Rupa Bajwa's debut novel The Sari Shop (2004, Norton) examines workaday life in Amritsar, India through the eyes of 26-year-old sari shop employee known only as Ramchand. Average of build, height, and romantic interest, Ramchand's only claim is employment at Amritsar's premier wedding emporium. Lorded over by a high-tempered manager and indifferent coworkers, Ramchand escapes mediocrity and working poverty through fantasies of wealth as displayed by the well off women he endlessly scrapes after.
Problem is, Ramchand's patrons speak mostly in English, insulting his clothes and mannerisms to his face with occasional commands barked in Hindi or Punjabi laced with derision. Sensing this derision, Ramchand eagerly purchases weatherbeaten copies of the Oxford English Dictionary and ancient grade school writing manuals. Ranchand's impromptu English language lessons from extremely stilted Edwardian schoolbooks opens a view on to high class Amritsar society, laced with hypocrisy, shallow power grabs, and tacky displays of wealth.
Bajwa's frequent inclusion of untranslated foods,
clothing articles, gestures, and ritual actions mirrors Ramchand's exploration of English to better undersand the divisions surrounding him. While reading The Sari Shop I paused frequently to look up the meanings of words, geographical locations, and the significance of actions. Bajwa's book, although implicitly written for an Indian audience, nevertheless includes just enough information for lively narrative and the essentials of character development for the uninitated. Readers of any background can relate to the insult of others talking above or below personal understanding, for example. I consider the simultaneous discovery of meaning between main character and reader the best used technique throughout Bajwa's book. Even if her narrative is only obscure to non-Indians or those unfamiliar with Indian culture, her invitation to look beyond spoon fed narrative renders her work even more attractive to those for whom her novel provides a first look at Amristar.
Finally, I cannot neglect the way in which Bajwa weaves food and meals into her narrative. Throughout the book,
Bajwa presents a feast of rotis, daals, and samosas that tempts the reader on not so much out of plot but hunger. From Ramchand's simple pots of lentils and rice towards the wealthy families' wedding receptions piled high with expensive sweets, Bajwa succinctly illustrates food and drink as both sustenance and a barrier of understanding between rich and poor Indian, native and non-native readers alike.