The Sari Shop


A darkly funny debut novel—a cross between Monsoon Wedding and a Kafka short story.Ramchand, a shop assistant in Sevak Sari House in Amritsar, spends his days patiently showing yards of fabric to the women of "status families" and to the giggling girls who dream of dressing up in silk but can only afford cotton. When Ramchand is sent to a new part of the city to show wares to a wealthy family preparing for their daughter's wedding, he is jolted out of the rhythm of his narrow daily life. His glimpse into a ...
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A darkly funny debut novel—a cross between Monsoon Wedding and a Kafka short story.Ramchand, a shop assistant in Sevak Sari House in Amritsar, spends his days patiently showing yards of fabric to the women of "status families" and to the giggling girls who dream of dressing up in silk but can only afford cotton. When Ramchand is sent to a new part of the city to show wares to a wealthy family preparing for their daughter's wedding, he is jolted out of the rhythm of his narrow daily life. His glimpse into a different world gives him an urgent sense of possibility. He begins to see himself, his life, and his future more clearly. And so he attempts to recapture the hope that his childhood had promised, arming himself with two battered English grammar books, a fresh pair of socks, and a bar of Lifebuoy soap. But soon these efforts turn his life upside down, bringing him face to face with the cruelties on which his very existence depends.

Author Biography: Rupa Bajwa was born in 1976 in Amritsar, India, where she currently lives. This is her first book.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers
Rupa Bajwa's debut novel percolates with nuance and charm. Set in the Indian city of Amritsar, one of the novel's most important characters is the city itself; and the wealthy elite presented in relief to the working classes who serve their needs and fulfill their whims. In the rhythmic bustle of the renowned Sevak Sari House, Ramchand and his fellow shop assistants wait upon fussy socialites who arrive with seemingly unlimited resources to spend on lavish clothing before returning to lives of leisure on the other side of town.

Ramchand is relatively content with a life that revolves around the comings and goings of the sari shop: a life without expectations, complaints or dreams. But all that changes when he is asked to make a house call. In the home of beautiful bride-to-be Rina Kapoor, Ramchand's eyes are opened to an unimagined and baffling luxury. He is entranced, and his previously latent ambitions rise to the surface: He crashes the Kapoor wedding, buys himself some English grammar books, and begins an obsession with cleanliness, experiencing numerous cultural epiphanies along the way.

Bajwa's character-driven narrative is richly visual and laced with subtle humor. In The Sari Shop, readers will find a thoroughly engaging work by a perceptive new writer with a passion for honest storytelling. (Fall 2004 Selection)

