This is a story about a pomegranate sari that weaves a swathe through the cosseted life of young Allarmelu. It was her mother Chellamma’s wedding sari and was damaged by brushing against the heavy ruby anklets that adorned her mother’s ankles. Dharma, the feckless young brother of the family, sees an opportunity to make a business killing and takes the sari, promising to return it as good as new. But the sari returns only after Chellamma’s dramatic death from unsuspected tuberculosis.
Vayu Naidu opens the book — The Sari of Surya Vilas — in the rich, lush environs of a zamindari house in Tamil Nadu. Everything drips with milk and honey and has a theatrical quality to it. The saris are silk, the canes have silver heads, there are grey-eyed Russian ballet dancers and picnics by the sea are banquets. There are of course the undercurrents — the zamindar’s two sisters are unmarried because one was widowed at 14 and the taint of bad luck clung to the other, Dharma’s mistress has just had a daughter but that cannot openly be spoken of. Naidu abruptly switches scenes without warning — Dharma finds himself in the trenches of World War I for a chapter and then returns with the sari unharmed. Except that Allarmelu realises that it is a counterfeit because a line of Tamil is missing from the weave.
A mysterious diary materialises in the library and now voices switch as well as scenes. Another woman whose name begins with C is seen against the backdrop of a British aristocratic home and through her story we discover the origins of the sari and the fact that 1857 took its toll in the weaving villages down South as well and was not just a Northern phenomenon. C’s story shifts between England and America and she finds escape from her secret hatred of the British in a quest for philology.
Chellamma is described in terms of rich poetry as a loving spirit but Allarmelu becomes a little difficult to visualise. The C who sails to America is willful but her future is obviously to start the South Indian diaspora in the New World and one has the feeling that this was put in for the benefit of readers abroad who would welcome an educated independent Indian woman hailing from an oppressed background.
Naidu has a rich eye for detail — her zamindari scenes, her account of a British household in the late nineteenth century, all these are lively accounts. The stories too are vivid with a hint of Scheherazade thrown in. However in the tangle of voices and locations, the sari somehow seems to take a backseat — though it and its motifs are frequently evoked.
Anjana Basu is the author of Rhythms of Darkness...