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Woman And Social Class

By Sarabjit K.

15 February, 2005

Feminist enterprise has been so far a long struggle to universalize female behaviour, their common tales of woe and sufferings under realms of patriarchy and male oppression. Be it a question of rewriting of male texts or parametering of social structure, the set pattern of feminist view point has been struggle against androcentric ethics and female sensitivity in bonding, analysing and understanding each other universally. Nowhere have women been set against women, only men have been peeled, chopped and even roasted in certain instances.

In Indian context, the fashion in writing and criticism, pertains to this noveau feminism in vocal,visual and literary form. Roopa Bajwa, the young girl from Amritsar and brave I must say, has dare set in a different view point with her text, The Sari Shop. The title itself is a potent symbol of Indian womanhood and all traditional and modern idiosyncrasies associated with it. This is Roopa Bajwa's debut work, and she bangs in a time when Jhumpa Lahiri, Shani Motoo, Anita Nair and other young brigade is all over the scene. But she has a different identity of a smalltown like Amritsar, an image like Sari to unfurl, and a separate story than immigrant culture tale, and a separate woman to portray- an Indian woman, a wounded woman, a raped woman, a woman who dares against women, woman who assumes the status of an actual heroine/ role model when she pulls down glitters from fabrics of rich and suave feminist minds by poking fun at their miserableness of being hollow inside. Bajwa has presented in all its nakedness the common psychic inheritance of Indians' regarding women and the psychic makeup of women in general.

The continuous assessment all over the world has been of women as important as men but no evaluation of womens' position in society with other women. The enigma of plural societies like India, which face more social, political and cultural cleavages, is complex and uneasy to differentiate.

The feminisation of media especially T.V. has brought a new cult of upper upper or upper middle class bourgeois woman, obliterating our mind of the crude statistics of women facing unto untouchability, oppression, below poverty line (bpl status), unemployment graphs, illiteracy or ignorance factors, rising suicides, molestation, violence, rape etc etc.

The embellished make believe world has bypassed our awareness of internal and external social system in terms of caste, creed, race, colour, ethnicity, religion and now with emerging social class. Though class in Indian context is not a new signifier, but Is the Indian writer in English especially woman writer aware of interclass struggle, class division, class oppression, class-consciousness and class solidarity among women themselves? The uniformity of biological status among women can't ignore rational, social, political and economic differences, where she is a different class from the other. So, there are 'fault lines' emerging among perceived feminist notions and theories, the fancied 'equality manifesto' not with men but with women in general seems itself 'unequal' in theory and reality. The Sari Shop is a work whererepresentations of different Indian woman is given due analyses on the basis of numerous hybrid and heterogeneous class groups. The rationalisation of status and class adds to discrimination between and women and women and is discussed in terms of dominant
and subordinate category. Frank Parkin has observed in the book 'Sociology of Gender':

"For the great majority of women the allocation of ocial and economical rewards is determined primarily by the position of their families and, in particular, that of the male head. Although women today share certain status attributes in common, simply by virtue of their sex, their claims over resources are not primarily determined by their own occupation but, more commonly, by that of their fathers or husbands. And if the wives and daughters of unskilled labourers have something in common with the wives and daughters of wealthy landowners, there can be no doubt that the
differences in their overall situation are far more striking and significant. Only if the disabilities attaching to female status were felt to be so great as to override differences of a class kind would it be realistic to regard sex as an important dimension of stratification."(Parkin, 1971,pp, 14-15)

The delineated female characters in Sari Shop are better halves of someone rich and famous or somebody affluent and known. They are no entities in themselves. The novelist has called them all Mrs
Sachdeva/ Kapoor/ Bhandari/ Gupta or the other. They have no name and identity of their own. It is all borrowed from husband's hierarchy and tradition. The feminist concern should embark on this hired
'image-identity bargain' of upper-upper class woman. For Kamla, the drunk, mad , ruffian sari assistant Chander's wife the title is not Mrs. Chander anywhere but Chander's wife or that charred Kamla, 'the mad woman in the attic' kind.

