GOWANUS Winter 2000

Reviews by Anjana Basu
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What the Body Remembers. 
Shauna Singh 
Baldwin. Rs 195

This is a novel written by a second-generation Canadian living in Milwaukee. The odd thing is that it’s a book set in the India of the Raj, in an area of the subcontinent that is now Pakistan, and it’s about a Sikh girl whose husband wants to add a second wife to his family. Of course, not so odd when you realise that the second generation Canadian is actually Sikh.

The heroine, if you may call her that, Roop, is sixteen and beautiful and when she is married to a man twenty-five years her senior in 1937, she already knows he has a barren first wife, Satya. The marriage is arranged. Roop, though naïve, realises that her father needs money and the only way to get it is for her to marry well. She is also confident that she will win over her husband Sardarji’s first wife, Satya. The two of them will become sisters.

What the Body Remembers begins with the first meeting between Roop and Satya. Satya decides that Roop will bear her husband the child that she, Satya, could not. Then the novel flashes back to Roop’s childhood and takes you to her wedding, then follows Roop’s agony as her children are given to Satya And underlines Satya’s jealousy of her younger co-wife.

1947 comes  and, as the subcontinent gains its Independence from the British, India is divided into India, West Pakistan and East Pakistan. (The line that became the initial border of the two countries was drawn by Sir Cyril Radcliffe, an Englishman who’d never set foot in the Punjab. When the British left India they formed West Pakistan—now called Pakistan—from the division of Punjab, where the novel takes place, and East Pakistan, from the division of Bengal. East Pakistan broke away from Pakistan with another war in 1971 to become Bangladesh.)

While Partition is a subject much written about and filmed in India, the English novels on the subject are few and far between. What the Body Remembers is the first Sikh novel on the subject. When the British pulled out of India, the Sikh community in Punjab was caught in a struggle for land between the two majority communities, the Hindus and Muslims. Four and a half million Sikhs used to live in the part of Punjab region that is now Pakistan. Today, there are only a thousand. Both sides were equally violent in their struggle to surviv,. both equally fanatical and determined to pursue a course of what is nowadays is called "ethnic cleansing."

The historians in India and Pakistan have their own statistics and even dates for Partition and the events that followed. English historians place the number of people killed during Partition at two million. Indian and Pakistani historians place it closer to five million. Each community has different heroes: Indians do not see Mountbatten as the knight in shining armour who liberated them and ,contrary to the Hindu point of view, Gandhi is not a great hero to the Sikhs because he gave their land away. To Pakistani historians, Jinnah is not the obstinate man who unleashed violence but a saint who was forced to make a terrible choice between the 40 million Muslims left in India and the 90 million for whom he could make a homeland in Pakistan. “And so the first step to understanding Partition is to realize that Satya (Truth) is a fictional character,” writes Shauna Singh Baldwin in her essay on her novel.

The Partition in the novel is between Beauty (Roop) and Truth (Satya).  Though they are the names of a man’s two wives, the novel is in fact a story about division rather than a story about marriage. What is scrutinized is not a marriage between a man and a woman  but between a feudal and a modern way of life. The novel explores the self-division that exists in India in which feudal and secular values try to make a place for each other, much as Satya and Roop do in their husband’s house. It is a self-division that leads not only to  problems in the marriage but culminates in the political violence of the country’s partition. 

Satya, the first wife, is jealous of Roop. Her barrenness is not the only
reason why her relationship with her Oxford-educated husband has soured--she cannot hold her tongue and occasionally does sound like a post-colonial Indian teaching in America, as if the author had forgotten what Sikh women were like in the 1940s. However, it is Satya, with her bitter refusal to compromise, who represents modern India, rather than Sardarji, the husband who has been exposed to the West. Satya is the one who rebels and the one who has to die before the novel ends.

Before Satya dies, however, she does everything she can to disrupt
Sardarji’s second marriage. First, she insists on taking over Roop’s
children the moment they are born, and Sardarji is powerless to resist her because he knows what he owes her. Roop’s beauty, to put it metaphorically, lacks the power to stand up to the beauty of truth.

The final chapters deal with the partition of India and the characters finding themselves in a part of Punjab that has suddenly become Pakistan. Baldwin makes the two women and their family her main focus, rather than the history of events leading to partition and independence. A tale of fathers estranged from daughters, mothers from sons, husbands from wives, becomes a metaphor for history  without having to refer to that history directly. The story of what marriage means to a conventional Indian woman is here told as a story of both exile and being uprooted—Roop leaves one “home” to go to another. For both Roop and Satya, the meaning of “home” is  constantly evolving and changing, so that the familiar becomes the strange and the strange the familiar.

