A Story About A Cop And Ex-Wife And A Town The Sari Shop by Rupa Bajwa

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The Sari Shop by Rupa Bajwa

Rupa Bajwa’s “The Saree Shop” in the small town of Amritsar evocatively captures the social milieu of small-town India. Her narrative encapsulates the spirit of the sari-shop environment with its enthusiastic, intimate, interactions between shop staff and regular patrons. In the background, elegant silk, soft cotton and shiny synthetic sarees reach out to us so realistically that we want to hold them in our hands and caress them. Apart from that, the unplumbed pathos of Sevak saree shop assistant Ramchand, whose world is selling sarees to female customers, wrings our hearts with sadness. Ramchand’s life and his isolation in an indifferent world are effortlessly carved in fine detail. Is it any wonder, then, that we are drawn to empathize with his empty, monotonous existence?

The fact that Ramchand lost his friend’s parents at a tender age is very tragic. He is forced to do menial work by his uncle who usurped his inheritance. Her desire to master the English language is noteworthy, as it is revived one day, when she is sent to demonstrate a saree for a rich man’s daughter’s trousseau. Suddenly, he seems to have a purpose in life as he meticulously sets about learning new English words from “Radiant Aces” and “A Complete Writer” with the help of an old Oxford English dictionary. As he reads, he seems to realize the meaning of his life and the urgency 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 one is at the top of the social hierarchy. Ramchand’s transformation is to humanize him towards society’s trauma and the plight of the secondary sex, women. Chander’s wife Kamala, an assistant at another saree shop, inadvertently opens her eyes to the double standard lived by men in a patriarchal society. By the end of it, Ramchand realizes the futility of trying to turn the system around and, instead, finds solace in slipping into his routine existence. Our journey is with Ramchand into the external, stagnant, oppressive social order and with him into his suffocating, vain rumours. I could only throw up my hands in utter despair, at the futility of everything, when nothing materialized. I wish Ramchand would persevere.

I think the novel’s characterization is relevant to the petty rivalries that live beneath the surface of life by petty traders and class-conscious, middle-class wives. The wives of wealthy industrialists are expertly caricatured with their empty lives and the educated class with their ugly intellectuals. Lower middle-class life, their resignation to poverty, their escape to the film world and their aspiration for higher things through English-speaking jobs, brought a lump to my throat because of the streak of despair that entwined hope.

I found the novel surprisingly funny moments, when Hari, another shop assistant imitates the portly shop owner or when Ramchand sneaks in to taste the forty sweets on the table at a rich wedding reception or is surprised when he sees all the female customers. And sarees from the shop on them. The laugh-out-loud moments are when I get caught up in women’s banter over saree shopping or Ramchand’s sensual daydreams revolve around Sudha, his landlord’s young wife or him ticking off his shop manager in a perfectly structured draw. Watch her attempt to combat her smelly feet with English or lemon juice. It’s laughter mixed with pathos, as I watch Reena interview her to exploit her brazen, humorous appeal in her debut novel, while Ramchand imagines himself as flexible with Reena.

Is this not the complete duality of the world, where laws exist for the rich while the poor accept injustice with cowardice? The brutal rape of Kamala, the involvement of the rich Guptas, the indifference of the educated, articulate and empowered Mrs. Sachdev, the police who bribe and punish the victim, the agony of Ramchand, who is just a bystander, leave a lasting impression. Ramchand’s newfound understanding of me, the struggle to bring some order to society’s skewed justice system. His sanity is duly battered, retreating into madness with the intensity of his demoralization and returning to maintain his status in the present deceptive world. I honestly salute Ramchand’s attempt, albeit brief, to challenge the social stratification system of rich and poor.

Ramchand’s attempt 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 recall Indians’ obsession with the English language and its use as a yardstick to judge a person’s knowledge and place in the community. I believe, the novel is very perceptive in providing a social commentary on the society which reflects the existential pain of every human being. At the same time, there is a delicate balance between reality and expectation, as the inconsistencies of life are cleverly 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 the business of living. I feel, without our will, we can sympathize with Kamla or Ramchand or mock the hollowness of Reena or Mrs. Sachdev. It may not be possible for us to break out of our boundaries or change the world around us but sometimes it is necessary to try to understand ourselves and our lives. The novel certainly does. Kudos to Bajwa for his sensible efforts…

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