"The Sari Shop"
(Reviewed by Mary Whipple AUG 22, 2004)
"Buying a sari wasn't just buying a sari—it was entertainment, it was pleasure, an aesthetic experience. They would always come at least in pairs, if not in groups. They would talk about the sari, discuss its merits and demerits. They would make faces if they didn't like a sari, and shake their heads ruefully at each other, quickly saying that the sari would have been all right, had it not sorely lacked a good pallu, or a better designed border, or a slightly different shade of colour."
Longlisted for Britain's Orange Prize for Fiction in 2004, Rupa Bajwa's The Sari Shop turns the small world of a sari shop in Amritsar, India, into a microcosm of the society, allowing the author to explore big ideas within an intimate environment. Presenting the lives of ordinary shop salesmen, both at home and at work, as they struggle to make ends meet, she juxtaposes them against some of their wealthy clients, who come to the shop to buy their saris, dramatically contrasting their lives and expectations.
From her opening description of the raucous awakening of a small neighborhood, she presents the reader with the kinds of homely details which make identification with her characters possible, despite the cultural differences. We all know what it is like to wake up late for work, to dress hurriedly, and then not be able to find the keys. Here, however, she highlights the differences between Ramchand's awakening and our own, doing so naturally and effectively. The sounds of a loud, ritualized fight between the milkman and a pedestrian come through the window as Ramchand heats the water for his bath on a kerosene stove, then looks for his heavy iron lock with the key in it, before running out, dodging rickshaws and vegetable carts on his way to Sevak Sari House.
Her descriptions of the Sari House employees and their business, of the saris themselves and how they are shown to customers, of the social lives of the women who come to the shop, and of the long hours of work for the assistants, such as Ramchand, all give vitality to the novel. "Money, congestion and noise danced an eternal, crazy dance here together, leaving no moving place for other, gentler things," she tells us. Ramchand, now twenty-six, has been working as one of six assistants at the shop since he was fifteen, doing the same job day after day, going to a small dhaba with some of the other assistants for something to eat at night and sometimes to the movies. He has little hope of improving his station and, with his parents dead and no family in the city, little opportunity to meet a marriageable young woman or change his lonely life. Life for him is quiet, work being his only real activity.
Through flashbacks, the reader learns that Ramchand's life until he was six was filled with the love of his parents and the excitement of being in their small shop, but when they were both killed in a bus accident, he was sent to live with his grandmother and then his uncle, who appropriated his mother's jewelry for his wife, the assets of his father's shop, and later his grandmother's property. When Ramchand was fifteen, his uncle decided he'd had enough education, and sent him away to the city to earn his way and live alone in an unfurnished room from that time on. The lives of some of the other assistants have followed similar patterns, leaving them just as vulnerable as Ramchand is to the whims of their bosses and customers.
It is the women in the lives of these men who are most victimized when their husbands lose their jobs or offend their bosses. Kamla, a young woman married to Chander, who, like Ramchand, is another assistant at the sari house, is the sad focal point for the thematic development. Wrested from her home and sent to Amritsar in an arranged marriage, she tries to cope, but when one of Chander's previous employers cheats her husband of three months salary and then closes the company, leaving him out of work and in debt, they both snap. Both drink, she becomes a slattern, he begins to beat her, and she embarrasses both him and herself. While he is able to drag himeself to work most days, she has no real outlet for her anger. In contrast to Kamla is Rina Chapoor, the daughter of the wealthiest man in Amritsar, who is planning her wedding, a love marriage, and buying saris from Sevak Sari House. When the lives of Rina, Ramchand, Kamla, and Chander intersect in a shocking climax, lives are forever changed.
Focusing on individual characters, Bajwa draws the reader into their lives and makes the reader empathize with them. She keeps the scope small and intimate, the story a microcosm of life. Though Kamla is an especially pathetic example of the victimization of women, we also see that Rina Kapoor is also, in some ways, a victim of her economic situation, as are the women for whom shopping for saris is the primary activity of their day. Only a few women here are seeking independent lives or have any outlet for their intellectual energy, one of them an English professor at a local college and the other a woman who becomes an author, but these lives are possible only because of their economic privilege—women like Kamla have no such options unless they marry men who own shops, as Ramchand's parents did.
Although the stunning ending is melodramatic and Ramchand's change of character may not be completely realistic, Bajwa creates a story which moves effectively from its quiet beginning, as she establishes the characters and their backgrounds, into a compelling story of characters whose lives overlap, whether they want them to or not. Often darkly humorous, the story has considerable charm, despite the final, traumatic ending, since Ramchand himself inspires empathy. Intimate and thoughtful in its depiction of the various social strata which make up the community, the novel is more understated—less sensational and less political--than some of the more panoramic epics which have come from India in the past decade. More in the style of R. K. Narayan or Anita Desai than Rohinton Mistry or Salman Rushdie, Bajwa's debut novel clearly establishes her as a major new talent.
- Amazon readers rating: from 16 reviews
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- The Sari Shop (June 2004)
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