Ligaya Mishan
… an impressive debut, full of lean and lyrical prose.
The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Bajwa dramatically illustrates the class gap in contemporary India in her debut novel, focusing on the fortunes of Ramchand, a lowly, disaffected clerk in a popular sari shop. The novel opens with Ramchand happily going about his duties serving the shop's mostly upper-class clients. Opportunity for advancement comes from an unlikely source when he attracts the attention of the beautiful, literate Rina Kapoor, whose family hires the shop to provide saris for her upcoming wedding. Inspired by his foray into a wider world ("there were cars and flowerpots and frosted glass trays with peacocks on them"), Ramchand embarks on a half-baked self-improvement effort that includes a reading program and some unintentionally comic attempts to learn English. Shortly afterwards, though, Ramchand sees the other side of Indian life when the wife of one of his co-workers, a woman named Kamla, descends into public drunkenness. Ramchand is a tenderly drawn character, reminiscent of Naipaul's innocent strivers, and the rest of the cast is vividly sketched. There are several typical first-novel flaws: the narrative is slow in the first half, and Bajwa's transitions between her character-driven subplots are occasionally uneven and erratic. But Bajwa's loving attention to detail-Ramchand washing his feet with lemon juice before he visits the Kapoors, the malicious chatter of the sari-shopping ladies-paints a compelling, acerbic picture of urban India. Agent, Melanie Jackson. (June) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
A strong sense of wealth and its privileges pervades Bajwa's debut novel, set in her home of Amritsar, India. Ramchand, a 26-year-old sari shop assistant, waits on women from various economic brackets. Aside from the shop's transactions and occasional outings with co-workers, he derives his principal pleasure from watching his landlord's wife fulfill her household duties. Ramchand's lackluster life changes dramatically when his bad-tempered boss, Majahan, sends him to the home of a wealthy family planning their daughter's wedding. This glimpse into another world gives Ramchand the desire to transform himself. Although the outcome is bleak, this novel is not entirely humorless: Ramchand's attempts to relearn English are especially comical. The novel comes to life through Bajwa's vibrant descriptions of saris, her sensitive characterization of the shop assistants, and her skillful use of dialog. Readers will take pleasure in this new South Asian voice, whose work was longlisted for the 2004 Orange Prize in Fiction.-Faye A. Chadwell, Univ. of Oregon Libs., Eugene Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A somewhat aimless first outing about the daily life of a poor shop-clerk in India. In the Old City of the Punjabi metropolis of Amritsar, the Sevak Sari House is well known for carrying the finest ladies' apparel in town. Young Ramchand has worked there for several years, doting on the imperious, well-to-do women who come to buy saris and chunnis and to organize their daughters' trousseaux. Orphaned at six, Ramchand is now a quiet and solitary bachelor in his late 20s whose entire life revolves around the rhythms of his work. But an unexpected shift in his routines arrives when he's sent to the Kapoor house to help Rina Kapoor (daughter of a wealthy merchant) choose saris for her wedding. Ramchand deals with rich customers every day, but he has never before been inside one of their homes, and the experience of seeing such people in their natural habitat sets off a strange change within him. He becomes more careful about his grooming, he buys textbooks, and he begins to teach himself English. But this isn't quite a case of social-climbing or ambition: Ramchand, for the first time in his life, begins to look at the world around him with a critical, inquiring eye rather than accepting it on its own terms as he had always done before. Eventually, this all culminates in a small crisis. When the drunken wife of one of Ramchand's colleagues is murdered for insulting the Kapoor family, Ramchand tries to bring the killers to the attention of the authorities-only to find that India's notorious social boundaries are just as impermeable as he had always feared. An intriguing and controversial portrait of modern India, but far too loosely constructed-so much so that at times it seems quitemeandering.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393059229
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 5/19/2004
  • Edition description: First American Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 240
  • Product dimensions: 6.36 (w) x 8.32 (h) x 0.91 (d)

Read an Excerpt

Ramchand had overslept, waking up only when the loud noises of a brawl in the street below had jolted him out of sleep. He rubbed his eyes, got out of bed and walked to the window. He peered through the rusted iron bars at the two people who were fighting. One was a milkman, who had been cycling back after delivering milk. He had large, zinc-coated iron cans (that looked like aluminium) strung on either side of his bicycle, and one of these now-empty milk cans had bumped into a pedestrian on the narrow street. A quarrel had flared up, and the two were shouting loudly, red-faced and angry.

Ramchand sleepily brushed his teeth by the window, leaning against the wall. He watched the fight to its end, when the previously interested spectators began to get bored and calmed the two men down. It was just a ritual; people in street fights thought they lost face if they stopped before spectators intervened. The two finally went on their way. After that, Ramchand just forgot to watch the clock. He continued to stare vacantly out of the window for a long time, his mind still fuzzy with sleep. The morning was cold. His limbs and mind both felt frozen. He moved slowly.

By the time Ramchand looked at the little red clock on the table and realized that he was late, it was too late. He bathed and dressed in a hurry, dropping things all over the place, scalding himself when he warmed water for his bath on the kerosene stove, fumbling with the buttons of his shirt and spilling hair oil on the already dirty floor. Finally, he ended up misplacing the heavy iron lock, along with the key stuck in it. He found both right under his nose on the table after he had spent fifteen minutes searching for them everywhere. He rushed out of his room and made his way towards the shop then, half-running and half-walking through the narrow streets of the crowded bazaar, hurrying past pedestrians, dodging rickshaws and nearly running into vegetable carts. He could feel his toes perspiring inside his grey woollen socks.

Even at ten in the morning, the bazaar was throbbing with activity. The halwai was already installed in front of the Mishthaan Sweet Shop, pressing jalebi batter into squiggly shapes that floated and simmered in the oil in a big iron cauldron. All the shops had opened for the day and, Ramchand noted guiltily, all the shop assistants were already in place, trying to sell things with fixed, attentive smiles on their shiny, bathed faces.

