Researcher of souls

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Interview Shauna Singh Baldwin says the events in her backyard led to her latest novel

Holding a mirrorShauna Singh BaldwinPhoto: V.V. Krishnan
Holding a mirrorShauna Singh BaldwinPhoto: V.V. Krishnan

“In all my books I’m asking the question — what do you do when no one is watching?” Award winning author, Shauna Singh Baldwin, was speaking at a reading from her latest novel, The Selector of Souls (Simon & Schuster). She is not speaking of a simple succumbing to temptation. Whether it was the communal bloodshed during the division of India in 1947, or the targeting of Sikhs in 1984, she points out, “The violence was possible because no one was taking responsibility.”

But her related question is more troubling: “Is my choice really my own choice or am I being coerced into it by economics, by the need to belong?” So when a woman prefers a son over a daughter, even commits infanticide, is she only succumbing to the desires of the men around her? The aging midwife in The Selector of Souls tells her apprentice Damini, “Sometimes we do what men want done, but don’t have the courage to do.” She also reminds her that “no military in this world fights for women’s wishes.”

In her poetic prose, the author of What the Body Remembers (some of whose characters reappear here ) weaves history and current affairs, psychology and a good yarn to create a gripping piece. If the Partition riots play a big role in the earlier work, it is the 1984 carnage following Indira Gandhi’s assassination that has irreversibly touched the characters in The Selector of Souls . The Babri Masjid demolition, the rise of Right wing politics and its penetration into the middle, upper middle and impoverished strata of society, as well as the role of the Church, all loom into view as the drama unfolds on a stage that swings between the capital city of New Delhi and the Himachal Pradesh hamlet of Gurkot, and occasionally shifts to Rajasthan and Punjab. Shauna tells her tales in the many voices of her protagonists. There doesn’t seem to be an autobiographical element in her works. “I don’t do autobiography very well,” she reflects. This book, which she describes as “a meditation on creation and destruction,” is “probably the closest to my recent emotions.”

She adds, “The autobiographical is only valuable if it exposes the suffering of others.”

She recalls conversations with prosperous Diaspora Indians who believe in ‘purifying’ India and Hinduism and approve of intimidating the minorities. “Hinduism was so elastic. This perversion only started in the 90's,” she says. “When you start listening to other people who are very angry at other faiths, it’s shocking.”

Disturbed by educated people like doctors and stock brokers expressing such views, she says, “To me it is so parallel to what was going on in World War II — Aryan supremacy. That sense of wounded entitlement is a very dangerous thing.”

Born in Canada, having grown up in India and currently living in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in the U.S., the author says when a Neo-Nazi attacked her gurdwara (Oak Creek, Wisconsin, 2002) it brought the phenomenon she had been studying in European history and contemporary India into her “own backyard”.

Woven into every strand of the story, however, is changing India — not merely in terms of polarisation of communities but in the technology that has transformed communication. The author says she likes “these moments of change,” and feels a significant difference today is thatwomen are increasingly speaking out. “The all-accepting Indian woman, that’s changing.”

Fiction may be a mirror of truth but it is not an exact replica. “In fiction, what you do is you run a simulation. Till about halfway through, you’re showing this is what life is like.” And then, she notes, it is time to show what can be.


The autobiographical is only valuable if it exposes the suffering of others




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