Friday, November 23, 2012

The Selector of Souls

Shauna Singh Baldwin

“A taste of sweetness” is the definitive feminine quality women bring to the world, reflects Damini, one of the two main characters in Shauna Singh Baldwin’s latest novel, The Selector of Souls. Yet it is sweetness that Damini is unable to taste following her desperate actions at the novel’s opening. In this richly layered book spanning 1994 to 2005, the at first parallel and then entwined stories of Anu and Damini are deftly recounted.

The novel is full of often violent contrasts: male and female, sweeper caste and VIP, Catholic versus Hindu and Sikh. The women are caught in India’s intense conflicting facets of culture, faith, and caste. They experience the fact that “one woman’s story is nothing like another’s” and yet they both struggle to assert themselves against the dominant culture so focused on men. “A boy, a boy, everyone wants a son,” complains Vikas, Anu’s abusive husband, at the birth of their daughter Chetna. The extremes within Indian culture are exposed, from the odious “gendercide” practices of girl-child abandonment, sex selection by ultrasound, wife beating and honour killings, bride price and dowries on the one hand, to karma, reincarnation, the warmth of extended family, and the comfort of close rural roots and shared hardship on the other.

The novel’s climax coincides with the India’s emergence as a nuclear power, closely followed by Pakistan’s—the hell to India’s heaven or is it vice versa? The constant clash of nations is set against the war of the sexes and the war between the landowners and the village peasants, each doomed; each relationship seems to repeat patterns of intolerance. Yet within the novel, an elemental female force returns the possibility of balance to the world. Anamika Devi, the essential female goddess, is worshiped through a few rupees thrown in a simple pot. The cave she occupies, however, houses two pivotal scenes in the novel and holds surprises as mysterious as the echo in E. M. Forster’s Marabar Caves in A Passage to India.

Singh Baldwin, in the great Indian tradition, weaves a story splendid in details and majestic in scope. You may find yourself in search of some sweetness to leaven the bitterness, but you will not easily forget this perceptive tale.

- Rosslyn Bentley

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