The older part of Amritsar, the original walled city, was full of bazaars -- small ones that only the locals knew about, tiny bazaars that sold bangles and cloth very cheap but could be reached only on foot through tiny alleys; and the big, main bazaars where the streets were wider and the roads slightly cleaner. The bazaars of Amritsar were busy places where every day, throughout the year, transactions were made, prices were bargained over, shops were opened in the mornings and shut in the evenings. It was as if it had been so since the beginning of the world and would continue to be so till the end.

There were no empty spaces. Just a jumble of old red-brick houses, aged grey concrete buildings, shops, signboards, numerous tiny temples at street corners and crowded streets thronged with people, cows, stray dogs, and fruit and vegetable carts. There were no gates, doorsteps led straight from the streets into houses. Crumbling buildings ran into each other like cardboard boxes stuck together with glue. Their terraces overlapped, there were no boundary walls -- you couldn't tell where one finished and the next began. Occasionally there would be a gap in the mass of buildings, where a very narrow alley would nudge aside the unyielding walls and squeeze itself painfully through the solid structure, joining another similar narrow lane at some other end. It could take years to become familiar with the maze-like network of lanes and alleys and short cuts in the old city.

Money, congestion and noise danced an eternal, crazy dance here together, leaving no moving space for other, gentler things. The actual walls that had once surrounded the city had fallen away long ago, but the ghosts of the wall still separated the old city from the newer one that flourished outside.

The shop where Ramchand worked was one of the oldest in the city, tucked neatly between Talwaar Furnishings and Draperies and Chanduram's Fabrics. It was in one of the main bazaars, buried away in the heart of the city, yet with parking space for customers who came in cars. In this bazaar the shops were larger, older, with good reputations and old, regular customers, and the shop owners were all considered respectable people from old business families.

A large fading green signboard over the entrance of the shop said Sevak Sari House in flourishing red letters in old-fashioned calligraphy, both in English and Punjabi. The signboard was slightly misleading. The shop did not just sell saris. The ground floor stocked fabric for men's clothes as well. There were dreary browns, blues and blacks here. But very few people visited Sevak Sari House to buy Men's Suitings and Shirtings. There were other, larger shops that had a wider range devoted entirely to men -- the Raymond showroom two lanes away, for instance. So the ground floor of the shop wore a dusty, jaded look. It was the first floor of the shop that sold saris.

Packed from shelf to shelf with crisp Bangladeshi cottons, dazzling Kanjeevarams, Benaras silks, chiffons, crepes and satins, it was the first floor that pulsated with an intoxicating, rich life of colour and silk and brought in the customers and profits. And it was because of the huge success of the first floor that Sevak Sari House had been known for decades as the best sari shop in Amritsar. The suiting and shirting cut-pieces in the ground floor cowered under the sparkling, confident dazzle above.

There was also a second floor that customers never saw. It contained a big storeroom and a small toilet that was used by Mahajan and the shop assistants.

Ramchand was one of the six shop assistants who worked in the sari section.


Ramchand stood uncertainly at the entrance of the shop, his palms cold with sweat despite the chilly December morning, thinking of Mahajan's rage that would soon descend on him. Ramchand peered in. Mahajan was talking to somebody over the phone. Making the best of it, Ramchand sprinted across the ground floor under Mahajan's disapproving eyes.

There was a Ganesha idol installed near the foot of the staircase that led up to the first floor. Ramchand would usually stop before this idol for a moment every morning, with folded hands and closed eyes, and then after an elaborate bow, would make his way upstairs. But today he just hurried up the shaky wooden steps as fast as he could. His heart thudded inside his chest. Any moment now Mahajan would stop him and give him a dressing down. But he climbed up to the first floor safely. In the small space on top of the staircase, and in the front of the big glass door that led into the sari section, he tried to get his breath back. Then he struggled with his shoes, first hopping on one foot and then on the other, trying to get them. His hopping made thumping noises on the wooden staircase.

And then Mahajan finally bellowed from below. 'Trying to break the place? Coming late? You think I don't notice? Am I blind? Stupid? Hunh? You think a shop can be run like this? You will come and go as you please? Are you a king or something? Raja Ramchand? Should we send an entourage and a bagghi to pick you up every day?'

