel relevant, hope they will use it to explore the impact colonization and Partition have on our present, find their own Mr. Cunninghams inside. I leave it to the reader to notice the similarities I’ve shown between our so-called “post-colonial” societies (I belong to three of them — India, Canada and the USA) and the one in which Roop and Satya lived, particularly with regard to issues of anglophilia, class in gender relations, affirmative action in 1935 vs. now, surrogate motherhood, right to own your body, and the institution of polygamy.