Rupa Bajwa

Courage in clarity

A deserving winner of the Sahitya Akademi Award
by Roopinder Singh

THE voice on the phone said: “Am I talking to Rupa Bajwa’s mother? Rupa has won the Sahitya Akademi Award.”

Mrs Rajwant Bajwa had taken such calls in the past, but this was special. Bajwa was being recognised in her own country. The young author of The Sari Shop would have been the toast of the literary world, if only they could find her.

The Amritsar-born author likes to communicate through her writing—her book, and sometimes her articles when she feels compelled to respond to issues that strongly move her.

Bajwa’s The Sari Shop is set in Amritsar, and the protagonist, Ramchand, works in a sari shop in the old city. His interaction with his customers and his attempts to better himself are skilfully captured in the novel, which has won high literary praise and has been a bestseller in the UK, the US and in India. The book has been translated into most European languages, including French, Portuguese, Italian, Dutch, Greek and Spanish.

The Sari Shop (published 2004) is a realistic work that holds a mirror to society, and ultimately, to all of us who comprise that society

Bajwa did her schooling in Amritsar, where her mother taught for many years till her retirement. Her father, Swarn Singh Bajwa was an SE with the Punjab State Electricity Board and they settled down in Amritsar.

The following are the excerpts from an exclusive interview:

What was your immediate response, when you got to know that you have won the Sahitya Akademi Award in English 2006?

I was very surprised. I was under the impression that older and more experienced writers received this award.

The Sahitya Akademi Award has come after you won international honours like the Grinzane Cavour Prize for Young New Authors, and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize 2005 for Best First Book (Eurasia Region). How do you feel about getting honoured in India after being celebrated internationally?

It carries a certain meaning because I wrote about my people, about the world I grew up in. I wrote in response to my own society, even though I do believe that human nature remains essentially the same everywhere. And so, being acknowledged by people from this society is definitely important and satisfying. At the same time, it is humbling.

What role have your parents played in your being a writer?

They let me be. In a fairly conservative and blinkered social environment, they gave me space. I cannot say much, though I deal with words. Words would be inadequate to express the unconditional acceptance and strength that my parents and siblings gave me. By example, they gave me invaluable lessons in not taking worldly success seriously, at the same time respecting it. Lessons in courage. In retaining dignity under all circumstances. In being the same in the face of success and failure. As I said, words are not enough here.

How would Ramchand feel about “his” book becoming so famous?

I don’t know. I don’t think the famous part would matter to him if the things that pained him remain the same. That is the kind of person he is.

How is your next book progressing? Would you like to tell our readers about it?

I had a couple of false starts with my second novel. A first novel makes you naively believe that you have found your voice, that you can ‘manage’. The second novel made me realise there will always be new hurdles. Each time will be a fresh struggle. I have finished the first draft of my second novel. It still needs to be worked on.

What is it that really upsets you about life?

Apart from the external chaos, I think my own shortcomings, mistakes I have made, both as a person and a writer (though I can’t really separate the two) bother me. But I am learning.

What makes you truly happy?

Truth, love, humour, wisdom, work, peace, freedom…I could go on. Human beings are quite greedy.

What do you feel is the most important thing in writing?

All of the above. But yes, honesty is extremely important. An ability not to just see the world as it is, but also to look at yourself clearly, at your own flawed being, and go on from there. A writer cannot map a society, people, human lives, times, anything, till she can map herself honestly. Criticism of society is incomplete till you learn to criticise and implicate yourself. And when I say criticism, I mean clarity — criticism without the negative connotations that the word carries. As a writer, you cannot effectively hold up a mirror to society unless you learn the courage to hold up the same mirror to yourself, and face your own image, complete with flaws.

When do we expect to see Rupa Bajwa’s next book?

Very soon, I hope.

Published in The Tribune, January 11, 2007.