About the Author

Shauna Singh Baldwin

Shauna Singh Baldwin's first novel, What the Body Remembers, was published in 1999 by Knopf Canada, Transworld UK, Doubleday USA, and (as an audiobook) by Goose Lane Editions. It received the 2000 Commonwealth Writer's Prize for Best Book (Canada-Caribbean region) and has been translated into fourteen languages. Her second novel The Tiger Claw was a finalist for Canada's Giller Prize 2004. Shauna is the author of English Lessons and Other Stories and coauthor of A Foreign Visitor's Survival Guide to America. Her awards include the 1995 Writer's Union of Canada Award for short prose and the 1997 Canadian Literary Award. English Lessons received the 1996 Friends of American Writers Award. A former radio producer and ecommerce consultant, her fiction and poems are widely published in literary magazines and anthologies in the U.S.A., Canada, and India. She has served on several juries and teaches short courses in creative writing. Shauna holds an MBA from Marquette University and an MFA from the University of British Columbia. We Are Not in Pakistan: Stories was published by Goose Lane Editions in 2007. Shauna's third novel, The Selector of Souls, will be published by Knopf Canada in September 2012. Reviews, reading schedule, and interviews at: www.ShaunaSinghBaldwin.com.

Books by this Author
Simran

Simran

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six@sixty

six@sixty

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The Tiger Claw
Excerpt

Chapter 1

Pforzheim, Germany
December 1943

December moved in, taking up residence with Noor in her cell, and freezing the radiator.

Cold coiled in the bowl of her pelvis, turning shiver to quake as she lay beneath her blanket on the cot. Above, snow drifted against glass and bars. Shreds of thoughts, speculations, obsessions . . . some glue still held her fragments together.

The flap door clanged down.

“Herr Vogel . . .”

The rest, in rapid German, was senseless.

Silly hope reared inside; she reined it in.

The guard placed something on the thick, jutting tray, something invisible in the dingy half-light. Soup, probably. She didn’t care.

She heard a clunk and a small swish.

Yes, she did.

Noor rolled onto her stomach, chained wrists before her, supported her weight on her elbows and knelt. Then shifted to extend the chain running between her wrists and ankles far enough for her to be seated. The clanking weight of the leg irons pulled her bare feet to the floor.

She slipped into prison clogs, shuffled across the cement floor.

A pad of onionskin. A scrawl that filled the whole first page. It said in French, For Princess Noor — write children’s stories only. Signed, Ernst V.

She had asked Vogel for paper, pen and ink, but never expected to receive them. “Everything in my power,” Vogel had said.

She tucked the pad under her arm, then tested the pen nib against her thumb. She reached for the glass jar. Dark blue ink. She opened it, inhaled its metallic fragrance.

She carried the writing materials back to her cot. She lay down, eyes open to the gloom, gritting her teeth to stop their chattering. Mosquito thoughts buzzed.

Do it. Shouldn’t. Do it. Shouldn’t. Do it.

Use initials, think the names, use false names, code names.

She caterpillar-crawled to the edge, turned on her side to block the vision of any guard and examined the leg of the cot. A pipe welded to the metal frame. Hollow pipe with a steel cover.

If I can hide some of my writing, I will write what I want.

She pressed a chain-link against the steel cover. Was it welded? Cold-numbed fingers exploring. No, not welded. Screwed on tightly.

Push, push with the edge of her manacles. Then with a chain-link. She wrapped her chain around the cover like a vise. It didn’t move. She pushed and turned in the dimness for hours, till she was wiping sweat from her eyes. She froze whenever she heard — or thought she heard — a movement at the peephole.

Deep breath. Attack the hollow leg again.

Night blackened the cell. Baying and barking outside, beyond the stone walls of the prison. Twice, the rush of a train passing very close. Noor grimaced and grunted on.

Finally, the steel cover moved a millimetre along its treads. By dawn, it loosened. She lay back, exhausted. Then, with her back to the door, she rolled up half the onionskin, poked it down the pipe-leg and, with an effort, screwed the cover on again.

Above her, the window brightened.

The guard was at the door. She unchained Noor’s manacles so she could use the toilet. Did not glance at the bed. Did not shout.

The flap door dropped for Noor’s morning bowl, sawdust bread. A single bulb lit the cell.

Begin, “Once upon a time there was a war . . . “” No. She would write une histoire, not the kind her captor had in mind, but for someone who might read her words in a time to come:

I am still here.
I write, not because this story is more important than all others, but because I have so great a need to understand it. What I say is my truth and lies together, amalgam of memory and explication. I write in English, mostly, English being the one language left in the ring. Other languages often express my feelings better — French, Urdu, Hindustani. And perhaps in these languages I could have told and read you stories better than this, your mother’s story. But all my languages have been tainted by what we’ve said and done to one another in these years of war.

When the flap door dropped that evening, Noor dragged her chains to it and placed two sheets on the open tray. On one she had written the Sufi tale about the attraction of a moth to a flame, on another the one about the young man who came knocking at his teacher’s door and when his teacher asked, “Who is there?” cried “It is I” and was told, “Come back when you are nobody.”

