If you’ve been to sari shops.. no! not the ones that live in two-to-three storied buildings and have a manager waiting for you and then a couple of people inviting you to take a look at other things like stylish hair bands and bags.
But the sari shops where there is a white mattress and you sit down and wait for the sari wala to show you the many sarees and or the “exact” color blouse material…not too pink or not too red.
Yes! the one where the owner knows you by your name and knows how to pamper the kids with different kinds of cool drinks or chocolates.
Authored by Rupa Bajwa, Sari Shop is written from the point of view of Ramchand, a salesman at one such Sari Shop in Amritsar.
But the story doesn’t limit itself to the confines of a sari shop it meanders to the points of view of many a characters in the book. It is a fictional tale based in and around a sari shop based out of Amritsar.
The story starts with Ramchand’s lonely view of life from the window and introduces us to the old bazaars, lanes, roads, shops of Amritsar. Then it slowly takes us to the affluent houses and lifestyles.
After a thorough introduction of the locales, the characters in the book, the story slowly unfolds. It takes you through the story of many characters like the affluent Mrs. Gupta or the happy-go-lucky Hari with equal ease as the catastrophe-struck Dhabawala or the melancholic sari salesperson Chander or the rude owner of the Sari shop among many other characters without losing focus on the main character Ramchand, his lonely life, his struggle to learn English.
Apart from Ramchand, the other character which I wished would have been elaborated more was Kamla, melancholic Chander’s wife. And this is why:
Ramchand and Kamla
The character Ramchand leaves the safe haven and the warmth of his childhood at a young age. His parents die at a young age and he forced to live with his relatives. Due to many circumstances, he is forced to leave his relative’s home and fend for himself.
His safe life in his parent’s home and his mother’s love was beautifully defined.
Kamla faces similar atrocities during her childhood, although comforted in her youth for a brief while, she faces loneliness and finds pseudo-solace in alcohol consumption.
These two lives meet at a very interesting junction.
Ramchand cautiously crept towards Kamla, shocked at the sight of a woman with a bottle in her hand. He had never before seen a woman drinking. He opened his mouth to address her, but stopped. It seemed stupid to call her Bhabhi. Bhabhis were decorous women who gave you tea, sometimes irritated you with a lot of information about their children and occasionally asked with sly smiles when you were planning to get married. This creature in a drunken stupor, staring with unseen eyes at the wall opposite-how should he address her?
When you google “Sari Shop novel” you will find pictures like these:
but I think this is the best cover page that befits the book:
The story comfortably shifts between the mind frames of diagonally opposite characters.
But at certainly places I felt she fit in the lives of people who were affected by the Operation Blue Star. For example, Ramchand befriend the Dhabawala whose children were accidently killed in the Operation Blue Star. Although the character appears at various junctures, it seemed like Rupa tried to pack a lot of things in one box. I wished she comes up with another book talking about such an important historical and political event that affected many lives.
However, the whole idea of talking about stories revolving around the sari shop without losing focus is an achievement in itself. 240 pages of a gripping read which take you into the class divide, the culture and the lives of a variety of people in Amritsar, vividly.
I admired Rupa Bajwa’s for her efforts to speak of lives of the salesmen at Sari Shops whom we hardly acknowledge as people. I was curious to learn more about Rupa Bajwa as she wrote the novel painting the city, Amritsar with unknown colors and did not make the book dramatic.
This was an interview excerpt in The Hindu that I liked and think described her simplicity and humbleness well.
About her book, The Sari shop, Sahitya Akademi Award winner and Commonwealth Writers Prize among other prizes’ winner Rupa says:
A very senior writer congratulated me about finding my voice, more than the success of the book. You write from experience, you write from what you feel.
As you grow, you are in flux, you are going through experiences, learning and unlearning things. I don’t see how that voice is a fixed thing. Yes, definitely the core of that voice is the same. But perhaps over the years you become tolerant towards certain things, learn and unlearn certain things. And that affects the writing. You cannot keep writing the same book again and again.
My connection with literature is just as much in my blood today as it was when The Sari Shop released. It’s never diminished. It’s just that I didn’t go to festivals and events and get-togethers.
Today, it’s become too important for authors to create a persona and project themselves in a certain way, wear certain clothes, have a trademark look. Recently, I ran into someone and I was dressed normally, in a salwar kameez with my hair tied back. The person told me I don’t look like an author.
Her love for literature
I didn’t study literature in college, but for me it was everything. It was a teacher, a friend, a companion. I was able to read some of the best books without knowing their snob value. I read books like Madame Bovary and The Red and the Black and House for Mr. Biswas and never knew anything about namedropping. All I felt was overwhelming love for those writers and characters. I have wept over Kafka. I’m a very personal reader I have a very emotional bond with everything I read. For me, there are no classics, children’s books etc. For me there are good books and bad books; books I like, books I don’t. That’s why I dislike the idea of sitting in a class with strangers and dissect writings and authors. I have to sit alone with a book. It’s a very personal thing.
Being a personal writer
I haven’t thought about it, but now that you ask, I suppose I am a personal writer too. It’s the only way I know. I cannot think of a plot, arrange characters and clinically create a book. I can’t do that. I couldn’t belt out books and cash in on the success and attention of The Sari Shop. When The Sari Shop came out, it was the critics who told me what the novel was about. I’m not even joking or being half funny here. While I’m writing, I write with the whole of me, not just with my brain. It’s all of me.
PS: The pictures are taken from The Hindu, The cover page from Barnes and Noble, Sari shop image: kimberlytaylorimages.com.
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