Quarry of Globalisation: A Criticism of Modern India in Rupa Bajwa’s The Sari Shop

Adrija Guha 

Assistant Professor of English, JIS College of Engineering, Kalyani, Nadia, West Bengal.

Rupa Bajwa’s award winning book (the Commonwealth Award in 2005 and India's Sahitya Akademi Award (English) in 2006), The Sari Shop narrates the story of Ramchand, who works at Sevak Sari House in Amritsar. The novel takes us through the life of Ramchand in the city and also gives a cross-sectional view of the lives of the people of various strata and professions and shows the struggle of an individual in a society that is driven by power, corruption and violence. Ramchand tries to realize the dream that his childhood had promised but soon he faces the cruel reality of his existence.

In my paper I discuss Bajwa’s depiction of the ‘modern’ India, which is filled with corruption, power politics, colonial hangover, class dynamics, gender politics and violence and how as individuals we are caught in its mesh. Bajwa’s integral concern remains the nation: the urban nation where poverty, affluence, education, its limitations, power, exploitation –everything exists side by side. As a result a picture of the ‘modern’ India emerges where hope and violence are permanently entwined.

Keywords: Globalisation, Neocolonialism, Power Politics, Corruption, Violence

“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.”
  --Rupa Bajwa, The Sari Shop
           To the postcolonial theorists like Benedict Anderson and Homi Bhabha, nation has always been an imagined concept (Anderson’s “imagined communities”). If simply defined, the ‘nation’ can be seen as a large body of people united by common descent, history, culture, or language, inhabiting a particular state or territory (Oxford Dictionary). But this simple definition becomes inadequate when considered from various perspectives. Terms like ‘common descent’, ‘history’, and ‘culture’ are themselves problematic. The concept of India as a nation began to develop mostly in the late nineteenth century when the nationalists felt an urge to counter the West’s ‘distorted versions’ of the nation’s past. The concept of nation that evolves out of this is a Hindu nation consisting mainly the upper-caste Hindus. Quite interestingly the nation has been conceptualised as a woman. The novels of the Rushdie-generation deal with this concept of the nation – either criticising it or reliving and re-creating it, this generation of writers deals with a homogenous nation, a pan-Indian nation. However, in the post Rushdiean era many writers have focussed on the heterogeneity of the Indian nation. Instead of dealing with the epic narratives of the nation these writers have focussed on the small towns, their people and their issues and problems. Their concern is also the nation but a nation where plurality exists. This paper aims at discussing Rupa Bajwa’s award winning novel The Sari Shop which, though set in a small town, lays bare the society of the twenty first century metropolitan India which is characterized by economic upsurge, rising consumerism, power politics, poverty, snobbery and hypocrisy.
           The novel opens in Amritsar, a microcosm of the twenty first century urban India, and introduces us to Ramchand, a salesman at Sevak Sari House. Gradually two worlds unfold before us: a world of Ramchand (and people like him) who lives in a rented one-room apartment in the old city which has narrow crowded streets and little space; where, if he has his lunch outside at a local dhaba and catches a movie with his friends/colleagues then he has to cut down his other expenses, where he cannot afford to marry and take the responsibility of a family and hence, fulfils his sexual needs by fantasizing about his landlord’s wife. On the other hand there is the world of “many government officers, doctors and a few businessmen” and professors far away from “the old city” (Bajwa 12). They have well-planned houses with the “latest fashionable architectural features” and latest modern furniture and appliances; they are always eager to maintain their status in the society; they think about everything in terms of profit and loss; their children are would-be doctors or engineers or live abroad. Apparently it seems that these two worlds thrive on their set parameters and anyone with the ‘desired qualification’ can enter into the other world but soon we realize that basically the latter world controls and maintains the former world. The distance between the two worlds does not become clear unless someone tries to bridge it, only to realise that it cannot be bridged.
           Ramchand’s father, who “had a very small shop in Amritsar” had saved up for him and sent him to an “English medium school” as an ‘English medium school’ only promised to provide holistic learning and an overall development of one’s personality and hence a better future (Bajwa 38). After the death of his parents he is forced to leave his school and thus he had to let go off his dream of a better future. Thus when he meets Mrs. Sachdeva, Head of the English Department at a local college, and Mrs. Bhandari, a social activist, he “suddenly felt very hopeful”, “hopeful” for a “better future”, the future that the knowledge of English only assures. Thereafter he starts reading books written in English, to enhance his knowledge of English so that he can leave the world of “these people”(the sari sellers) and become one of them( the ‘educated’ people with a better job). Ramchand is thus part of that neo-colonial world where the knowledge of English assures power as it is a global language which is a consequence of the emergence of the United States as a formidable economic power and the development of the British colonial project throughout the nineteenth century. In fact in the twenty first century India, the knowledge of English has created a separate class, “a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals…” (Macaulay’s “Minute on Indian Education”); a class that can discuss “post-colonialism and paradigms of poverty” but fails to see how they themselves are instruments of neo-colonialism, how they ‘other’ the other Indians on the basis of a language thereby creating a new class and exerting power over them. Those who are excluded from this class always try to enter it only to have a share in the power. It is, as Ngugi wa Thiongo has said that as if we can only become visible in the world by rejecting our own languages and being absorbed wholly by imperial languages. Ramchand’s decision to learn English to get a better job is a small attempt to enter into this class and hence into this sphere of power.
