Review of English Lessons and Other Stories by Shauna Singh Baldwin
Oct. 9, 1999
Western impressions of the lives of Indian women are typically flavoured by stereotypes: oppression, fear, docility, and so on. Sadly, stereotypes are often informed by a kernel of truth. There is no denying that the caste system, the tradition of dowries, arranged marriages and a Hindu woman’s duty to bear sons all contribute to the denudement of freedoms, at least as such things are seen by us of the West.
It is not surprising then that feminist activism has found a ripe battleground in the subcontinent. A recent Miss World pageant held in India was pulled in many directions by protestors of varying flavours: Western-style feminists who objected to the pageant’s objectification of women, conservative traditionalists who objected to the celebration of women’s public display of individual talents and aesthetics, and neo-liberal youth who simply objected to any incursions of Western influence.
The complexity is daunting. But India remains a marvelous window into the extremes of female existence, from crusading earth mothers to modern screen goddesses and demure submissive wives. We find such things interesting and bewildering because we are unable to reconcile them with our Western sensibilities. The frontier, the edge that mediates the unavoidable meeting of East and West, is spiced with such bewilderment and frustration. Hence Shauna Singh Baldwin’s marvelous short story collection, English Lessons and Other Stories, a work that ventures into that frontier, rings with a desperate infuriating truth.
Baldwin tells the tales of Indian women from 1919 to present day, from youths to grandmothers. The common thread is one of attempted reconciliation between East and West within the context of women’s roles. The protagonists are often women who have married Western men, or women who are studying in America, or women returning to India from America. In one story, the focus is on an American woman visiting India with her Indian husband. Clearly, the crash of America (or Canada) with India is fascinating to Baldwin, perhaps since she, too, is an Indian woman married to a white American.
There is such enormous truth in these stories, insights into the stresses that plague individuals caught between the demands of two cultures. Baldwin shines best when she explores the differences between behaviour and intent; many of her heroines act only to abide by the wishes of their families, though find solace within their rebellious private thoughts.
Baldwin’s failing is a seeming inability to portray her male characters as soulful. The females are complex, torn and tormented. The males, almost exclusively, are monlithic tormentors bound blindly and unthinkingly to outmoded traditions. Since this is a collection ostensibly about the perceptions of women, this is perhaps a forgivable stumble. However, there is a percolating anger beneath the text, directed hesitatingly at men, and more focusedly at Indian traditions. Witness this short passage from a story about a woman driven to delusion by the constraints of her arranged marriage:
While it is never a good idea to try to infer anything about an author’s character or experiences from her writing, in this case the temptation is overwhelming. As a woman born in Canada, raised in India and married to an American, Baldwin has clearly had to deal with the repercussions of balking tradition. This is a useful perspective, particularly if read by those who have never considered such dilemmas.
There is no poetry here, no artistry of word. Baldwin is not a wordsmith of the likes of, say, her contemporary Shree Ghatage (author of Awake When All The World Is Asleep). But she does have an enviable gift for making emotionally and culturally complicated tales accessible to a wide audience. This is not an art-house collection to be valued only by pretentious lit-mag readers or book club afficianados, but a book to be read and enjoyed by anyone who can appreciate touching, thought-provoking stories.
I therefore look forward to reading Baldwin first novel, What The Body Remembers.