Gold edged embroidered odhnis, imported crystal collections, hovels and drains filled with “slimy black sludge”. “ The Sari Shop” by Rupa Bajwa is an insightful portrayal of the contradictions of Indian society. “Monsoon Wedding” meets “A Fine Balance”. Squalor and elegance exist in uneasy harmony.
Mrs. Sandhu thought she was as good as anybody now. Never mind her weight, at least she was better than all those thin women with dark, rough skins and mousey hair. A beautiful house, status-family, a caring husband and good looks… what more could a woman ask for? Now, if only the children would do well…
Ramchand is like any other anonymous worker in the labyrinthine streets of Amritsar, eking out a meager existence as a salesman in a sari shop. With a roll of the dice, when his parents were suddenly killed in an accident, fate has transported him from a middle class existence as a child into an adult life of servitude to a sari merchant. He observes without rancor the peccadilloes of the affluent ladies around him as they shop for extravagant weddings. As the salesmen roll out exquisite Orissa silks and crisp Bangladeshi cottons, shards of greed and malicious gossip rend the delicate fabric of human kindness. The women, unrestrained by any twinges of modesty, vie with each other to demonstrate their superior socio-economic status. Ramchand observes this all with the detachment typical of the lower rungs of Indian society. Resigned to his own fate, and without a trace of envy towards his decadent customers, he bears the invectives of his supervisor with stoicism.
The only respite for the salesmen is their mid morning snack of tea and samosas. A Sunday movie at the Sangam Cinema Hall is Ramchand’s escape from the quotidian. Dinner with his friends at Lakhan Singh’s Dhaba is another luxury for him, but even there the sad misery of their lives is inescapable. Lakhan and his wife are in perpetual mourning for their two sons that were killed in a political attack at the Golden temple.
To his dismay he found that he could barely read. Any word that consisted of more than four letters caused him trouble. And even when he had painstakingly pieced together the letters and made the word, what it produced was only and empty sound to Ramchand. He rarely knew what it meant.
He lives a life of quiet desperation, and eagerly grasps an opportunity to foray into a different world. He is sent on an errand to the home of a wealthy industrialist. He returns from his sales visit impressed by the bored dilettante daughter of the house, who plans to establish her superiority over the other society ladies by writing a book. This stirs up Ramchand’s own modest childhood ambition of learning English. Armed with the Complete Letter Writer and a used dictionary he attempts to revisit his childhood dreams of seeking knowledge. The task is daunting. The exercise ‘A letter requesting Payment of an Overdue Subscription to a Club’ has no context for him. He finally gets the bright idea of patiently going through the entire dictionary instead.
Soon however, Ramchand’s already fragile sense of security gets a rude shock when he inadvertently stumbles into a tragic situation involving Kamla, the wife of a co-worker. Her spirit has been slowly crushed by a series of unfortunate circumstances until she has been transformed into a grotesque creature headed for disaster. The iniquities of the society Ramchand lives in shatter his faith in humanity. He is disillusioned by the apathy of the educated upper classes towards the oppressed. Impotent with rage, he sets of on a quest for justice. The strength of this novel is in its realistic story telling with an undercurrent of humor. However, for a powerful story, the plot does not have any twists and turns to intrigue the reader. The writing style is also simple without the literary mastery evident in books by other contemporary Indian writers. This is a thought-provoking debut novel though, and nicely told from the perspective of a compelling character.
Reviewed by Lakshmi Jagannathan