Thursday, July 28, 2005

Book Review: The Sari Shop by Rupa Bajwa

Book: Paperback | 129 x 198mm | 256 pages |

ISBN 0141015616 | 26 May 2005 | Penguin

This first novel by Amritsar-based writer, Rupa Bajwa, takes place in the old city area of Amritsar , the city famous for its Golden Temple, the place of worship of the Sikh sect of India. The story revolves around a sari shop, called "Sevak Sari House" set in the old bazaar of Amritsar. The colorful characters in the novel are made up of the men that work in the sari shop and the rich women that patronize the shop. I am always partial to stories of ordinary men and women, and this novel about the lives of the sari sellers, is no exception.

There are several note-worthy characters in 'The Sari Shop', but the one who stands out the most is Ramchand----a young sari salesman who is very sensitive to everything going on around him. He dislikes the life he lives currently---his one-room dark and dismal lodging, his mundane job, his aimless wandering around after work, his dhaba dinners, the Sunday matinees with his co-workers. He wants better for himself, but he's not sure what, until one day he is asked by his boss to take some saris to a customer's house for viewing. When Ramchand sees the affluence, status and dignity of these wealthy customers, he resolves to change his life by studying English (note that 'to study English' is to elevate one's status in life). His tentative forays into bookshops and picking out books to study English from will bring a smile to your face.

Chander, another sari seller, is an alcoholic and has the added burden of an alcoholic wife. Kamla, his wife, wasn't always prone to drink. Circumstances---poverty, the accidental death of her mother to which she was a witness, the loss of a job, Chander's alcoholism, and a miscarriage all contributed to driving her to alcohol and a madness that has her feared in her shanty town neighborhood. Ramchandra, being as senstive as he is, wants to help her. He knows that underneath the garb of an alcoholic lies a woman who is just a victim of circumstance (and not unlucky as her superstitious husband would believe). Unfortunately, no one is prepared to adopt a charitable view with regard to Kamla. Most of his co-workers believe that Chandra was justified in beating her because....

"...Maybe she has had difficulties, maybe she has had problems, but it is a woman's duty after all to take care of her husband and his home first, and later think about herself..."

Finally, when Kamla gets beaten and raped by a police constable for the crime of getting drunk and abusing a wealthy factory owner, Ramchandran cannot assuage his conscience any longer and decides to talk about Kamla's plight to one of the more educated customer's of his shop, a Mrs. Sachdeva, who happens to be a well-respected English teacher in a renowned high school in Amritsar. He feels certain that Mrs. Sachdeva would extend a helping hand to Kamla, but, to his great disappointment, Mrs. Sachdeva, instead of empathising with a less fortunate woman, berates Ramchandra for even daring to tell her Kamla's story.

This little incident speaks volumes of how the issue of class is handled in India. The
'haves' want to have nothing to do with the 'have-nots' and it's considered an insult to even approach them for help.

I love the title of the book because the Sari can be a metaphor for the lives of Indian women---the sari with its soft, flowing and beautiful materials can be an expression of grace, modesty and exoticness, but because of the way it wraps around the female form, it can also be restrictive, never allowing the woman to be exactly what she wants but constraining her to be that what society wants her to be.

Rupa Bajwa is truly a very gifted story-teller and a bit remniscent of Rohinton Mistry, in that, her main characters seem to have such sad lives and little to hope for.

This book received a lot of prestigious nominations, including the Commonwealth Prize, the KIRIYAMA PRIZE and the Orange Prize for fiction.