Sari Shop

The Sari Shop

by Rupa Bajwa

I’m Kim Alexander and this is Fiction Nation. The book is The Sari Shop by Rupa Bajwa.

I had to think for a long time about what to say about this book, the author’s first. It’s written in clear prose, almost like a fable, and as the story of Ramchand — one of the working poor in the city of Amritsar in India — unfolds, I began to feel great hope for him. He breaks out of his years’ long routine of working in the sari shop and waiting on contemptible wealthy women looking for clothes, he teaches himself English, he starts to see what life is like on the other side of town, and the other side of the walls separating rich from poor.  But when he starts to appreciate what his life could be like, he’s also faced with corruption and despair. And this is not a story that has a happy ending. Are we to think that Ramchand’s small and unfulfilling world is inescapable? Was he happier in ignorance? I felt my own ignorance of the lives of the Indian people as I was reading this book. The author hints at class warfare, old grievances, and a history I know very little about. It was a little like reading Gone With the Wind without knowing who won the war.

I’m Kim Alexander and this is Fiction Nation. The book is The Sari Shop by Rupa Bajwa.

The last specifically Indian novel I read was A Delicate Balance, which was an Oprah pick. That book was sprawling, panoramic, gorgeously descriptive and totally depressing. I’ve just read The Sari Shop, the first novel by Rupa Bajwa, and it was small, intimate, richly evocative, and guess what: totally depressing. Got to be a coincidence.

We follow Ramchand, a young man in the poor section of Amritsar. He was a child of the middle class, but a tragic accident sends him to relatives who take his inheritance and wind up turning him out onto the street. He spends his young adulthood in one room, working in a sari shop, waiting on women who, while wealthy, may be just as trapped by their social status. All they do is shop and gossip. The author layers the book with untranslated descriptions of the saris, names of exotic foods and places, and I found my own struggle to figure out what things meant a nice counterpoint to Ramchand’s attempt to learn English.

As Ramchand slowly tried to rise above his station, events both personal and political seem to conspire to keep him the same way he was on page one — poor, ignorant and illiterate. I’m telling you, depressing. But of course that doesn’t mean not recommended. Even though it was a sad tale, it stayed with me far longer than any number of happily ever afters.

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