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Review: Tell me a story

books Updated: May 25, 2012 14:04 IST

Upala Sen, Hindustan Times
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Tell me a story

Rupa Bajwa

Picador India

Rs.499 pp 204

Almost eight years ago I read Rupa Bajwa’s The Sari Shop. Young author, erstwhile journalist, fine debut novel long-listed for the Orange Prize … all that buzz and then I never heard of another book again. So when I got a copy of Tell Me A Story, I tore into it rather greedily.

The title of Bajwa’s book is a fond refrain rolling down centuries, common to childhoods across the world. Come to think of it, it is really an open-sesame equivalent, a password to a fantastic tale, an improbable world.

Tell Me A Story the book, however, lets us into a very ordinary world. Rani is a class nine-dropout who lives in a crumbling old house in Amritsar with her father Dheeraj Kumar and her brother Mahesh’s family. By day she works at Eves Beauty Parlour for Ladies, by night she is her eight-year-old nephew Bittu’s storyteller. In between, she is a regular 22-year-old.

The fantastic courts description, it is the commonplace that fights shy of words. Dheeraj Kumar pouring out a glass of water with his trembling hands or Rani at work twisting the nylon thread around her finger and creating a perfect arch of a pair of eyebrows might be insignificant acts in themselves, but the emotions underlying have the vibrancy of an opera.

And just as Rani keeps stirring the thin potato gravy till the vegetable is done, Bajwa’s narrative technique, painstakingly detailed and exacting to a fault, ekes out the flavour of countless such diminutive moments and acts that constitute everyday life. Her restrained telling is reminiscent of Kamala Markandaya’s work.

The second half of the book sees Rani moving to Delhi, where she takes up a job as the writer Sadhna’s domestic help. In comparison to the chunky 130-page first book, the second book is thin at 70 pages, a trifle abrupt, somewhat like Rani’s own stories. The odd shape seems to mimic the unbalanced and evolving equation between urban India and her ‘country cousins’.

For Amritsar girl Rani, the markers of urban India are film stars, beauty products, film magazines. For Sadhna’s air-kissing, pizza party-throwing swish acquaintances, small-towns are places that churn out domestic helps. But for every P3P type a la Pradipto Ghosh who likes the subaltern (in this case Rani) better under the microscope, there is a Sadhna who recognises Rani for what she is: a spirited young woman with “gentler sensibilities”.

The book is an important comment on the single woman. In most contemporary writing, the single woman is a derivative of Bridget Jones or Carrie Bradshaw tackling man problems or fighting body image issues.

Bajwa’s Rani and Sadhna are single women who are also regular people. They shop and dress up, but are not made-up; they have their little love interests, but man-hunt is not their holy grail; they love their work but work alone does not define them.

When Pradipto Ghosh tries to typecast them, Sadhna protests: “We are just being ourselves…just telling our own stories.”