Ramchand stopped immediately and waited. Silence. Then he cautiously took oo his shoes, wishing his feet wouldn't smell so. He had taken a bath and worn fresh socks, and yet . . . He knew that the smell would become even stronger by the end of the day. Ramchand arranged his shoes neatly on the wooden shoe rack on the side of the wall, in the row assigned to the shop assistants. The other rows were for the delicate sandals, the kolhapuri chappals, the platform and stiletto heels of the female customers. Ramchand patted his hair and straightened his kurta to make up for the feet, and walked in.

He went to his allotted place and sat down cross-legged. The shop was an old-fashioned one and there were no counters. The entire floor space was spread out with thick mattresses covered with white sheets, and on these mattresses sat the shop assistants every day, facing the customers, and endlessly rolling and unrolling yards upon yards of important coloured fabric.

'Namaste Ramchand Bhaiya. Late again?' grinned Hari, sitting some distance away. Hari was the youngest among all the shop assistants. He was a careless, cheerful, young man with a cheeky face, who often got shouted at by Mahajan.

However, unlike the effect they had on Ramchand, these unpleasant encounters always left Hari completely unfazed. In fact, on slightly dull days, they even cheered him up. 'In from one ear, and out from the other,' he would always say, beaming broadly, after Mahajan had spent considerable time and energy telling him what he thought of him. Because of Hari's junior status, his inexperience and his indifference to the intricacies of fabric, he had been put in charge of Paraag Daily Wear Saris and Paraag Fancy Saris for Occasions. One didn't need much skill or specialized knowledge of fabric to sell these. It would be a long time before Hari would be put in charge of anything else. Not that he cared.

Ramchand smiled back at him. 'What to do, yaar?'

'We could hear him shouting at you even through the door,' Hari said, still grinning.

'What to do, yaar?' Ramchand said again, this time more gloomily.

'Never mind,' said Hari comfortingly. 'You did a good deed for our Mahajan. If some people don't get to shout at someone early in the morning, they can't digest their breakfast properly. Now that raakshas Mahajan will have very good digestion.' Hari cackled at his own joke. 'For that is the sort of man our Mahajan is,' he added, winking at Ramchand, and cackled again. Then he sighed theatrically.

Gokul sat placidly folding some saris into neat rectangles. He was in charge of very expensive crêpes, and in the wedding season he also helped with ornate wedding lehngas and saris. He was a grave-looking man in his forties who took his work very seriously. Mahajan thought a great deal of his experience and his sincerity, but this still didn't save Gokul from occasional tongue lashes from Mahajan. About ten years back, Sevak Sari House had also decided to stock chunnis. For there were many Sardaarnis from old Sikh families, matriarchs as well as young women, who came in to buy saris and asked hopefully whether they had chunnis as well. For them, saris were necessary, they were fashionable, but their real clothes were salwaar kameez. And so, after many of them had wistfully enquired about chunnis, saying that Sevak Sari House was so dependable, and that it was so difficult to get really good quality stuff in chunnis these days, Bhimsen and Mahajan had put their heads together and had decided to stock chunnis too.

And Gokul had made it his business to know his chunnis very well. There were no ordinary chunnis in Sevak Sari House. They sold saris, so if some chunnis had to be there, they had to be special. All of them were two and a half metres in length, and of the required width. No well-dressed sardaarni liked a chunni shorter or narrower than that; they thought that those kind of chunnis were for Hindu women or for very young girls. Apart from the length, the quality was taken care of. There were pure chiffon chunnis, there were lovely white silk chunnis that could be dyed to match any silk salwaar kameez, there were gold-edged bridal odhnis in red, pink and maroon, there were white chunnis with discreet light-coloured embroidery at the borders for widows from good families, there were the colourful ones embroidered with traditional phulkari work -- usually bought by Sikh women for their daughters' trousseau, and many others. And Gokul could handle all the customers who came in asking for chunnis.

Despite this, Gokul didn't swagger. He was in awe of Mahajan and was always warning Hari to be careful not to get into Mahajan's bad books.

Gokul now looked up at Hari and said, 'You be quiet, Hari! Calling Mahajan a raakshas at the top of your voice! You talk too much. Some day they will hear you and chuck you out. You have too long a tongue. That tongue won't earn you your living, boy.'

