Midnight and She
A heady mix of Punjab, Partition and womankind.
By Ashok Chopra
WHAT THE BODY REMEMBERS
With Midnight's Children, Salman Rushdie established what has since remained the distinctive pattern for the Indian novel: the family chronicle that is also the history of the nation and/or its fragments. Look at the novels that have established Indian writing in English on the world scene: Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy, Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things, I. Allan Sealy's Trotter Nama and so many others. Of course, all fiction has its autobiographical roots spreading through as Shauna Singh Baldwin's What the Body Remembers does, the provincial world of pre-Partition Punjab, a limited, claustrophobic world. But it is also faction -- -- the artful mixing of fact and fiction.
Baldwin employs the traditional structuring and intellectual hardware of plot, character, setting and theme. The scene is the Punjab of the 1930s. Roop is a village girl of marriageable age. Her mother had died at childbirth and her father is in deep debt. She longs to break free from her trapped world, where she is hemmed in by tradition and lack of money. So when she learns that she is to be married to a wealthy Sikh landlord, she is delighted.
But she is to be the second wife of Sardarji whose first wife, Satya, has borne him no children and is now well beyond childbearing age. What follows is predictable: the struggle between the two women for control of the children to be born and for the husband's attention. It is a menage a trois with all the tensions such arrangements entail.
For young Roop, the arrangement turns into a nightmare. Satya, the more experienced of the two, knows how to bring Sardarji around: "Satya's lips move at Sardarji's diamond-studded earlobe. She offers him crumbly pinni sweets impressed with the mark of her fingers. 'Such a pity Roop is unwell,' she whispers. 'How she would love this display.' " (This is Diwali night).
While What the Body Remembers will be read as a story of familial relations, it will be remembered more as social history -- -- the customs, traditions and mores of rural Punjab, many still unchanged. This is interspersed with the gathering storm of the nationalist movement, which embraced all classes. But where were the women and why were they not at the barricades? The sub-text provides the answer, which could be described as the stranglehold of tradition, legitimated by religion.
But the novel is not just a struggle for power between the two women. It is Sardarji's story as well. And it is not merely his pathetic efforts to reconcile them that we need to sympathise with, but his changing perceptions of what the future may bring after Independence. Would relations between landlords and Muslim peasants remain the same? And where would the Sikhs be? Baldwin describes the scenes of the Independence movement with great verve.
For the subcontinent, Partition was the most momentous event of the 20th century. But men who were affected by it, in some way or the other, have written most of the literature. This is a woman's perspective. And because women suffered most when their homes were uprooted, this book becomes a more intimate account.
Tales of courage, with some wishful thinking thrown in.
By A K Sharma
THREE COUNTRIES, ONE PEOPLE
Old soldiers, particularly decorated war heroes, like to relive their battles over and over again, wishing how it should have been and not how (harrowing) it actually was. No wonder D.S. Jafa, a fighter pilot who won laurels in war, has a tale or two to tell. This always makes excellent copy when it is recounted well -- but Jafa has not been able to do so. Though he has a lot to say and, indeed, a lot that Indians would love to lap up in the post-Kargil euphoria, he has got his ideas all mixed up.
This book should have been restricted to war stories. The story "Courage and Cowardice", about locating and knocking out Pakistani tanks from the air, is gripping. It brings to the fore the high-grade leadership qualities and courage required under fire. The one describing aerial dogfights between the IAF Gnats and paf Sabre jets in the 1965 operations is also superb. It amply demonstrates the versatility of the puny little Gnat over the technically superior F-86, at the same time speaking volumes of the sheer guts and grit of the Indian pilots. The camaraderie of IAF POWs, their efforts at hoodwinking their captors and tormentors and attempts to escape make for moving and interesting fare again.
These stories are, more often than not, based on the writer's own experiences. So he knows exactly what he is talking about. But why has he got enmeshed in the "three countries, one people" baloney? It is pure wishful thinking. A pity that this mushy pre-Partition nostalgia has been allowed to permeate right through the book, ruining the impact of the heroism of men at war. Similarly, Jafa could have avoided bandying about the names of the principal protagonists of Indo-Pakistani conflicts, like Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Indira Gandhi, Yahya Khan, Lal Bahadur Shastri and Ayub Khan. Doing so has not enhanced his book.
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