Book Reviews

The Sari Shop by Rupa Bajwa

W.W. Norton & Company, New York

“Go and make the most beautiful thing in the world,” a mother tells her son, and young Ramchand begins weeping, unable to decide.

Set in Amritsar, India, The Sari Shop is the story of Ramchand, a poor shop assistant at the Sevak Sari house. The novel begins with Ramchand stuck in an empty stupor and follows him on special assignment to bring saris to the wealthy Kapoor family. With a renewed sense of possibility, Ramchand embarks on a course towards self-improvement, beginning by learning English. As his perspective broadens, his newfound clarity gives way to painful revelations about how cruelly society functions.

Though the story includes theft, rape, and murder, Bajwa renders these traumas with simplicity. Unlike other writers who favor drama at all costs, Bajwa uses matter-of-fact prose, burying a vital event, such as the death of Ramchand’s parents, in the middle of a paragraph. Instead, Bajwa calls our attention to how these events occur in life; they are not drawn out, they just happen, and the people they happen to, particularly if they are poor, are forced to quickly move on.

The Sari Shop is most successful, most tender, when it centers on Ramchand’s inner anxieties. Unfortunately, Ramchand is the only character that pauses to see “two sides to every coin.” Other characters in the novel are familiar types; both the poor and the rich function as mouthpieces for particular positions in a moralistic class argument. The wealthy women, for instance, are one-dimensionally materialistic and self-interested.

But, perhaps this panoramic satire of social types highlights the very point Bajwa is after, that characters who live without seeing themselves implicated in the plight of others are living one-dimensionally, are more like types than human beings. The most hope comes from wealthy Rina Kapoor, who allows Ramchand to attend her wedding. Ultimately, she too uses Ramchand only to advance her own agenda, to write a novel about a sari shop assistant. Though downright silly, full of eccentric characters and magical spells, Rina’s novel is well crafted and gets excellent reviews.

In purposeful juxtaposition against this made-up novel, Bajwa’s own writing stands in relief against recent novels that romanticize India. The Sari Shop is refreshing in its starker portrayal of India. It calls attention not to colorful aspects of Indian culture that might draw Western audiences but to India on its own terms—problems, pain, and all. What Bajwa delivers is craft with heart, and that is a beautiful thing.

Reviewed by Roseanne Pereira