Longlisted for Britain's Orange Prize for Fiction in 2004, Rupa Bajwa's The Sari Shop turns the world of a small shop in Amritsar, India, into a microcosm of the society, allowing the author to explore big ideas within an intimate environment. Exploring the lives of ordinary shop salesmen, both at home and at work, as they struggle to make ends meet, she juxtaposes them against some of their wealthy clients, highlighting dramatically the economic contrasts in their lives and the differences in their expectations. From her opening description of the raucous awakening of a small neighborhood, she presents the kinds of homely details which make the setting easy to visualize, despite the cultural differences.
Ramchand, now twenty-six, has been working as an assistant at the Sevak Sari House since he was fifteen, doing the same job day after day, going to a small dhaba with some of the other assistants for something to eat at night and sometimes to the movies. He has little hope of improving his station and, with his parents dead and no family in the city, little opportunity to meet a marriageable young woman or change his lonely life. Through flashbacks, the reader learns about Ramchand's family background and how he came to live alone in Amritsar.
As Bajwa slowly draws the reader into the lives of other characters, the reader empathizes with them. Kamla, the wife of Chander, another of the shop assistants, is an especially pathetic case, a young woman who has been victimized by society, her husband, and her husband's former employers. Rina Kapoor, daughter of the wealthiest man in Amritsar, however, is also, in some ways, a victim of her economic situation, as are the women for whom shopping for saris is a primary activity. Only a few women here seek independent lives, these being women for whom it is an option because of their economic privilege. Kamla has no such options. When the lives of Ramchand, Kamla, Rina, and Chander intersect in a shocking climax, lives change forever.
The stunning ending is melodramatic, and Ramchand's change of character may not be completely realistic, but the story moves effectively from its quiet character study at the beginning into a compelling story of characters whose lives overlap, often unwittingly. Sometimes darkly humorous, the story has considerable charm because Ramchand himself inspires empathy. Intimate and thoughtful in its depiction of the various social strata which make up the community, the novel is more understated--less sensational and less political--than some of the more panoramic epics which have come from India in the past decade. Mary Whipple