English Lessons and
Shauna Singh Baldwin
Rupa # Rs 195 # pp 206
It would be polite to say that Shauna Singh Baldwin’s latest book, English Lessons and Other Stories, gets off to a slow start. A collection of short stories tracing the timeline of North Indian history — from Partition, through the Emergency, to the migration of families across the Atlantic Ocean — the book initially strikes you as something bound towards mediocrity. The tacky cover, a photograph of a woman with a long black braid staring at the Canadian skyline, brings to mind the scores of diaspora films that once caught the country’s fancy.
Sure enough, the first few stories, dealing as they do with a crisis of identity in the face of a foreign culture and the consequent clash between the modern and the traditional, feel like extra features from Bend It Like Beckham and The Namesake. Angst over cultural dislocation, an overdose of cultural references and located imagery further alienate the reader.
Take how the act of kneading dough weaves a mother’s narrative about her son leaving for ‘vilayat’ and how the act of washing turbans becomes a recant of history: “I unfurled the gauzy scarlet on our bed and it seems as though I’d poured a
pool of the stained blood of all the Sikh martyrs there.” Oh dear, oh dear.
It is only once the focus shifts from migratory preoccupations that Baldwin’s narrative really starts to hold. Her morally conflicted characters turn the post-colonial debate on its head, causing the reader to ponder upon grey areas a lot more. Lisa, the green-eyed blonde, pregnant and dumped by her Indian boyfriend who has gone home to marry a “good Indian girl” and Janet, who visits India for the first time with Arvind, her husband of ten years, represent today’s multiculturalism that needn’t be over-advertised. These characters, who try and cope with Indian mores, represent the ‘other side’.
While political nuances are rife in the book, it is Baldwin’s bare-faced look at relationships, marital, parental, sexual and societal, that ultimately saves the book. As you get further into the book, Baldwin’s idioms and her writing style become familiar, almost gripping. Even some of the shortest stories have evocative narratives.
Yet, no matter how rife with pathos, her stories end without resolution. Just like her characters, Baldwin’s readers are left hanging.