My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The Sari Shop by Rupa Bajwa is the story that brings out the contrast between several strata of our society which cohabitate the Indian Cities but are as unlike each other as it would be possible to be. It begins the apparently insignificant Sevak Sari House in the main Bazaar of Amritsar. It follows the eyes and the ears of Ramchand, a lowly salesman at the shop who seems to be a misfit in not only his world but everyone else’s too. He is mostly invisible to everyone, it’s almost as if he doesn’t exist and, like all the other salesmen who man the counters in these tiny shops, blending seamlessly into the walls with customers’ eye moving from one shelf to another shelf, one counter to another counter, scarcely paying any attention to him.
When the story begins, Ramchand’s life is a sharp contrast to the colourful sarees, it is not only colourless but also toneless and textureless. He has no family, no friends and sadly no aspirations either. He himself wonders why he feels out of step with the world. The one day, he is sent to the residence of the Kapoor family preparing for the wedding of their educated, confident daughter Rina. And something, some kind of stimulus that he experiences in that mansion, jolts him out of the state of barely existing and infuses a strange sort of enthusiasm in him. He buys books to learn English, starts paying attention to his grooming and among many other things, tries to learn how to come across as a gentleman. And yet, it was kind of fascinating for me because it is not as if he wants to climb the social ladder, in no way he comes across as a ‘wannabe’ to me. And I wish I could say it comes to a happy fruition because it doesn’t. Everything else that happens in the book is tragic, dark and somehow makes a reader from a privileged background like me squirm. By holding a mirror to our modern day hypocrisies, it sort of makes me uncomfortable.
But, it would be unfair to say that passage through the book is dull, drab or covered with grime like the walls of the small room where Ramchand lives. It is dotted with events and details, which are not only sweet but also quintessentially Indian. The incidents are as colourful as the sarees and as intricate as the embroideries on them. It is fun to witness the various varieties of bargaining from the other side: the loud, aggressive haggling that women do out of sheer compulsion of their nature, the coaxing and cajoling that novices like me engage in out of the sheer hope of landing a bargain, the rude or even outrageous kind which the women from wealthy families deliver like a command or a whim, often like a show of power, and many more. Then there is a beautiful segment where he reminisces about his childhood, and it seems like he has forgotten most of the details while convalescing from a head injury. This one part where he remembers his mother fondly is so touching, I cannot help share it. It is distinctly tinged with sadness but makes me question, if our primal emotions are really that different or change so much based on our background of affluence or poverty. This is how it goes:
Ramchand’s mother once gives him a small ball of dough and asks him to make “the most beautiful thing in the world” from it, so as to keep him busy while she cooked a meal. What is the most beautiful thing, in the world? he wonders wordlessly. It was his mother, of course, or his father. But they weren’t things and not made out of dough, were they? A while later, she returns. finds him crying, not howling or throwing a tantrum or weeping like children do. He was really crying, with real heartbreaking sorrow, full of grief. With tears welling up in his tiny innocent eyes, he looks up and says, “But ma, I do not know what is the most beautiful thing in the world.” She didn’t laugh, did not say a word. Instead, she hugged him, not speaking not moving and not laughing. Then everything becomes normal, except that Ramchand unknowingly loves her much more than before.
As you see, nothing dramatic happens here, and I cannot really tell what I like about this passage so much. And yet it is something that stands out of the entire book for me. Moving on, I somehow feel that the story really captures the details of the life of Indian poor or the Indian middle-class with uncanny accuracy. Ramchand’s struggles to learn English, the alienation he feels when he reads the letters in The Complete Letter Writer or Radiant Essays for School Children of All Ages is depressing, to be honest. His room with its dark walls become the back drop of the sharp contrast between the paraphernalia on the shelves around ( A jar of Parachute oil, a tub of Zandu Balm and a tube of Burnol among many other things ) and the world in The Complete Letter Writer where someone called Phyllis events his ‘girlfriend’ Peggy on a ‘motor tour through Wales’. And even more striking contrast to the lives of the rich and famous who shop at the Sevak Sari House and who live a life much beyond the scope of his current aspiration.
But all this does not help in making the bitter, almost sickening taste go away, the taste that Kamala’s story brings to us. Kamala is as unremarkable as Ramchand and just like him, so far has stumbled through her life by merely existing, adjusting or making do with what the life throws at her. A chance encounter with her and her story makes both of us, me and Ramchand, sick to our stomachs. Being a book about sarees, there are countless female characters, but I don’t feel like getting into them because they all feel shallow as a saucer. Oh, don’t get me wrong, there is plenty of interesting, gossip-ey stuff, vanities of women of all ages and such things, but in the end, there is nothing that shrouds the double standards of the society. It puts an educated, sophisticated girl on a small pedestal purely because she is “different from the other rich women of the society, she is more than a homemaker and a wife” but turns a blind eye to Kamala’s sufferings. It is as if her poverty makes her of no consequence, and like Ramchand is probably destined to just exist and then one day, may be, stop existing. It leaves me with a feeling that while we as a society are all for a show of support to feminism, whatever may it mean to each of us, but when it comes to the economically disadvantaged strata of our society and especially its women, we have nothing for them but negligence and plenty of discrimination.
Summarising the book, I think the book is interesting and well written, but not a book for all moods. I did enjoy the book, but I would not be surprised nor would I disagree if someone finds it average. Because it is a book about the average and the below average and does nothing to help the reader’s mood. Preferably skip this one if you are not up for tragic stuff.