February 14, 2020
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Quiet Power

A self-possessed debut about the lives of Sikh women

Quiet Power
English Lessons And Other Stories
By Shauna Singh Baldwin
Harper Collins Rs: 175;Pages:171
SHAUNA Singh Baldwin couldn't have asked for better timing. As the Sikhs celebrate 300 years of the Khalsa, this contemplative collection of short stories invites them to explore what it is they're celebrating. English Lessons is an unusually assured fictional debut, combining the feel of an old family album with the uncensored stories behind the happy snapshots.

Most of Baldwin's stories centre around Sikh women; many also occupy the now-familiar ground of the diaspora. The bene-fits of being a second-wave writer on the diaspora show up in the unselfconscious narrative voice, in the absence of a need to explain the strangeness of being in a far country. English Lessons begins unpromisingly with 'Rawalpindi 1919', a slightly clumsy story about a mother's fears for her foreign-returned son, but don't let that put you off. The author has an ability to lift everyday dilemmas out of the realm of cliche into tales of poignant, sometimes searing, power. The situations are deceptively ordinary: a woman fights a losing battle against encroaching relatives from abroad, an elderly Sikh lady prepares to die in a foreign land, comforted but not converted by an alien religion, a woman dons the hair-shirt of 'Paki' willingly when she refuses to toast the Queen in Toronto.

There're no easy victories here. These women wield frail weapons—silence, negation, denial, withdrawal—against an oppressive tradition and the insistent demands of a frightening new world. Betrayed by themselves as often as by those whom they trust, they struggle towards and often find a strange and sublime freedom. Many of these were first written for radio, giving them the immediacy of a conversation with the next-door neighbour. There are flaws: several stories are so slight as to leave just a swiftly fading memory of their existence behind. But taken collectively, as they should be, they reveal an unusual strength: an insistent, haunting voice that speaks of scars and solutions, repentance and redemption.

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