A genuinely unsophisticated tone sets the book apart.
Rupa Bajwa's new novel is for all of us who have wondered what goes in the heads of the uniformed maidens who pumice our heels and trim our split ends while we ourselves sink into a trance. It is an unblinking portrait of a young woman of Amritsar who works at home before she comes in for her shift at a beauty parlour, and works after she goes home, without a firm place in her family and with little joy in her life.
Rani lives with her aged father and her brother and his wife and son. These are stock characters from countless Hindi movies. The father has high thoughts that somehow justify handing his life's savings to a glib friend with a hard-luck story while his family has no money to fix the roof. The brother slogs in a powerloom factory all day and spends his evenings hanging out with his friend in an electric shop. The sister-in-law snarks at everyone all day. Her chubby boy is ever on the lookout for his next laddoo and ever clamouring for just one more story from Rani at bedtime. Then there is the small world of the beauty parlour, run by a boss who makes a grand appearance to draw the customers while she frantically counts costs after hours.
Then there is Rani, silent, affectionate, just keeping her head above water. Rupa Bajwa writes in an unpretentious, small-town English perfectly suited to her unpretentious, small-town heroine. The author's tone is not faux naif, it's genuinely unsophisticated. Like any young woman, Rani feels sheltered in her family, despite daily sulks and accusations over money. She invests her time and affections at home, hands over her earnings, takes loving care of her nephew and looks after her neglected father. When, after her father's death, she hears her brother and sister-in-law talk about marrying her off, with no suggestion that she is anything other than a burden, only she is surprised. The reader knows that even if it had been her own mother and father, the conversation would have been the same.
Rani is far from helpless, however, and she moves to Delhi to work as a maid. It is a social decline, in her eyes, but she has realised the futility of her attachment to her brother and his family. By the time she takes the train out of Amritsar, we are fully invested in her life and eager to know what will happen next.
Bajwa picks up the story with Sadhna, a novelist who is laid up in a plaster cast. Sadhna has written one successful novel and then discovered publishing in Delhi to be an industry of hype and unreal expectations. When Rani comes to work at Sadhna's house, between her shrinking sensitivities and the novelist's respectful reticence, the two women take a long time to understand each other.
Nothing in Delhi pleases Rani, though she has left behind such an unsympathetic home. In Amritsar she was enamoured of Shah Rukh Khan, but she has a visceral contempt for the phonies she runs into in Sadhna's house. She resents the casual throwing about of money when whole families sink for want of small sums. In her eyes we too see the futile and repulsive behaviour of the idle moneyed class for what it is.
And is there a success story in Rani's future? Will her plain bedtime tales somehow dovetail with Sadhna's half-written second novel and bring them both fame? By the time we have travelled any distance with this ruthlessly straightforward woman, we can hope for her future only strictly what she wants.
Tell Me a Story, Rupa Bajwa, Picador India, 2012, p.204, Rs. 499.