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. …