Warning: Shauna Singh’s New Novel Will Make You Angry!
By BINOY THOMAS
Gods or nature is no longer in charge of selecting the sex of a child, but the new deity is the ultrasound machine, the Selector of Souls! If you don’t believe this, then you should read through Shauna Singh Baldwin’s latest novel.
Shauna, who broke into the international literary scene with the adventures of a female spy who broke all conventions, but unlike James Bond, no bones, is now ready with a novel that will either make you shed tears, or see red, as she tears into the age old practice of killing female children, both born and unborn. The book, Selector of Souls, (published by Knopf Canada) is a non-stop assault on the centuries old prejudice against girl children that are most evident in many part of South Asia. Her story and characters are drawn from the North of India where Shauna spent her school years. “I often imagine what it would have been like if I had lived through my adult life in India and not here,” Shauna said during a recent interview. Given her temperament, I can predict, it would have been quite fiery! Born in Montreal in 1962, her family however, moved back to India and Shauna finished her secondary school there before, once again, coming home to North America.
The book takes you deep into the dynamics of family, caste and migration (a character, product of a rape, is given up for adoption and grows up in Canada), all told through the lives of women inescapably trapped in the prison of prejudice. In the frank retelling of their stories, Shauna does not mince words, and makes deep and incisive cuts into a societal framework that often seems stuck in another age in spite of the publicity surrounding the new India. “Post Liberalization, there has been been an emphasis on hyper-masculinity, because the values that are being rewarded are based on competition, not cooperation,” she points out. “There has been a tendency to commodify a child in terms of its gender. Like 50000 rupees for a boy, which is the going rate in India if you want a boy switched with a girl in a hospital,” she adds.
While India offers an encouraging view of women in high places, and signs of their contributions in a a number of areas in society, Shauna believes, behind the ‘visible’ progress, lurk the dark forces of oppression ever ready to nip the nascent ambitions of women. Of course, the headlines that come out of South Asia may point in the direction that Shauna is showing us. Just recently, an innocent 14-year-old girl was shot in the head by Taliban in Pakistan. And just as recently, Om Prakash Chautala, a powerful former chief minister of India’s Haryana state, currently wracked with an unusually large number of rape cases, observed that bringing the marriage age down, will save the girls from being raped!
Shauna spent over seven years, researching the book, and gained insights that could’ve come only from the women on the ground. So don’t you go telling her that this is a full on assault on a culture, which is what I did? Shauna is in full flow. “It’s about discrimination against women. Killing female infants is a symptom, the whole culture conspires to give you sex selection. You cannot do sex selection unless you’ve discriminated against women all the way through, at every stage. It’s not son preference any more, it’s daughter aversion.”
Why is the situation any better in a new India where there are far more opportunities for girls? “It has gotten worse,” corrects Shauna and continues, “As economist Amartya Sen pointed out, How can women do this to their own little girls? How can women have so much of self-loathing that they believe this is the right thing to do? Just the same way, how can a mother allow the honour killing of her own daughter? It really revolves around how women perceive themselves and their role in the family. And we get a lot of the philosophy that is constantly pushed at women – accept everything, make sure you don’t have an ego, that you’re a receptacle for the honour (izzat) of the family name.”
The novel has enough references on idol worship, lower castes suddenly being coopted as full-fledged Hindus as a vote getting strategy, and even a character, Swami Rudransh, that you will recognize as Baba Ramdev! The traditionalists are going to be ekdum upset and angry, and since the characters are all Hindu, don’t be surprised if there are demands for a ban on Selector of Souls in certain quarters in India. Was Shauna thinking of the consequences at all?
“I really don’t know what’s going to happen,” she says. “I would like to quote Irshad Manji (the author of ‘Why I am not a Muslim’) ‘There are some things more important than fear’. And you really have to think of that when you are writing. This caste question is far more important than anybody’s fear. We are in 2012, and people in India say there are far too many affirmative actions, too many reservations (for the lower castes). I ask them how did they get where are. I am a child of privilege, a child of the ‘creamy layer’ of the high caste, of the Kshatriyas. And how dare I talk of the ‘creamy layer’ among the scheduled caste. Do you know they have such a term now in India – ‘creamy layer’ within the scheduled caste. Ironically, it’s the cream of the cream that is talking about the creamy layer of the lower caste! It’s 2012, and you cannot yet avoid the caste issue when writing about Hindu characters. I have no way of describing characters in India who are Hindus without describing their caste.”
What many people, however, are not aware of in the West, is that caste runs its roots through all sects and religions in South Asia, even among Muslims, Sikhs and Christians, religions that are at least scripturally free from the caste burden. Honour killing and female infanticide happen in all sections of society. In fact, Bibi Jagir Kaur, a prominent and very powerful Sikh politician from Punjab, elected twice to be President of the SGPC, is currently serving time for her role in “illegal confinement, forceful abortion of her daughter” who later died. “Of course, I am well aware of that. It’s what has happened with the Sikhs also. Somehow, we have to surmount it. If writing about it is so traumatic, then so be it,” Shauna offers defiantly.
Shauna herself grew up in a Sikh family, as she admits, in privileged circumstances, where the son-preference didn’t seem to have played any role? “Who says it didn’t?” comes the retort. “When I was born (in Montreal), my mother got telegrams from everybody in India – don’t worry, the next time it will be a boy! What’s interesting is how she reacted to them. She named me Shanaaz of which even emperors are proud.”
Shauna is pro-choice, though she abhors the practice of deliberately targeting girls for abortion. She explains, “Yes, I am pro-choice. On the other hand, you cannot say abortion is right on every occasion just because a woman made that choice. I want every woman to have that choice, but it has be a moral choice. If a man says to his wife, ‘you want to have the child, but I cannot give it my name’, what choice is the woman left with? So don’t tell me a woman walking into a clinic has much of a choice.”
I play the devil’s advocate, that the issue is not all that current, and that there is a tendency to cast certain cultures in a bad light by overemphasizing the negative aspects. That decent people don’t kill girls any more? “Let me tell you, before you, I was giving a phone interview to someone and he said he had two sons. I asked him how many pregnancies did his wife have? He said four and said, ‘I don’t know why you’re making such a big deal out of it, this is called family balancing, everybody does it, what’s the problem?’ Now that was just two hours ago! So don’t tell me this book is not relevant. It’s my job to write about these areas of silence.” I think it’s safe for me that I leave this particular story here, on that existential note!
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