1. The life of a girl in India in 1937 followed patterns, that
had worked for centuries. She was usually given scant education and
a vegetarian diet (meat and eggs, when they were available, were
reserved for boys), and taught that her purpose in life was to be
married and bear children. She and all women must depend on a
father, husband or brother for economic support and physical
protection, and not having social insurance, men were
interdependent on blood relations. A girl who was still unmarried
at seventeen was a failure. At sixteen, Roop has learned to be a
"good-good, sweet-sweet Sikh woman" (p.111), and to be "silent and
obedient" (p. 112). She has "learned shame" (p. 115). Yet as a
child she was bold, fearless and eager for adventure. How much has
she really changed? Does Baldwin intend us to accept that she has
changed? How is Roop different from her sister Madani? How are Roop
and Madani different from their Muslim friend Huma?
2. Gujri, a Pothari plainswoman, was given to Roop's mother as a
wedding present, "like Mama's dowry pots and pans." Gujri has no
choice but to accept her position as a virtual slave: she was given
away by her father because at the age of seven she had already been
married and widowed, and "her whole village thought her unlucky" -
meaning that she was cursed and would bring bad luck to others. She
could never marry again "lest she kill another husband" (p. 24).
What does Gujri's story say about the position of women in India?
What does it say about the power of superstition?
3. Jeevan, Roop's brother, "has inherited his eyes from Papaji.
Like all men, he sees like a horse, blind to things that lie
directly before him" (p. 70). This phrase recurs several times in
the novel. What does it mean? Does it apply to all of the men in
the book, including Sardarji? Is it something women in all cultures
might say about the way their men perceive the world?
4. Roop's father, Bachan Singh, has sent his daughters to
school, "against all advice," and has "hoped for many things for
his Roop... He has indulged her all this time in case her kismat
brings her a husband who will not be kind." (p. 121). Bachan Singh
knows that the future course of her life will be almost entirely
determined by the character of the man she marries. Roop sees
Sardarji for the first time on their wedding day, and she knows
almost nothing about him except that he is rich. What do you think
about the tradition of arranged marriage? Is it very different from
today's computerized dating services? Are Roop's expectations of
the emotional aspects of marriage different from your own and those
of other women you know?
5. After the birth of Roop's first child, "the whole canal
colony" is disappointed because the baby is a girl. Satya sends her
tea with salt instead of sugar, as punishment. Sardarji's only
words of comfort are "Don't worry... The next one will be a boy"
(p. 202). What are Roop's own feelings about her child? How does
she reconcile her feeling that she is a failure with her joy, and
her satisfaction that she "has done what women are for" (p. 190)?
How does she express her intense love and concern for Pavan?
6. What do Sardarji's comments about American society, in his
letter to Satya from New York (p. 241), indicate about his
political beliefs? What are his assumptions about social class
based on? How much is he influenced by "his 'ten percent,' his
turban, his faith, the untranslated, untranslatable residue of his
being" (p. 147)?
7. In Pari Darvaza, Roop's village, the Sikhs, Hindus and
Muslims live, work and socialize together with very little
friction. Bachan Singh as lambardar is the leader of the Sikh
community and he is good friends with Abu Ibrahim, the pir,
spiritual leader, of the Muslims of the district. Roop and Madani
play a pebble-tossing game with Huma, Abu Ibrahim's daughter, and
the men of Pari Darvaza regularly get together in the fields to
gamble on cockfights between Bachan Singh's black partridges and
Abu Ibrahim's brown ones. The verbal byplay between the men is
barbed but still friendly. Abu Ibrahim tells his partridge to fight
"like Babar the Great," and Bachan Singh ripostes by asking his
bird to "avenge each Guru beheaded at the hands of the Mughals."
The men laugh, "a little uneasily" (p. 33). This scene both
foreshadows the coming conflict and shows something of how it might
have been avoided. Do you think Baldwin believes that a united,
multi-faith India was a real possibility? A united multi-faith
India exists today - could it have been brought into being without
the separation of Pakistan?
