Rupa Bajwa at the launch of The Sari Shop in Italian
Rupa Bajwa’s first book, The Sari Shop, about a young man watching his dreams slowly die away, was a tautly written, clear-eyed perfect little story. In it, Bajwa showed she had a rare eye for the tragedy that hides under the mask of the everyday, and that she knew the trick of finding and reproducing the little gesture that opens a deep vista into a character’s inner life. Its relentless close focus and small cast of characters, recreated the claustrophobia of the protagonist’s life superbly.
Tell Me A Story starts beautifully, with only a tiny alarm prompted into ringing by the subtitle: A Moving Tale of Loss and Hope. Rule One of book subtitling: never tell the reader how to react to a book: telling them it’s a ‘moving tale’ will get most of ’em to dig their heels in. The first scene, with Rani sprinting to close a window, overlays a freshness and sense of youth upon ominous signs that present themselves: the cracks in the walls bulging with monsoon dampness, the chipped nail polish on Rani’s fingers, both of which are going to be significant. For a while we walk with Rani as she goes through her day, looking after her nephew, splashing to work under a borrowed umbrella, working all day in a small and stifling beauty parlour, then coming home to Shah Rukh Khan on their tiny TV. Her father, the only adult in her family who truly cares for her, reproaches her for not studying further when she had the brain and determination for it; what Rani doesn’t tell him is that she was thrown out of school for telling a story. Not lying, but telling a proper story, a distinction lost on the authorities. She is caned, humiliated, and shown without doubt that her talents are unwanted. She drops out.
Her ability to look down avenues of other lives is still on, though packed up rather small, unable to be heard above the cacophony of home, street and parlour. It ambushes her at odd moments, such as when she takes her nephew to the Ram Lila, and has a sudden vision of what really happens when effigies of Ravana and his henchmen are burned.
Rani has the deep sight of an instinctual storyteller: she can jump out of her own head and into someone else’s, if only for a short spell, and can experience their past and future lives as a flash of insight. Given that lives around her are seldom happy, this does not make for much peace of mind. Her father, a gentle, meditative man from whom she clearly gets her story-seeing powers, declines before her eyes as their shabby genteel lives chip away at his mental health. She tries ineffectually to save him, because she knows where his story is headed, but like most seers, is scoffed at until it’s too late. Bajwa brings out Rani’s frustration and helpless sentience beautifully.
The book then hinges on a crucial event that catapults Rani out of her world and into Delhi’s literary circles, albeit as a maid, not a storyteller. This is where things get a little shaky. The transition to the demi-monde is brutal and abrupt, but unfortunately it makes us lose the careful interiority in Rani’s voice that till now Bajwa has built up so well. Rani stands aside as Page 3 people party and be themselves; the sophistication of their presentation is not Rani’s but her creator’s, and here the authorial voice becomes a little intrusive, hanging in the air.
The character of Sadhna, the novelist who hires Rani, remains flat and unengaging, and their female solidarity a little contrived. Although Rani does in fact tell more stories in Delhi than in Amritsar, they seem to her somewhat lifeless, and she longs for her old audience, her nephew Bittu. She even pauses at the usual places, as if expecting his comments or questions. These city people don’t know how to listen, not even Sadhna who is wrapped up in trying to write her second book. In fact, storytelling deserts Rani in Delhi. This is frustrating, because I for one was hoping Bajwa would give us a tender, painstaking examination of what it would be like for a talented storyteller to be born in a lower middle class household and have to carve out the life of an independent woman. While this item is on the agenda, it is by no means Bajwa’s first priority. The other things she is trying to do, like satirise Delhi’s pathetic intellectual culture, just don’t fit. In any case, running a stake through the hearts of the Sashas of the world is a rather unworthy objective for a talent like Bajwa’s.