Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

The Selector of Souls


Shauna Singh Baldwin's novel, The Selector of Souls is the story of two very different women, each standing at an important crossroad in her life. Set primarily in India in the mid-1990s, we are introduced to important aspects of Indian society at the time, seen through the eyes and experiences of the Damini and Anu, women from different generations, different class and education background. The novel is, to say the least, a very ambitious project: a rich and expansive and novel that portrays the intimate and personal worlds of the two women and their families against the background of the major themes and preoccupations in India and beyond during the nineteen nineteens' and since. In flashbacks we learn about the protagonists' background that brought them to this decisive time in their respective lives, we also take a glimpse into their future through the Epilogue, dated 2005.


Like in her previous work, e.g. her novel, What the Body Remembers, and collections of short stories, the author shares her intimate familiarity with the many aspects of Indian society through the thematic discussions in the book. Apart from the major political upheavals of the time, such as the struggle for influence and power of the different political groupings and their representatives, or India's provocative launch into the nuclear age, Singh Baldwin delves deeply into a wide range of social challenges and religious conflicts. Among those are the longstanding hostile encounters among the different religions, the caste system and the treatment of ethnic minorities. Crosscutting these themes is Baldwin's deep concern for the treatment of girls and women. Topics such as gender selection, birth control, etc. take prominent positions in the novel and are addressed from numerous angles.


Interestingly, her two protagonists epitomize a cautious shift in the religious mosaic: Damini, while brought up Hindu has been working for thirty years as a servant and "voice" companion to the mute Sikh Mem-saab and describes herself as Sikh-Hindu. Anu, also Hindu by birth, is increasingly drawn to the Christian faith and, after leaving her abusive husband, escapes to a convent in the Middle Hills north of Delhi and refers to herself as Christian-Hindu. While the two characters' lives unfold separately for some time, their sections alternating throughout the novel, it is no surprise to the reader that Damini's and Anu's lives will not only intersect but become increasingly interwoven.


Their difference in religious beliefs, age, caste and social standing notwithstanding, they both have the capacity to listen and to learn. What emerges as a fundamental issue in their relationship is their opposing attitude towards birth control and family planning, and by extension the treatment of children, especially girls. Can they find common middle ground? Both central characters seem to be guided by an inner voice, visually identified through a different print face. While their respective sections focus on their experiences and are written from their perspectives, one can at times sense the omniscient authorial voice explaining developments rather showing them through the protagonists' behaviour or thinking. For both the moral dilemma is evident and well depicted. Still, the discussion or elaboration of an important theme seems, at times, to push the narrative flow of the novel into the background.


Shauna Singh Baldwin describes her book as "[…] a meditation on creating and destroying. How can we redeem ourselves after destroying?" It is indeed a meditation on creating and destroying as it engages the many different themes of the novel.  For readers knowledgeable about or interested in India this novel will be very engaging and also providing much food for thought. As I stated above, it is an expansive and ambitious novel that readers less familiar with India will at times find challenging and they may feel overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of themes and issues being addressed. While the Canada-India connection was, according to the author, originally a major theme of the book, it felt less organic than other sections in the novel.