By Shauna Singh Baldwin
The idea for this book originated from a radio program the author produced and hosted for three years on a Milwaukee station. Catering to the general public but largely to her listeners of Indian origin, Shauna Singh Baldwin's stories generated a lot of interest. Her listeners would call in and ask for more.
Baldwin's skill is revealed as she takes up small, ordinary incidents and weaves them into beautiful, interesting stories. The language in her book is simple and effective. With her subtle, incremental touches, her characters become alive and their life situations reveal new aspects of their lives. Part of this is because she got her themes and ideas from her family members, friends, and listeners. Incidents happening around her never escaped her keen eyes.
In English Lessons, the short story mentioned in the title of her book, Shauna Singh Baldwin illustrates the difficulties faced by newcomers to the US. Tony's wife has finally arrived in America, bringing her two year old son. She stays at her husband's apartment, but he keeps her sheltered from the outside world and tells others that she is just a girlfriend.
But Tony's wife knows about the black woman he used to be intimate with, the same black woman who helped him stay in the US. She thinks about how her husband is familiar with another woman's body - and knows that he is ignorant that she, too, is familiar with another person's body: that of his
younger brother. Tony's younger brother tried to blackmail her by telling her about the other woman he was intimate with. He threatened to disclose that secret to her parents. When she thought about the shame that the revelation would bring to her family, she gave in to the younger brother's
attempts to seduce her. She would wait for an opportune time to take her revenge - and she did.
In Baldwin's short story Gayatri, Reena visits her brother Romesh and his wife Gayatri for a short visit. But Gayatri doesn't like Reena's carefree, independent lifestyle. And when she finds out that Reena has a boyfriend, Gayatri warns the girl not to soil the family reputation by doing anything
stupid. After Reena concludes her visit, Romesh and Gayatri receive a telegram from her, announcing her sudden marriage.
Gayatri believes her husband Romesh would be mad, particularly since the person Reena has married is black. Gayatri expects her husband to fume on hearing this unexpected news. He doesn't say anything for a long stretch, and then surprises his wife: he tells her to "send a congratulatory telegram to Reena and sign it: love, Romesh and Gayatri."
In the short story Simran, a young Sikh girl heads to the US to study computer science. While there, she meets Mirza, a senior student who takes a liking to her. Mirza brings Simran all sorts of gifts even though it's hard on his pocket, but the girl takes them with no visible expression.
When it's time for her school break, Simran returns to India to spend time with her parents. Mirza misses the girl so much that he can't wait until she comes back to talk to her; he wants to reveal his true feelings immediately. When Mirza phones Simran's home in India, the mother answers
the phone. She doesn't want her daughter receiving calls from any man (particularly a non-Sikh, as she surmises from his accent) so tells him, "No Simran here, wrong number".
When Mirza keeps calling, the parents question Simran, worried that she may have done something foolish. Simran decides to send a letter to the young man and gives it to a servant to mail. Her mother snatches the letter and accosts Simran, but the girl assures her there was nothing whatsoever between her and the caller from the United States. He was just a friend.
Simran suggests her mother open the letter and read it to satisfy her suspicions; in the letter, she asks Mirza not to phone her at all.
As Simran's three-week holiday draws to an end, she begins preparing to go back. Then comes the twist in the story: her parents tell her she isn't going anywhere. They've just made arrangements to send her luggage home to India.
The other stories in Shauna Singh Baldwin's collection are all equally absorbing. Find this book in the fiction area for adults at the Bob Harkins Branch.
- Reviewed by Bal Sethi, former trustee for the Prince George Public Library