The Sari Shop by Rupa Bajwa

Rupa Bajwa’s “The Sari Shop” set in the little city of Amritsar captures evocatively, the social atmosphere of small-town India. Her narrative encapsulates the spirit of the sari-shop environment with its spirited, intimate, interaction between shop personnel and regular patrons. In the background, the rustling silk, soft cotton and shiny synthetic saris reach out to us so realistically that we long to hold and caress them in our hands. Apart from that, the unplumbed pathos of Ramchand, an assistant in Sevak Sari Shop, whose world revolves around selling saris to the women customers, deadens our heart with sorrow. Ramchand’s life and his isolation in the indifferent world are effortlessly carved out in fine detail. Is it surprising then, we are drawn to empathize with his empty, monotonous existence?

Ramachand’s loss of his doting parents at a tender age is very moving. He is forced into menial work by his uncle who grabbed his inheritance. His desire to master English language is noteworthy, as it is rekindled one day, when he is sent to display sarees for the trousseau of a wealthy man’s daughter. Suddenly, his life seems to acquire a purpose as he meticulously sets about learning new English words from “Radiant Essays” and “A Complete Writer” assisted by an old Oxford English dictionary. As he reads, he seems to grasp the meaning of his life and the avidity of life around him. It was a sad moment, when he began to understand the pathos of the underdog and the aggression of the conqueror; in this case the one on top of the social hierarchy. The transformation in Ramachand is to make him humane to the hurts of society and the woes of the secondary sex, women. Kamala, the wife of another sari shop assistant Chander, inadvertently opens his eyes to the double standards lived by men in the patriarchal society. At the end of it, Ramachand realizes the futility of trying to turn the system around and instead, finds comfort in lapsing into his routine existence. Our journey is outward with Ramachand, into the stagnant, oppressive social system and inward with him into his suffocating, futile ruminations. I could only throw up my hands in utter despair, at the futility of it all, when nothing materialized. I wished that Ramachand would have persevered.

The characterization in the novel I feel is pertinent to the trivial rivalries that seethe beneath the surface of life lived by petty traders and class-conscious, middle-class wives. The wives of rich industrialists with their empty lives and the educated class with their snobbish intellectualism, is skillfully caricatured. The lives of the lower middle class, their resigned acceptance of poverty, their escape into filmi world and their aspirations to higher things through English speaking jobs, brought a lump into my throat due to the streak of desperation that intertwined hope.

I found wonderfully comical moments in the novel as, when Hari, another shop assistant imitates the portly shop owner or when Ramachand sneaks into the wealthy wedding reception to taste the forty desserts set out on the table or his surprise when he sees all the women customers and the sarees from the shop on them. The laugh aloud moments are, when I took in the spiteful chatter of the ladies on a saree buying spree or observe Ramachand’s sensual day dreams revolving around Sudha, the young wife of his landlord or see him ticking off his shop manager in a perfectly structured droll English or view his attempts to combat his smelly feet with lemon juice. It is laughter mixed with pathos, when I glimpsed Rina interviewing Ramachand to exploit his na├»ve, comical appeal in her debut novel, while Ramachand imagines himself as suave with Rina.

Is it not utter duplicity of the world where law exists for the rich while the poor timidly accept injustice? The brutal rape of Kamala, the involvement of the rich Guptas, the apathy of the educated, articulate and empowered Mrs Sachadeva, the police who pocket the bribe and punish the victim, the anguish of Ramachand who is just a bystander, left a lasting impression on me. Ramachand’s new found perception, battles to bring some order into the skewered justice system in the society. His sanity rightfully takes a beating, withdraws into insanity with the intensity of its demoralization and returns to the present deceitful world to maintain its status quo. I honestly salute Ramachand’s efforts, even though brief, to challenge the social hierarchical system of rich and poor.

Ramachand’s attempts to imbue his life with some imagination and beauty by buying English books and trying to educate himself is very moving. At that particular moment, I recalled the mania of the Indians for the English language and their use of it as a benchmark to judge a person’s knowledge and place in community. I believe, the novel is very perceptive in giving a social commentary of the society which reflects the existentialist torment of every human creature. At the same time, there is a fine balance between reality and expectation, as the incongruities of life is deftly woven into the story,

I found the novel darkly humorous as it effortlessly drew me into the lives of the characters as they go about their business of living. I feel, without our volition we can empathize with Kamala or Ramachand or sneer at the hollowness of Rina or Mrs Sachadeva. It may not possible for us to break out of our boundaries or change the world around us but sometimes it is necessary to just try and understand ourselves and our life. The novel definitely does that. Kudos to Bajwa for her sensitive effort…