It’s not very likely, though, judging from this year’s Commonwealth Writers’ Prize winner for Best First Book from the Eurasia region. Getting the Commonwealth nod puts Rupa Bajwa’s debut novel, “The Sari Shop,” in the same league as, say, Vikram Chandra’s “Red Earth and Pouring Rain” (which went on to win the overall prize in this category in 1996). Indian-ness was much in vogue when Chandra made his literary debut as a magical realist, so his choice of protagonist — an Indian poet reincarnated as a monkey, tapping away on a typewriter and telling pseudo-mythological stories — might be forgiven, however reluctantly.
Bajwa’s novel is not as overt, perhaps, in its Indian-ness, but the cover display of a silk sari on the W.W. Norton edition is a painfully obvious come-hither for a Western audience. It doesn’t end there. The opening chapter exploits to full advantage the Western reader’s notions of small-town India. It describes a typical street scene in the North Indian city of Amritsar, where 26-year-old Ramchand, a sari salesman, walks to his mundane job at the Sevak Sari House. It is as though Bajwa uses this chapter to employ every stereotype of India that has ever been used: the higgledy-piggledy alleyways, the bustling bazaars, the vegetable stalls, the crowds, the street brawls, down to the last stray dog. Thankfully, Bajwa gets all that out of her system in the opening paragraphs, reserving the rest of the book to the task of telling her story, and a compelling one at that.
Most of the action unfurls at the sari shop, where small-town women from affluent families badger, bargain and bully their way into acquiring a sari for the best price possible. At Sevak Sari House, commerce takes precedence over class concerns, and two worlds that are otherwise on a collision course are engaged in a curious detente. One is the middle-class world of protagonist Ramchand; the other, the affluent world of the wives of Amritsar’s richest industrialists. Beyond the confines of the shop, though, Bajwa demonstrates how the class divide can never be bridged, making it evident that she knows India — and the vast gulfs that define it — all too well. (The name of the shop is a dead giveaway: “Sevak” means “servant,” and a sari signifies opulence; the juxtaposition of the two suggests irreconcilable differences.)
It is when Ramchand cycles to Kapoor House to deliver a consignment of saris to the richest industrialist in town that he is afforded a window into another world where saris worth thousands of rupees are bought in a flash. This glimpse of an alien universe threatens to overturn his stable — if limited — existence. He falls prey to a crazy little thing called hope.
There is something heartwarming — and heart-wrenching — about Ramchand’s clumsy efforts to climb out of the rut that is his life: He scrubs his armpits with a new bar of soap; he invests in a fresh pair of socks; and he buys an English dictionary, convinced that mastering English is his ticket to a better life. As he plods through the dictionary, word by word, and practices speaking English before the mirror, the absurd scale of his task begins to weigh upon him. His boredom and almost existential angst give way to an overwhelming anxiety. While all the other salesmen at the shop are quite resigned to their circumstances, Ramchand gives up contentedness for the chance to venture outside his own narrow frame of reference.
It is the uncanny perceptiveness with which the author portrays both these worlds that elevates her book far above the mediocre. No detail escapes her; Bajwa’s prose seems to Hoover up all the middle-class clutter of Ramchand’s life to delineate, with unerring precision, the narrow confines of his existence: the 40-watt bulb barely illuminating his room; the sagging bed on which his clothes are dumped; and the mango pickle, the coconut hair oil, and the jars of rice and dal that are splayed upon his dining table. With equal deftness, she describes his occasional detours from routine to eat at the local dhaba or to watch Bollywood reruns — “There were beautiful landscapes — mountains, green lush plains and clean roads . . . God knows where they were, he thought, and which lucky people lived in such places and woke up to such breathtaking beauty every day” — and his inevitable return to his own room.
The author also depicts, not without humor, the petty rivalries of the rich housewives of Amritsar; the patronizing superiority of the resident intellectual, Mrs. Sachdeva, head of the English department at a local college; and the cruelty of the merchant classes. Even the act of buying a sari does not escape being likened to the brutal purposefulness of a businessman closing a deal. Mrs. Kapoor and her daughter have a “certain ruthlessness” in their selection, running a “sharp eye” over the saris they see and feeling the fabric, with “a hard glint in their eyes.”
On the one hand, Mrs. Kapoor’s daughter, Rita, pretends to distance herself from her own class as though it might be progressive, even fashionable, to do so. On the other end of the spectrum, Ramchand, with his oil-slicked hair and his smelly feet, is locked in a Sisyphean struggle, where his aspirations for bigger and better things are tragically intertwined with certainty of failure. This is the polarized essence of India, down to the microcosmic minutiae.
Having gotten this far, Bajwa’s restrained writing begins to give in to film-style melodrama. Ramchand is sent off to check up on Chander, a coworker who hasn’t turned up for work, and finds that Chander’s living conditions are even more abject that his own. The novel indulges in a long digression about how Chander takes to drinking and beating his wife, Kamla, after losing his former job at a factory. Things take a violent turn when the mentally distraught Kamla stages a protest outside the swanky home of Chander’s former employer, who gets her arrested. While the small disturbance has been dealt with so that Amritsar’s rich factory-owners can cluck their tongues and go back to their dinner, Kamla’s sordid ordeal at the hands of the police is only just beginning.
The gruesome nightmare that awaits Kamla marks a jarring change of tone for the novel and a clumsy and contrived attempt by the author to work her way toward the denouement. The violence of Kamla’s situation awakens Ramchand to the futility of his enterprise — but exactly how, isn’t clear. It seems that the author herself might not have quite figured out how her protagonist finds himself back in his decrepit rental quarters, staring at the walls.
Even so, the character of Ramchand has roused enough empathy in the reader for the conclusion of the novel to be nothing short of heartbreaking. Ramchand’s efforts to amount to more than a sari salesman come to naught. But where Mrs. Kapoor and her elite English-speaking brethren are not even aware of the man who sells them their saris, Ramchand’s ambitions to transcend the class divide are self-redeeming, if nothing more. There is a sense that having come back to square one, he is still the wiser — for having tried.