The year is 1937, and Roop, a sixteen-year-old Sikh girl from a small village in Northwestern India, has just been married to Sardarji, a wealthy man in his forties. She is a second wife, married without a dowry in the hope that she will bear children, because Sardarji’s first wife, Satya, a proud, beautiful, combative woman whom he deeply loves, is childless. The wedding has been conducted in haste, and kept secret from Satya until after the fact. Angered and insulted, she does little to disguise her hatred of Roop, and secretly plans to be rid of her after she has served her purpose and given Sardarji a son.

Besides being a landowner, Sardarji is an Oxford-educated engineer, who hopes that he can help India modernize. As a rising man in the Indian Irrigation Department, he works with British engineers, designing canals to help Indian farmers grow food for the country, and hydro dams to bring even greater prosperity by producing electric power. The British have promised India independence some day, but the timing and conditions of their departure have not yet been settled. Sardarji is instinctively conservative and believes that it is better to work with the British rulers than to agitate against them. But many others are working to drive the British out. Unfortunately, the leaders of the independence movement, in arousing nationalistic emotions, are also deepening the the religious divisions between the Hindu and Muslim populations — if India is free, which religion will be the dominant force? The Sikh community, to which Roop, Sardarji and Satya belong, is linked with the Hindus by their common history and some shared traditions, but the Sikhs also have historical grievances against the other religious communities. Intolerance and hatred are growing and the stage is set for bloody conflict.

Reading Guide


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 book?

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 literally?

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?