But Gokul was smiling when he said this. He had a small, benign face and a dome-shaped head sparsely covered with wisps of hair. Ramchand also gave him a wan smile. Chander was unlocking a cupboard nearby. All the walls of the shop were either covered with shelves, or had sturdy built-in cupboards that could be locked up with the more expensive or delicate stock inside. While the three were talking, Chander didn't even look up once. He was a quiet man, very tall, and with a very pronounced Adam's apple. He often did not turn up for work, and maintained a melancholic silence whenever Mahajan shouted at him for this or for any other reason. He would just take in all the insults Mahajan hurled at him, staring into space all the while, biting his lower lip, not answering any of Mahajan's angry questions.

The two oldest shop assistants, Shyam and Rajesh, had been working at Sevak Sari House for a much longer time than any of the others. Shyam had greying hair, a thin face and a large gap between his two front teeth. Rajesh was plump, with slightly rheumy eyes. The two kept to themselves, confabulating in low voices about the rising prices, nought per cent interest home loans and where you could get the best bargains for household electrical appliances. They were paid slightly more than all the other shop assistants. Everyone knew this, but it was never mentioned, and the two men never admitted it officially. Shyam had a young daughter he was hoping to marry off to Rajesh's son. They lived in their own set, middle-aged world, went out for tea and meals together, and called all the other shop assistants 'boys', even Gokul, who was only a few years younger than them.

Ramchand spent the morning arranging new stock. Bhimsen Seth, the owner of the shop, came in at about eleven. The shop had been set up by his grandfather, Sevak Ram. Bhimsen had taken over at the age of twenty. That was when a fifteen-year-old Mahajan had come to him looking for work. Bhimsen had taken him in, and Mahajan had worked his way up in the business. He had, over thirty years, proved himself to be honest, reliable, enterprising and a hard taskmaster. Now it was Mahajan who looked after most of the practical affairs of the shop, though under Bhimsen's supervision. Most of the time now, Bhimsen Seth didn't need to come to the shop every day. He had some other businesses running that he also had to see to. Ramchand didn't know whether Seth was his surname or if it was just a respectful way of addressing him. He had asked Gokul once, but Gokul didn't know either, and Ramchand didn't dare to ask anyone else.

On the rare occasions that Bhimsen Seth did come to the shop, he just reclined prosperously in a corner of the first floor, surrounded by a garish assortment of pictures of Hindu Gods, burning incense sticks and greedily counting hundredrupee notes with his thick, stubby fingers.

Ramchand watched him out of the corner of his eye sometimes. Bhimsen would intently flip the edges of the notes, and, if he happened to look up and catch Ramchand's eye, he would give him a slow, fleshy smile that chilled Ramchand's heart. He always found Bhimsen's benevolent manner a little sinister.

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Sort by: Showing all of 6 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 4, 2008

    Excellent topic for a first novel

    A large topic covered with a very depressing ending that couldn't have probably been otherwise. I think author Rupa Bajwa has an exciting future. I look forward to her next novel.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 12, 2006

    Enchanting Tale and Sorrowful

    I think this novel was pretty good for a first time author. There are parts of the books where the stories and futures of the characters seem incomplete or uncertain. However, since this is the author's first book it turned out to be a wonderful mix of stories in which characters enter each other's lives without knowing the consequences their actions will have for others. I hope to read more from this author in the future.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 22, 2005

    No story line

    The author did a great job describing events and settings in detail, however, there wasn't much of a story line and it's not much of a page turner.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 10, 2004

    A Must Read for every woman

    What a book, what a story. Rupa has a superb writing style that draws you in and you become, not a reader, but a part of the story. I lived this book and it lives within me now. Every woman should read this book and know in her heart that this is not a fiction but real life for many, many people.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 19, 2004

    Understated Elegance

    When I picked up the novel, I knew that it was longlisted for the Orange Prize. But I was instantly captivated by its beautiful cover also. Who says covers don't sell books? They do, ofcourse. Written in simple, clear, uncluttered prose, this novel oozes understated elegance. It reminded me of a dark, vast pond, its water calm and ripple free as on a windless day, but with powerful undercurrents that will suck the readers and drown them in the story. Her descriptions of Amritsar are vivid. I actually saw the shops and narrow lanes of the old city as I read the book. The author understands the human heart. Long after I finished the novel, Rupa Bajwa's Ramchand still lingers in my mind. And when you think that there must be millions of Ramchands in India, it will certainly sober your mind. The story is truly captivating.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 1, 2008

    No text was provided for this review.

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