At the heart of What the Body Remembers-a powerful saga of a Sikh family set against the independence movement- are three unforgettable characters. Sardarji is a figure of transition, a man typically caught in a cleft world. A kindly zamindar from Rawalpindi with a degree from Balliol in engineering, he reads The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire, builds canals that criss-cross the Punjab, makes energetic blueprints for a modern India on his Underwood typewriter, and leaves the running of his vast estate to his wife, Satya, and his manager, Aziz. Yet, when barren Satya cannot give him the son he yearns for, at 42, Sardarji takes Roop, a 16 year old girl from Pari Darvaza, a tiny hamlet in his jagir, as his second wife. Sparking off a sly, taut, cruel battle for supremacy between the two women of which he is largely oblivious, though it leads to the death of one of them.
Baldwin is a masterful storyteller and though the idea that men look at women "only from the corner of their eyes" underpins her story, Satya and Roop are not clotheshorses for feminist statements. They are complex, shaded and resonant with ironies. Satya-a woman born before her time into a feudal patriarchal world, fatally unable to lower her resolute grey eyes in front of a man-is a burr in Sardarji's side. A woman whose quarrelsome, mocking intelligence he seeks out, rejects, then misses with an ache when he can no longer have it. Roop, on the other hand, is the perfect foil-Sardarji's "little brown koel", a woman so ornamental she is like an irritating itch. But it is a measure of Baldwin's mastery that we never forget that this Roop is but a sad parody of the feisty girl who once roamed her father's haveli in Pari Darvaza without fear of consequence. A girl whom poverty, fate, and personal ambition have pared down into being little more than a vessel for Sardarji's seed, but who struggles for a greater self-expression.
Though it's these three and their movement towards reconciliation that rivets the story, the canvas of What the Body Remembers also takes in a sweep of history from 1895 to 1948, the years through which India hurtles towards the terrible moment of Partition. Using Vayu, the wind, as an innovative literary tool, Baldwin brings snatches of political developments in far away Delhi, Bihar and Bengal into her story. Echoes of Jinnah, Gandhiji, Tara Singh and Nehru texture the lives of Sardarji and his family and those at Pari Darvaza with a latent, national tension, imbuing their personal lives with intimations of the great convulsion that is to come.
When it does come, Baldwin's portrayal of Partition is made even more poignant and horrific because she has earlier detailed the old, syncretic rhythms of life with such warmth and flavour. As the country catches flame in the background, she plays out the myriad betrayals of Partition on a constellation of richly individualised characters: Bachan Singh, Roop's father; Mani Mai, her Muslim maid in Rawalpindi; Abu Ibrahim, a pir in Pari Darvaza; Huma, his daughter with whom Roop played kikli as a child; and Kusum, Roop's dutiful sister-in-law who cannot bring herself to say nahin-ji to her elders even when they hold a kirpan over her submissive neck. These are the people who carry within them the fierce pride and prejudices of their communities, the people who've lived together in harmony for centuries but who kindle to hate and madness like tinder because they carry within themselves the burden of historical memory, or to use Baldwin's powerful metaphor, the burden of 'what the body remembers.'
Unlike Hiroshima, the Holocaust or even the Vietnam War, it is a weary truism that Partition is a hugely neglected area, an emotional black hole glossed over by history and ignored by Indian writers. Baldwin's What the Body Remembers is a small but important reparation of that. Marvelously also, her novel is layered both with a palpable Sikh ethos as well as a western, cosmopolitan lifestyle; imbued with fragments of conversation in Punjabi and snippets of songs and prayers. Thus, barring one weak link where Baldwin tries to depict Sardarji's dual cultural inheritance by creating Cunningham, the Englishman who lives inside his head, What the Body Remembers is a triumphant and fascinating example of a bilingual sensibility which has successfully and convincingly translated itself into English. Perhaps for the first time. Read this book.