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August 2004
Made in India

The Sari Shop by Rupa Bajwa.

(W. W. Norton & Company. 224 pages.)

Reviewed by Poornima Apte

Anybody keeping a close watch on Indian writing in English will notice the recent rapid rise of an old phenomenon?Indian writers based in India making it big in markets abroad. The grand lady of them all is Arundhati Roy, whose Booker-prize winning novel The God of Small Things created a sensation in the literary world. Since then, Roy seems to have become too embroiled in her favorite environmental causes to pay much attention to fiction writing. For a while there, it looked as if most of the material to hit America was stuff put out by immigrants to the new world?the likes of Rohinton Mistry, Bharati Mukherjee, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni and even Manil Suri?authors who waxed eloquent about the home country with their feet firmly planted in foreign soil. Slowly the market is again being taken over by Indian writers based in India. These days it seems the storm rises first in India, moves on to the UK, and then finally washes ashore in American bookstores.

The latest author to make it (fairly) big on all three continents is Rupa Bajwa, an Amritsar-based debutante, whose The Sari Shop found its way to the list of nominations for the Orange Prize in fiction. That Bajwa's book did not finally win the prize does not matter?it has merit enough to stand on its own and Bajwa has already made the book world sit up and take notice.

Ramchand is an unlikely protagonist in the novel but a very believable one?he knows no other world than the one revolving around his job and his single room home. He is a sari salesman at Sevak Sari Shop in Amritsar and about the only exposure to the greater outside world comes through the conversations he overhears between the memsahibs who visit his store. Spare time, if any, is spent at local dhabas with friends or in watching reruns of old Bollywood movies including "Kaho Na Pyaar Hai" starring the ever-popular Hrithik Roshan.

The monotony and endless drudgery of his mindless existence is brought into sharp focus when he is sent on assignment to the richer areas of Amritsar, where women do not hesitate to spend 80,000 rupees on just parts of a wedding trousseau. Flashy though it might be, it is not just the wealth that Ramchand is drawn to. He is struck by the entirely different level of conversation the women indulge in?he is especially drawn to the bride-to-be Rina and her apparent disdain for her own class, even as she soaks in all its pleasures. "I am not one of those girls who'll just marry a rich man and go to kitty parties," she tells her husband-to-be. The subtle distinctions in class that Bajwa expertly bring about in The Sari Shop are her biggest strengths. Her writing, especially one very well laid-out scene in which Ramchand invites himself to Rina's wedding, reminds one of old Raj Kapoor style Bollywood movies where the poor hero might have no other riches than a heart made of solid gold.

Revelations about the dynamics of class steer Ramchand down a new path where he is keen to teach himself English even if it is only through second hand books bought cheap, such as "The Complete Letter Writer." Progress comes in fits and starts but Ramchand perseveres until he stumbles across life at the other end of the class spectrum. He visits his co-worker and alcoholic friend Chander, who, he finds out, lives in circumstances far worse than his own. Chander's wife, Kamala, is endlessly abused and her sad face taunts Ramchand every waking minute of his life. When he does try to make things better his own way, he is rudely shown his place.

This last part of the story, when Ramchand realizes his place in society, is the one that jars and becomes increasingly melodramatic. It is quite out of form for both Bajwa's characters and her understated writing. For the most part, Bajwa steers clear of melodrama and she is most competent when writing about the daily minutiae of human interactions. Overall, The Sari Shop makes for an impressive debut

Bajwa's characters have a very Mistry-like quality to them in that they can never seem to shake the burden of their fate. The most that Ramchand can hope for, at the end of it all, is to seek solace in a quote from his copy of "Quotations For All Occasions": God brings men into deep waters, not to drown them, but to cleanse them


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