           Ramchand gets a chance to enter into the bourgeoisie sphere when he is asked by his Mahajan to go to Ravinder Kapoor’s house, Ravinder Kapoor who was “the biggest industrialist in Amritsar”. He takes a long time to make himself presentable to them. After reaching the house while Ramchand waits for his customers, a boy brings a glass of chilled cola for him. He takes the glass “self-consciously” and tries to look “as if he sat in plush rooms every day receiving glasses of expensive soft drinks from domestic help”.(Bajwa 61). But his façade soon gives away. He feels like “a fish out of water”. Each and everything within the bourgeoisie space and the people who inhabit it make this very clear that Ramchand does not belong to this place. To them he is just a “sari-wala”. He is not even identified by his first name. Hence to them he is a non-existent entity. No matter how much he learns English or bathes with a red Lifebuoy bar or wears a new shirt just to meet them, he can never enter into this world or sphere. He is always an outsider.
           It is not only about Ramchand. It is about millions of people who belong to this world. The economic inequality between both the worlds is so much that it can never be bridged. The narrator also tells us the story of Chander, Ramchand’s colleague at Sevak Sari House. Before working at Sevak Sari House, Chander used to work in a factory. One day he suddenly loses his job. “The factory where he worked had been incurring losses and was closing down. He hadn’t been paid the last three months’ salary. He had no money. In fact, he owed people money.” (Bajwa 156). The gap between the two worlds is ever increasing owing to neoliberal capitalism and globalisation. Neoliberalism promotes the idea of “free” market, privatisation of state assets and liberalisation of economic policies. It increases economic inequality owing to income inequality. On the one hand there is a Ravinder Kapoor, “the biggest industrialist in Amritsar”, who owns factories and on the other hand there is a Ramchand who earns “three thousand, four hundred and thirty rupees.” This creates slack in the labour market, which keeps the wage-rate low even as labour productivity increases. Since the ratio of wage-rate to labour productivity is nothing else but the share of wages, this share decreases, and the share of those who live on the surplus (i.e. non-wage income), typically the rich and the professional classes, increases. Without a balance of power between labour and capitalists, wages remain low and working conditions deteriorate. Last year's survey had showed that “India's top 1% of the population now holds 73% of the wealth while 67 crore citizens, comprising the country's poorest half, saw their wealth rise by just 1%” (Business Today, January 23, 2018).
           Economic inequality and poverty lead to corruption. People who belong to the economically upper class have so much power that they exploit the poor people. The Guptas can get Kamla arrested as the power lies in their hands. Police and other bureaucrats and politicians will also act according to the Guptas just because they have the power and the capital. Another dark side of economic inequality and poverty is violence. Every now and then we come across descriptions of violence in the novel and quite interestingly it has been shown as something ‘normal’ just to show how all these things are intermingled in our society. Everyday Chander drinks alcohol, comes back home and beats his wife. The lines are :- “Chander drank often and beat her [Kamla] up. This was pretty common, she [Kamla] knew. Men often beat up their wives. It was a matter of routine, nothing personal. It shouldn’t have worried her.” (Bajwa 152). Then again when Kamla gets arrested and is taken to the police station: -
“While they [the Guptas] were having dinner, Kamla was being raped by the two policemen who had brought her in. Then, one of the policemen, a married man, went home to his wife, while the other stayed back, drinking cheap rum and listening to film songs on the radio, hoping to have another go at Kamla in the morning before letting her leave.
Next morning, Kamla tottered out and went back home.” (Bajwa 170-171).
What Bajwa has successfully portrayed here is the relation between globalisation, neoliberal capitalism, economic inequality, corruption, violence and an underlying frustration and how these things are normalised in our society.
           The “uncouth-looking woman” who stands at the front gate of the Guptas’ house shouting “You are responsible for all this. You are responsible for our misery” can be seen as the voice of protest of the economically lower class against capitalism and globalisation.(Bajwa 167). But like always this voice has been muted. Interestingly there is not much difference between the woman who is outside the house (who is not allowed to enter into this bourgeoisie space) and the woman who is inside it. Bajwa points out that there is not much difference between both the women thereby highlighting yet another important issue – the position of women in the twenty first century India. Kamla is an “uncouth-looking woman with dishevelled hair”, belongs to a lower class, drinks alcohol, uses ‘very bad words’ whereas Shilpa is the ‘good’ daughter-in-law of the Guptas. Apart from these basic differences their roles in their in-laws’ house remain same – they weren’t expected to go out and work and were expected to bear children soon after their marriage, hopefully a boy. In fact the women we have come across in this novel more or less have the same role to play – to look after their household and children and to shop for the weddings. This is not to deny that they are not part of the power politics. Within this bourgeoisie household there is an on-going power struggle which is exemplified in the character of Shilpa. Giving birth to a boy “would forever consolidate her position in the family.” (Bajwa 166).
           We do come across some ‘independent’, ‘modern’, ‘educated’ woman but Bajwa has brought them under her sharp attack too. First of all we have Rina Kapoor who publishes her own novel. Interestingly the protagonist is based on the character of Ramchand. It is the story of a shop assistant in a sari shop who with the help of a sadhu gets his dream girl. Happy Ending. This is Bajwa’s take on how the educated woman and her story is far removed from the reality. Similarly Mrs Sachdeva, Head of the English Department at a local college, fails to live up to her so-called ideals when told the reality by Ramchand; the reality of what the ‘respectable people’ have done with Kamla. She does not want to get dragged into “horrible, filthy things” as she is a ‘respectable’ person. She fails to accept the reality. Through her character Bajwa criticises the academia that discusses theories and various –isms but fails to incorporate them into their lives and how the academia is also far removed from the reality.
           Thus the actual walls (i.e. colonialism) that had once surrounded the city (India) had fallen away long ago, but the ghosts of the wall (neoliberal capitalism, globalisation, neo-colonialism) still separated the old city from the newer one. Money, congestion and noise danced an eternal, crazy dance here together, leaving no moving space for other, gentler things.

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