Angela's Reviews > What the Body Remembers

What the Body Remembers by Shauna Singh Baldwin
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's review
Jan 13, 2014

it was amazing

I've just put the book down and will need some time to process everything. But as you can see, I've given it 5 stars and strong recommendations to my friends to read this beautiful elegy to undivided Punjab.

This is a book that takes time to sink in. The horrors of the mass migration are in these pages, the riots, rape, and village burning. It's very hard to read but Shauna Singh Baldwin treats the difficult material with incredible tenderness and empathy. In fact, you'd think that seeing all the destruction from a Sikh point of view (my first experience of this POV) would encourage feelings of blame or disgust. But that's not the effect at all.

The story begins and ends with the character of Satya, the "senior" wife of an English educated Punjabi civil engineer. Through her eyes, we see Sardarji in all his human weakness and fallibility because they've been married many years. Satya is smart, strong and wilful, the perfect helper for Sardarji in his official capacity. But she's unable to give him children.

Roop is introduced into the narrative when she's about to become Sardarji's "junior" wife at the age of 16. She is understandably terrified of Satya and her new role which is to bear her husband sons. How she describes it: She will do "what women are for." She is smart too but it takes the entire length of the story for her to find her strength. She is naturally wilful but tries her best to be compliant.

The reader also sees through the eyes of Sardarji himself, with all his responsibilities and worries. He wants nothing more than to provide good irrigation, waterways, and infrastructure for his beloved home region of Punjab, and sons to pass on his name. He tries to please his wives and to work within the framework of the English colonial rule.

All three main characters are Sikh in religion but there are friends, family members and villagers of other faiths, mainly Islam and Hindu. Tensions between the Hindus and Muslims increase and intensify as the creation of a Muslim state, Pakistan, looms. The main problem, for a civil engineer and for every family living in the disputed region of Punjab, is where the border between India and Pakistan should fall. And also: the separation of a Hindu state from a Muslim state leaves no protection for minorities, like Christians, Parsis, and of course Sikhs. The ensuing bloodshed is seemingly inevitable.

What the Body Remembers is heartbreaking but transcendent. Roop, in particular, grows in strength and maturity as a wife, as a mother, as a Sikh, and as a compassionate human being. It is terrible what she must live through in order to be refined in this way but she chooses to respond to tragedy by transforming herself. The reader is left somber but hopeful by this beautifully told story.
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Reading Progress

January 13, 2014 – Shelved
January 13, 2014 – Shelved as: to-read
September 2, 2014 – Started Reading
September 26, 2014 –
page 300
October 14, 2014 – Finished Reading

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