She could see the guard glance at the English writing then thrust the sheets in her pocket without examination. The pad of onionskin lay upon the cot behind Noor, but the guard didn’t enter to count its remaining pages.

So, the next day, Noor wrote another paragraph, and another:

With that first creation of Allah — the pen that Vogel has allowed me — poised over the ink pot, then over the page, I wonder what to call you. Little spirit never whispered into this world — une fée. In Urdu I would call you ruh. Feminine. Ma petite ruh. We all begin feminine in Al-ghayab, the invisible, before we enter our nameless bodies.
I imagine you, ma petite, nine years old, looking much like me and as much like Armand, expectant and still trusting. Encourage my telling as any audience encourages a teller of tales, though I may tell what you may not condone, what you may not believe, or what you cannot bear to know. I write so you can see me, so Armand will appear again by the telling.

Chapter 2

Germany
July 1945

Against the flume and smear of a dying sun, the silhouette of a motorcycle rider rose over a ridge of dirt road. The sharp engine roar dropped and levelled. The rider’s gloved hands downshifted to avoid the scorched remnants of a tank blocking his way. The bike bounced over ruts and craters as Kabir swerved the pod of his sidecar around the shell-pocked hull. The Tiger tank was canted over its cannon, its mud-caked treads stilled in a ditch.

Kabir didn’t stop to examine the tank, or let thoughts of the Germans who must have died inside cross his mind, but goaded his rattling steed past. Showers sprang from spinning rubber as he furrowed a puddle. He shot a glance through spattered goggles at the jerricans bouncing in the sidecar and, gritting his teeth against flying mud and wind, headed into the darkening horizon.

Out of Strasbourg, Kabir had raced over a makeshift pontoon bridge crossing the Rhine with a moment of wonder. Only a few months earlier, before the Germans surrendered, crossing the Rhine at any point was unthinkable.

Faster, faster.

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We Are Not in Pakistan

We Are Not in Pakistan

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What the Body Remembers
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Rawalpindi, Undivided India, 1937

Satya's heart is black and dense as a stone within her. She tells herself she pities Roop, but hears laughter answering her--how difficult it is to deceive yourself when you have known yourself a full forty-two years.

She has a servant summon Roop to her sitting room in the afternoon, when Sardarji has gone to a canal engineers' meeting. When she comes before her, Satya does not speak, but rises from the divan and takes Roop's chunni from her shoulders, as if in welcome, so she can study the girl. She takes Roop's chin and raises her face to the afternoon sun, willing it to blind her, but it will do her no such service. She studies Roop's features, her Pothwari skin, smooth as a new apricot beckoning from the limb of a tall tree, her wide, heavily lashed brown eyes. Unlike Satya's grey ones, they are demurely lowered, innocent.

A man could tell those eyes anything and they would believe him, a man could kiss those red lips for hours and they would look fuller and more luscious for the bruising.

Roop's hair is long, to her thighs, softened by amla and scented with coconut. Unlike Satya's, it has no need yet for henna. Satya lifts Roop's plait around her shoulder and examines the tip--too few split ends; it has felt the scissors once at least, if not more.

Roop is a new Sikh, then, an uncomprehending carrier of the orthodoxy resurging in them all. Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, they are like the three strands of her hair, a strong rope against the British, but separate nevertheless.

She unbinds Roop's hair. It falls, a moonlit river, down the valley of her spine.

She examines Roop's teeth and finds all of them whole, the back ones barely visible. She hopes that as they come they will bring pain. Roop's tongue is soft and a healthy pink and from it a man will hear no truths he cannot explain away. She presses her fingers to Roop's cheekbones, they are high, like her own. Some remnant of Afghan blood in their past; in other circumstances she might have been Roop's aunt or cousin.

Satya's hands drop to Roop's neck and encircle it lightly, for she is not trying to frighten her. And she sees Sardarji has given her a kantha necklace, one of her own. She knows the gold of this one well; she ordered it from the goldsmith herself, she knows every link in it and the sheen of its red enamel. She wore it last to a party full of Europeans. Its brilliance and its weight had comforted her, compensation for her tongue-tied state; the European ladies ignored her once they found she spoke no English.

She sees her kantha now, covering the hollow at Roop's neck and she wants to press her thumbnail in that hollow till Roop's red blood spurts and drips over them both.

She wants this.

She moves her hands, with no sign she recognizes the kantha, no hint she knows that Roop standing before her is a silent thief.

With such a tremulous placating smile.

Satya examines Roop's brow. Time is ploughing her own in three horizontal furrows, deepening by the day, but Roop's is still smooth. She pulls Roop's hair back over her ears and sees her own earrings. They are the ones Sardarji gave Satya, after her first pilgrimage to the first ineffectual sant, pleading for prayers. Satya knows these earrings well: three tiers of Burmese rubies surrounded by diamonds--real diamonds, not white sapphires--red-hearted flower shapes ending in large Basra teardrop pearls.

And Roop is wearing them.

Satya wants to tear them from the girl's ears, watch as Roop's tender lobes elongate and rip apart, wants to take back what is hers, rightfully hers.

