Rupa Bajwa's first novel, The Sari Shop, recounts the daily routines of Ramchand, a 26-year-old sales assistant. Bored with the endless round of teashops, tandooris and Mumbai movies in Amritsar, Ramchand works on his English with self-help books, and dreams of a more rewarding future. Bajwa evokes small-town life of the sort you rarely find in Indo-English novels from several perspectives, in precise, unpretentious prose and an accretion of details: the dish of the day at the foodstall, the gaudy fabrics and gewgaws girls and housewives buy from the local markets, Hindi detective fiction, the idiosyncracies of an English textbook written by an Indian, the lush locales of the latest Bollywood blockbuster, complete with translations of songs.
Also in Amritsar live the rich Kapoors, whose educated and political daughter Rina Ramchand encounters when she comes to buy her wedding saris from his shop. Ramchand, enraptured by this incursion of glamour, gatecrashes her wedding. Rina returns to visit him with a random excuse. Some months hater, she launches her first novel: it is her embellished version of the humble shop assistant's life.
The contrast between life and its literary representations would, explored in more depth, have been an interesting subject. But Bajwa's gentle ironies and muted humour give way to darker preoccupations. Kamla, the difficult wife of one of Ramchand's colleagues, maddened by her husband's fecklessness and propensity for rum, also takes to the bottle and drunkenly attempts to undermine the town hierarchies. Her rebellion is predictably ineffective. Stories of police brutality and rape, linked also to the earlier oppression and massacre of the town's Sikh population during Mrs Gandhi's rule, are uncovered. Ramchand attempts to reveal these injustices to his rich clients; he too is muzzled and, after a period of rebellion, returns, defeated, to the dull securities of his life.
Bajwa's switch from gentle comedy to social commentary doesn't entirely work. Her blend of compassion and detachment is unsuited to melodrama. Though her depiction of the ugly undercurrents of Indian life is genuinely disturbing, much of the tragedy takes place offstage. At her best in comic realism, she leaves a rich vein of satire unmined, allowing hopelessness, pessimism and capitulation to overtake the meagre possibilities of breakthrough in Ramchand's life.
The Sari Shop displays a natural affinity with the sort of pre-Rushdie domestic comedy associated with Narayan, Jhabvala and Anita Desai's In Custody. Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi's début novel, The Last Song of Dusk, is a far more exuberant performance, part of the post-magical realist trend in Indo-English fiction - with its fantasy, pastiche and satire, and tendency to turn every seed of imagination into a towering tree. Virtually a saga, its many characters are multi-national; its settings akin to the stylised depictions in Rajasthani miniatures.
Attempting to untangle its multiple strands can be a feat. At the centre there's the love story of Anuradha and Vardhmaan, replete with purple passages of passion. Their joy is blighted, at first by Vardhmaan's wicked stepmother, then by the death of their singing son in a tragedy from which Anuradha, though she does have another son, is unable to recover. Another strand is conected to the house where Anuradha and husband seek refuge from step-mummy's ire. A flashback reveals that this where a faithless Maharajah's English (male) lover died of grief. The house itself is malign, or so Anuradha thinks as she bargains with it to spare the life of her second child: the oddly-named Shloka.
Though the novel is set in Bombay in colonial times, that city and those times are chronicled with postmodern anachronisms: the artists, models, movie stars and posturing socialites seem to come from contemporary movie magazines. Even the many British presences seem less concerned with colonial subjugation than preoccupied with India as exotic source of gratification. Two of these - Sherman and Perceval, the Bombay governor's son - are drawn to the artist and superwoman Nandini (who has feline blood). Nandini chooses one over the other, probably for reasons of power and prestige. But eventually, like Shloka, she leaves for foreign lands.
Shanghvi's extravagant prose teems with adjectives, adverbs, personifications (December, for example, opens its eyes) and descriptions of lovemaking, women's bodies and male bottoms. This and other excesses can be tiresome, but the novel also has a naive and hopeful quality, like a performance by a precocious child dressed up in a hybrid uniform: part clown's costume, part drag.
Aamer's Hussein's 'Turquoise' is published by Saqi BooksReuse content