This, too, mirrors the other theme in the novel, the need to belong somewhere whether in exile or in one’s husband’s home. When history does enter the novel, Baldwin introduces it through  conversations Sardarji has with his politically inclined English colleagues or in descriptions of the colonial arena in which Sardarji lives, works and moves and which Roop finds so extraordinary when she compares it to the narrow confines of her village, Pari Darwaza--"Doorway of Fairies." The book climaxes with the actual Partition. The upheaval is admirably controlled and manages to avoid the excesses familiar to Bollywood blockbusters, or even to echo The Jewel in the Crown. This is a novel whose themes and characters have been orchestrated with great confidence and without sacrificing complexity.

Love in a Dead Language. Lee Siegel. 
HarperCollins India. Rs 250

Ever since Sir Richard Burton translated the Kamasutra into English, the West has fallen on it either with cries of, "Shame!" or, "Liberation!" It came like a breath of fresh air into narrow, repressed Victorian England where the fact that a piano had legs couldn’t be mentioned for fear of provoking impure passions in the listener. Things were carried to even stranger lengths in America, because there even books by male and female writers couldn’t be kept on the same shelf.

Scholars took to this new freedom masquerading as a scholarly exercise in Sanskrit. They studied the classical Indian way of life as described in Vatsayana’s pages in intimate detail. After a while, the Kamasutra became a kind of battle cry,  all personal problems put down to sexual frustration.

Oddly enough, while this was happening in the West, in India most people were quietly trying to pretend that the exposure of these things was "against Indian culture." The influence of the Raj had begun to take a late but deadly effect. The Kamasutra went underground, to be placed on the same level as the plaster-of-paris pornographic plaques sold in the backstreets of Khajuraho. The erotic sculptures of Khajuraho had nothing to do with the body, India declared--it was all about spirituality and the soul’s unity with God.

The Kamasutra has everything to do with better sex, the West declared, and the jetsetters and their playmates began experimenting with the more complicated positions. Indian advertising, however, launched kamasutra condoms some time ago, to much media hype and debate about whether the name could be applied to a condom. Now it’s simply known as KS and features a steamy ad film--well, as steamy as Indian ad films get, with blue tones and lots of water.

Which is where we arrive at Lee Siegel’s book. Love in a Dead Language is about a professor whose life is dedicated to a study of the teachings of the Kamasutra. He is a one-book academic--his courses are based on the Kamasutra and Vatsayana’s use of Sanskrit. Dr Roth’s obsession with the Kamasutra is matched only by his obsession with India. The son of a Hollywood actor, his life has been filled with sultry Indian sirens, beginning with an actress who came over to act with his father and who ended up murdering the director in a steamy crime of passion. 

Actually the book has something of the whimsy of Tristram Shandy about it.  Somewhere around the end you’re forced to turn it upside down to read the text---of course, you’re offered the option of skipping what you can’t read upside down--but then, it’s all about seducing younger women and maintaining mistresses and wives, so you do turn the book upside down.

Dr Roth has a young mistress who starts out by being in love with a
basketball player. She’s the young daughter of an Indian gynaecologist who has never been to India and hates all things Indian. And he has the ideal wife whom he meets after various encounters with other women. His Sophia, he feels, is the ideal wife--until one glance from Lalita’s dark eyes shatters his composure.
The path of his seduction is charted, of course, through the realms of the Kamasutra. He follows what has been prescribed in the pages right down to the last fullstop. And his student, annotating the book, adds the footnotes, which sometimes run on for pages in a classic send up of American academics.

What you do realise, of course, is that Lee Siegel is having fun at the
expense of all those academics who spend their careers mastering just one book. They write papers on it, present lectures and organise lecture tours, all with suitable solemnity, blind to the fact that their lives are just following one path. Nothing exists for them outside their obsession. Nothing exists for Dr Roth either, but in his case the obsession turns out to be sex incarnate, which makes the very nature of it suspect.

And to complicate matters even further Lalita, the mistress, takes up with a Peace Corps volunteer called Rothberg, so that the play on Dr Roth’s name is continued. Lalita finds peace with the Peace Corps man after Dr Roth’s inexplicable death--too many sneezes--sneezing and sex have their similarities after all, both being strong urges! Lee Siegel himself is a rival academic in the book--someone encountered and disliked by Dr Roth and his student.

If you’re semi-serious, the book’s a quick refresher course on the contents of the Kamasutra and the love lives of various Orientalists who found themselves seduced by the East in more ways than one. If you’re not serious, then you might be irritated by the footnotes and the gimmicks, because the book is an intellectual gimmick and it’s hard to read as a straight story because the writer’s having so much fun writing it. It's a book for the clever and the somewhat perverted. People who like their pleasures a little twisted. Yes, perhaps there’s something serious there when Roth’s student observes that there is a love that the Kamasutra has not guessed at--that life is not all about sexual politics--but the book is not about the seriousness of sex or love.

The faithful Sophia mourns her husband and moves on. Lalita finds a husband, and Dr Roth’s student finds an intellectual orgasm of sorts in annotating his master’s book. So, all in all, you could say that it was a great gang-bang while it lasted. Or you could just sit back and talk politely about Richard Stern and all those other English eccentrics who write out-o- the-way books as a result of an "Affliktion of their Humour."