8. During their long marriage, Satya, whose name means "truth,"
is in many ways Sardarji's closest ally, "every inch of her tuned
to his needs" (p. 374). Besides managing the business aspects of
his landholdings, she considers it her duty to keep him from
straying too far from the traditions he was born to. In their
arguments, she always defends Indian traditions and knowledge, and
when Sardarji says she doesn't understand, and complains that she
is quarrelsome, she replies, "I tell you the truth." She challenges
his admiration for European achievements, and speaks scathingly of
the English: "Everywhere they tramp across our land, they see and
remember only themselves" (p. 276). And she warns him that "one day
you will wish you had listened to me, prepared yourself. There is a
Hindu aj coming when the English leave..." (p. 328). Why do you
think Baldwin gives this prophetic wisdom to Satya? How important
are these arguments between husband and wife to the meaning of the
9. Both Satya and Roop largely accept the traditional female
role, yet both of them also rebel against it, in different ways.
Which of them do you think is more like a modern woman? Why?
10. Why does Sardarji take Roop and the new baby, Aman, to the
hospital with him, to see Satya when she is dying? Why does Roop
agree to go?
11. After Satya's death, Sardarji thinks that "if he were Shah
Jahan, he would build her a marble Taj Mahal to show the world how
much he loved her" (p.374). Satya is now "inaccessible" but she is
not completely gone. Her voice comes into Sardarji's mind and
continues to whisper the truth to him. She also speaks to Roop (p.
460, 465), lending her elder-wife's strength and coolness to the
younger when Roop and the children are in terrible danger.
According to Sikh and Hindu religious belief human souls are
continually reborn on earth until they have earned entrance into
heaven. Satya has not yet been born again, but she is still a
conscious spirit who cares intensely for those she has left behind.
Do you think Shauna Singh Baldwin meant this to be taken
12. Mr. Farquharson says to Sardarji, "I recommend you reread
The Causes and Course of the French Revolution. I
think you will find it quite enlightening" (p. 236). Baldwin makes
it clear that his words are a warning: without the British, Sikhs
will have no protection from the Muslim majority in Punjab,
Sardarji's province. Mr Farqhharson is often rudely patronizing
about the abilities of Indians: "It will take more than civil
engineering to civilize these people" (p. 194). What do you think
of the portraits of the English characters, Farquharson and Miss
Barlow? How accurate do you think they are? Are they fair? What
about the internalized "Cunningham," who advises Sardarji on what
is "done" and "not done" - is he meant to be anything more than a
comic sidelight on Sardarji's character (p. 147)? Why do you think
Sardarji admires the English?
What do you think of Baldwin's portraits of the Indian characters?
How accurate do you think they are? Are they fair?
13. What is the meaning of the cut glass bowl, filled with
crimson liquid, in Roop's dream (p. 403)? Why must she carry it,
"without spilling a drop"?
14. What three people from the scenes of the Tuesday Lunch Club
at Faletti's hotel (p. 226-232; 397-410) reappear to play very
different parts on the night of Partition, August 15, 1947? Who
helps Sardarji escape the murderous rioting in Lahore?
15. On August 14, Sardarji sends Roop and the children out of
Lahore, accompanied by the nursemaid Jorimon and under the
protection of Narain Singh and Dehna Singh. The hellish journey
takes them along a road thronged with terrorized people trying to
escape from the territory of the about-to-be-declared new country,
Pakistan. How is Roop touched and changed by the shocking
experiences of that night?
16. During the days that Roop waits for Sardarji at the railway
station in Delhi, she is tormented by scenes of misery and death -
those being played out before her eyes, and those she has seen and
heard of over the past few days. She broods particularly over the
fate of women, who cannot live if their izzat, their honour, is
taken from them. The men of their own families will kill them, to
save their honour and protect them from shame - so if they are not
murdered by the men who dishonour them, they will be murdered by
the men who say they love them. How does Roop respond to these
unbearable thoughts? What does her action mean in relation to the
way she and the other women in the novel have always behaved?
17. The historical tragedy of the aftermath of the Partition of
India is an enormous subject for a writer to take on. Do you feel
that Shauna Singh Baldwin has successfully and truthfully portrayed
the horrors of those few weeks and months? In particular, what do
you think of the way she has structured her telling of the
climactic events of August 1947?
18. The theme of "what the body remembers" recurs often
throughout the book in various forms: see, for example on pages
249, 258, 375, and 435. What other instances can you think of? How
does this idea of the persistence of knowledge through the
generations relate to the other large themes or subjects of the
book - history, and the lives of women in India?
19. Baldwin is Canadian, writing about people in another place,
time and culture a few years after the Quebec Referendum of 1995.
Do you think the characters' predicaments can be read as allegory
for the predicament of non-French minorities, should separation
occur in Canada?