Academic journal article ARIEL

Fulfilling Her "Duty to Her Quom": The Punjabi-Sikh Ethos of Shauna Singh Baldwin's What the Body Remembers

Academic journal article ARIEL

Fulfilling Her "Duty to Her Quom": The Punjabi-Sikh Ethos of Shauna Singh Baldwin's What the Body Remembers

Article excerpt

"For there is no identity without memory ..."

Catharine Stimpson, "The Future of Memory" (1987) "The idea imposes itself as I write it: every language should be bi-lingual!"

Abdelkebir Khatibi, Love in Two Languages (1983) "They will remember me and I will remind them of their duty to their quom."

What the Body Remembers (1999)

Set in undivided Punjab, chiefly between the momentous years of 1928 and 1947, Shauna Singh Baldwin's bestselling debut novel, What the Body Remembers (1999), contests both the relative global silencing of sub-continental Partition history and the patriarchalism of colonial and Indian nationalist ideology. At the same time, it challenges the triumphalism of post-Independence secular rhetoric, and the dominant Hindu, male perspective in post-Independence Indian fiction. By drawing on the Punjabi literary genres of medieval Gurmat, Bhakti, and Sufi poetry in the Guru Granth Sahib and on the kissa (1) (romance narrative) and daastan (popular folktale), the novel tells an epic story of Sikh dislocation. And by narrating Sikh religious and political history as it impacts the private lives of the characters, it conveys the cultural memory of Singh Baldwin's quom ("people," "community," or "nation"). (2) Narrated primarily by Satya and Roop, the warring co-wives of Sardarji, an Anglicized Sikh landowner whose family is violently displaced by Partition, the story also serves as an allegory of the communal rifts and bloody coming-of-age of postcolonial India and Pakistan. Finally, the novel denounces the oppressions of colonial English as well as Hindi lingualism and culruralism in various ways, as it forges a Punjabi-Sikh idiom in English by incorporating Punjabi words, syntax, rhythm, and referentiality. This article examines these many ways in which Singh Baldwin--marked by her particular history as a female, minority, Sikh, diasporic Writer (3)--"re-members the [Sikh] body," thereby representing and memorializing pre-Partition Punjabi culture and sensibility to write the first Sikh feminist novel in English.

I. Giving a Sikh Voice to Sub-continental Partition History

Beginning as the short story "Satya," collected in Singh Baldwins English Lessons and Other Stories (1996), (4) What the Body Remembers grew to be a near-500 page, quasi-historical novel chronicling the last decade of British colonial rule in India and its culmination in the brutal Partition of 1947. Underscoring the limited western attention to sub-continental Indian history, explained by what she recognizees are the "economic realities of the publishing industry" and the attendant cultural imbalances, Singh Baldwin points out that as of 1998 there were only about six hundred non-fiction books and five novels in English on the Indian Partition compared to more than 70,000 books about the American Civil War and thousands of novels in English and other languages about World War II and the Holocaust (qtd. in Sinha; "SAWNET Bio"). And there was certainly no English-language fiction that "put Sikh women front stage center" or represented their experiences during Partition (Singh Baldwin qtd. in Methot). To contest this deafening silence, as well as to challenge patriarchal colonial and Indian nationalist discourse generally, Singh Baldwin writes a feminist historical narrative revolving around two Sikh women narrators, Satya ("truth") and Roop ("body"), and their polygamous husband Sardarji.(5)

Drawing on the paradigm of the kissa tradition in Punjabi, the novel tells in the main the story of Sardarji, an Oxford-trained engineer and a rich zamindar (landlord) in Rawalpindi, who takes a poor, young second wife, Roop, when his first wife, Satya, fails to bear him a child and a male heir to continue his line. As the divisive communal and religious politics of Partition take shape on the distant horizon, Sardarji's home is wracked by battles between Satya and Roop over control of Roop's (easily conceived and born) children, the earning of Sardarji's favor, and the preservation of the family's status within the community. …

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