But she moves her hands away.

"Come lie with me in the afternoons. You are alone on your side of the house, I am alone on my side. My pukkhawalla is better--he's from my village, our men are strong."

Roop stands, uncomprehending. If she had been a blood-niece, or a cousin-sister, Satya would shout at her to stay away, to turn now and run before she gets hurt. And if Satya had been Roop's mother, Roop would be her daughter and none of this would have been necessary.

"Come," she says again. "It is useless for me to fight Sardarji's will; he is my husband, he has married you. Somehow I must accept that--and you."

Roop's face lights up like a diya at Diwali.

"Oh, Bhainji."

Sister.

Satya does not feel sisterly at all.

"Oh, Bhainji," Roop says. "I'm so glad. I told Sardarji, I will be no trouble, I will be just like a younger sister."

And her silly tears fall on Satya's hand as she leads the girl to the bed.

Satya places herself in the path of the light from the inner courtyard, dismissing the servants hovering in attendance on the gallery that runs past her rooms. She lowers the reed chics past the casement till the sitting room, cool and dark, holds the sun at bay. The jute sack covering the block of ice in the corner slips to the floor. Exposed, the ice absorbs afternoon heat, weeps a dark puddle over the polished wood.

On the gallery, a pukkhawalla spits a red stream of paan, squats, his back to the wall. With a rope over one shoulder, he leans into pulling rhythm.

Back and forth, back and forth.

The rope worms through the wall and over a pulley near the ceiling, sets the huge wing of silk above the two women creaking.

Back and forth, back and forth.

The breeze from the pukkha moves from Satya to Roop and back again, doing nothing to cool Satya. She is white-hot inside, though if she could speak it out loud, it would be better to call it hurt or pain.

"Come, lie down," Satya says.

She leads Roop from the sitting room to her bedroom and places a soft pillow beneath Roop's head to cradle her ruby earrings. She hears Roop's jutis plop to the floor behind her as the young girl draws her feet up, kundalini-snake on Satya's bed. She leans over Roop the way Sardarji leaned over Satya the years she cried for children, brushing tears from Roop's heavy lashes with her lips. She strokes her head as a mother would, says, "Sleep, little one, we are together now."

And Roop sleeps, overcome by the afternoon heat.

While Satya watches her.

So trusting, so very stupid.

On Roop's arm, thrown back over her head, are Satya's gold bangles, and on her fingers, Satya's rings. Her feet are small and narrow for her height. Around her ankles she wears Satya's gold panjebs. On her toes, Satya's toe rings.

Satya could unfasten them from Roop while she sleeps, but thievery has never been a trait in her family.

Why is Roop so trusting? How can she be so confident she will produce a child? How can Roop not look at her, Satya, and think, "This is what I might become"? How can she not see danger in blundering deep into the tigress's den to steal her chance of ever bearing a cub?

Had Satya been like her once? Had she ever been so witless and yet so charming?

Young women these days think they are invincible, that they have only to smile and good things will happen to them.

Look at me, she wants to tell her. Barren, but still useful; she manages Sardarji's whole estate. Does Roop think it an easy task? Does Roop think it means just giving orders?

"No, little 'sister,'" she will say, "Sardarji's mukhtiar, Manager Abdul Aziz, does my bidding because he respects my judgment, he knows he cannot cheat me, I am too watchful. Not a pai of Sardarji's money is spent on mere ornamentation or given to the undeserving."

The money she gave to the sants, though . . . that was a contribution to their future.

Perhaps Sardarji felt she gave the holy men too much--then he had only to say one word! One word in her ear and she would not have spent another pai on intercessors, but would have prayed to Vaheguru herself.

Only, she has never felt that Vaheguru listens to a woman's prayers.

When Sardarji's sister, Toshi--that churail! that witch!--when she began her insinuations that Sardarji should marry again, Satya laughed. Said, "Yes, what a good idea!"

And she said she would find a good Sikh girl herself, a woman for her husband.

She said this for ten years while her heart sank lower and lower and her body betrayed her every moon-month with its bleeding. And in that time, the man who could best protect her, her father, lost his power. Thin, maudlin, lazy--that is not a man. When the British turned land rights to paper, he could prove nothing, not even fitness for working! He lost the land. Never even knew it until he tried renewing his land pledges for more liquor, more opium, then more liquor. By then it was too late. In the end he locked himself in a room with all the British-supplied gin he could muster and drank himself to death--one gulp, one drink, next drink, next gulp.

When he was gone, Satya's only brother sold the last of the land to buy a lorry and sent their mother, practical, accepting old Bebeji, to live with a cousin. He lived in that lorry only three days before a band of dacoits drove him from it and left his robbed, bleeding corpse half hidden in a wheat field by the roadside. A Sikh tenant-farmer's wheat field, not even some high-up landowner's wheat field! What a way to die: young, and for no reason. Not even a martyr's death, or a soldier's. Just a useless, meaningless death.

Satya will not die that way.

No, when she dies there will be a reason.

From the Hardcover edition.

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