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Voices From the Gaps

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English Lessons and Other Stories
by Shauna Singh Baldwin

English Lessons and Other Stories
  • Cost: $14.99
  • Publisher: Goose Lane Editions, 1999
  • Length: 174 pages

Reviewed by Maria Taylor

Something else was straining outward as if to rend the seams that held my mask-face in its place, that same mask-face with which I assured friends on visits to India, 'No, of course I have not changed,' as if change were some terrible catastrophe that had so far been deftly averted.

In English Lessons and Other Stories, Shauna Singh Baldwin lends a powerful voice to the women of India. Though born in Canada, Baldwin grew up in India. She is the co-author of A Foreign Visitor's Guide to America and author of What the Body Remembers, as well as many published essays and articles. Baldwin uses the short stories in English Lessons and Other Stories to investigate the lives of Indian women in their own and in other cultures.

At once insightful and honest, English Lessons and Other Stories explores the courage and adaptability necessary to maintain an Indian identity while living in an English-speaking country. Baldwin also emphasizes the importance of family in Indian culture as each tale revolves around familial interactions. By looking at the changing familial roles Indian women face today, Baldwin offers a candid glimpse into the challenges faced by Indian women at home and abroad.

The themes of adaptability and the search for identity resonate throughout the text. In "Nothing Must Spoil this Visit" a mother explains her choice in a wife for her son, "After all, I chose her because I saw from the start she would be an adjustable woman" (121). As the mother suggests, a "modern" woman requires adaptability to maintain her family's reputation through drastic cultural changes. In "Rawalpindi 1919," a mother ponders the changes they will need to make to their home when her son returns from studying in England. She imagines her son will expect chairs to sit on, not cushions, and plates to eat from, not thalis. The mother recognizes and decides to accept these changes.

"Devika" illustrates one woman's fight to adapt from life in India to life in Canada. In this story, Baldwin depicts how integral family is to a woman's identity. Without a complex family network, Devika struggles to adapt to Canadian life: "She wanted her mother, her father, and at least twenty solicitous relatives telling her what to do, how to do it, how to live, how to be good, how to be loved. " Without this complex family structure, Devika must improvise to develop her identity. Ultimately, it is unclear whether she fails or succeeds to do so by creating her alter ego, Asha. Asha with her foreign cigarettes and leather mini skirt is strong-willed and provocative. She represents the Western wife that Devika's husband encourages her to become.

Devika is a proper, modest, respectful woman; she embodies the traditionally valued qualities of an Indian woman. Baldwin acknowledges the individuality of her characters through her varied writing styles. Devika, unassertive in her own identity, is presented in the third person narrative point of view. Baldwin seems to suggest that Devika cannot say "I. " In contrast, "The Cat Who Cried" is written in the first person, and its protagonist has a strong sense of self. "Montreal 1962" is written in first and second person, as a wife alternates between washing her husband's turbans and mentally conversing with him.

Baldwin holds her reader's attention through articulate and emotive language, which gives her readers clear visions of Indian culture. For instance, in "Montreal 1962," Baldwin describes a woman dressing in her husband's turban: "I wound it swiftly, deftly, till it jutted haughtily forward, adding four inches to my stature. " Baldwin works to share Indian culture with the world through English Lessons and Other Stories. More importantly, this text endeavors to give voice to the varied experiences of Indian women. Jassie, an old Indian immigrant, communicates the need for such a voice: "Perhaps one day when she is forgetful I may tell her some of my story to bring it into words" (149). Jassie expresses a common desire of the characters in this collection: the wish for their stories to be heard.