Valuable lessons from life
Reviewed by Jyoti Singh

English Lessons and Other Stories
By Shauna Singh Baldwin.
Pages 206. Rs 195.

THIS collection of short stories is a significant contribution to the genre of short story. As almost all stories revolve around the lives of various women, it would not be a hazard to state that the work is mainly "gyno-centric". The writer Shauna Singh Baldwin, born in Canada and brought up in New Delhi, presently living in the Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA, has emerged as one of the most compelling literary voices in recent times, with two novels and two short story collections to her credit. A master storyteller, she creates a picture gallery of plethora of characters, probing their inner realms.

Her English Lessons and Other Stories, winner of the Friends of American Writers Prize, is not just a peep into the lives of Indian women trying to take hold of their situation of cultural displacement in a foreign land and their attempts to establish their identity, suffering the pulls of the patriarchal set-up, but also the men who fail to understand the needs of women around them, having been raised and conditioned according to the patriarchal male values. She lays bare their failings, worries, doubts, desire for love, guilts, and longings for connection, arresting the factual details of ordinary experiences as the people around her confront them. Due to cross-cultural interaction, which enables her to make an assessment of the Western and the Eastern cultures, her stories pursue the synthesis of the best aspects of both the cultures to build a stable and fidel man-woman relationship.

The opening story, Rawalpindi 1919, helps one delve into the psyche of Choudhary Amir Singh’s wife who while making chapattis ponders over her son’s departure for England and the change that would envelope him after he returns. In Montreal 1962, the unnamed narrator addresses her husband in a kind of dramatic monologue in which she rebels against being insisted to conform to Canadian dress and business codes. She unleashes her anger and refutes the very idea of having her Sikh husband haircut to secure a job and makes up her mind to go out to work, thus helping in saving their cultural and religious roots. If Dropadi Ma is a story of a dedicated servant whose motherly compassion is not equally reciprocated, Family Ties highlights the plight of Chandni Kaur who is shunned by her family during the Partition in 1947 just because she had been kidnapped by a muslim. Simran is a poignant tale about a young girl being educated abroad. It narrates how Amrit, Simran’s dominant mother, and Mirza, a mere friend in college, thwart Simran’s chances of being educated further.

The title story, English Lessons, reveals how the protagonist whom the husband wants to lend a place at the periphery, subtly and silently works to overthrow the patriarchal domination. Almost all her stories—Gayatri, Lisa, A Pair of Ears, Nothing Must Spoil this Visit, The Cat who Cried, The Insult Jassie, Devika—many titled after the names of her heroines, record the female voices and focus on women’s experiences as women in the patriarchal society. Baldwin displays the covert and overt conflict in the minds of her heroines and their rebellion and resistance required for validating the self, which is however often stifled by the dominating society or by the pressure of the circumstances.

The stories are a presentation of a throbbing and living sensation of life, interwoven with real-life events such as 9/11, terrorism, and the suffering of Sikh community in 1984. The force and strength of the narration lies not only in the poignancy and realism but the dexterity as well, with which the writer relate the tales.

Though the author has represented mostly the trials and frustrations of the human life, a deeper analysis reveal that his central vision is not a vision of despair but of hope. The stories with their wry humour and varied narrative techniques make a good read.