Bajwa introduces a gallery of female characters, all distinct and apart in style, language, mannerism, ideology and in particular how they choose a sari, admire its texture, colour and fabric and fancy it wearing them. Mrs Sandhu wife of a chief engineer in Punjab State Electricity Board , epitomises 'power psychology' "as her rolls of fat jiggled as she waddled"into her spotless house, furnished with latest gadgetry and fashionable architectural feature. Her picture perfect frame is summed up as " A beautiful house, status family, a caring husband and good looks... what more could a woman ask for." (Sari Shop, pp 13)

Mrs Gupta the wife of a wealthy industrialist sits in her bedroom on a large bed covered with a peach satin bedspread, reminding of the "burnished throne"(A game of chess, The Waste land, T.S. Eliot). Her unusual, 'perky' and 'over confident manner' smelled through her room beaming of various loreal cosmetics, lakme, and her recent venture with feng shui, established her as another consumerist character. Mrs Sachdeva, Head of the English Deptt. at a local college, "liked to look plain and businesslike". She felt she "wasn't one of the idle housewives that this city was so full of. She was a literate woman" after all.

Mrs Bhandari, wife of the DIG of Police, who took pride in calling herself a 'social activist', 'spoke perfect English, had an unerring taste in clothes and any party that she organized was bound to be success.' was another straw brilliantly sketched by Bajwa. And then rich Ravinder Kapoor's wife and daughter, who had at one go, bought pashmeena shawls worth 10 lakhs, had enough of money and poise to astonish any millionaire in the town.

The personal likings and dislikings of women also rest on these social gimmicks. Mrs Kapoor dislikes Mrs Sachdeva the 'ordinary professor-type service class' women, coming to their mansioned house.

Mrs Sandhu finds Mrs Bhandari 'snooty', may be because 'her English is so good', but her heaven of peace lies in the fact that 'Bhandari's are certainly not very rich and have only daughter still not married.'

The social nature of women is exposed in the eyes of Ramchand at times narrator, sufferer and omniscient observer with critical eye of a psychologist who peeps into their minds, hypocrisies, values and life style for "he had watched innumerable women choose saris He had seen variety, he had seen envy he had seen despair. He knew well the bitterness of a plain woman wordless triumph of the beautiful ones". (Sari Shop pp 63)

He finds in Mrs. Kapoor "a certain ruthlessness in the way she picked up a sari, ran a sharp eye a sharp eye over it and had glint in eyes before making up mind".. Among the various sari images created by the author, the imagery used in describing women of different classes picking up the right sari is amazing to see. And in all the cases, Ramchand is made to observe and feel the things, sometimes with Prufrockian uneasiness and sometimes with moralisings of Tiresias.

Mrs Sachedeva the literate woman, Head of an English Department, likes dullish colours in choosing a sari, symbolic of her argument to stay apart from homogenisation with other females. The gorgeously decked up Rina Kapoor as bride dazzles Ramchand with her laughter and the way she sweeps the marble staircase regally with her bridal outfit leaves him spellbound.

The sari imagery reflects both beauty and ugliness of life real and reel. The 'rust red, blood red stains on Kamla's purple sari' and vomit stains on her blouse after her rape and violence become a profound motive for Ramchand to avenge her wrong. The sari image is convulsed, decontrolled and deconstructed with masterly superbness & intensity of pathos. After Kamla's death, the place inside the sari shop turned claustrophobic and grave, saris flew out at Ramchand whipping around 'engulfing him like a shroud' its black border suffocating him as if coercing him to take stock of situation and bear the burden of a saviour, a role which nature had imposed on him. Marxist/ socialist feminism rests on the creed of woman as tertiary consumer and primary producer in society, be it producing offspring in the womb or cooking and cleaning or reproducing and writing. The theorization and over theorisation has destabilized the whole system of study and epistemology, regarding women. The debate has rested more on patriarchy in every form and subordination of woman by it. Women's rights, demands and desires have reverberated all the corners by now. Rape, violence, prejudice and household inequities have become highly contested issues among women on behalf of women. The cumulative effect of publicising deficiency in social system for deprived women by affluent and economic advancement by few has generated a 'cultural lag' between the two, in which the basic values are eroded or changed for two groups and practically even in the name of feminism no cultural and intellectual intermixing is viable.

I see this onslaught of global capitalist consumerist culture on Indian scene in light of Roopa Bajwa's Sari Shop, which is a fine mimicking of welfare feminism. The class solidarity among opulent group of Mrs. Sandhu, Mrs Sachdeva, Mrs. Kapoor and types is empowered by class consciousness which they feel and generate by ignominious and condescending values to 'have nots'. The Sari Shop explains the meaning of existence in spheres of capitalism, chaos and conflict, when women themselves have fell a prey to consumerism. In the words of Ram Chand, the shop assistant :

"Life was grubby, clumsy, mean, flabby andmeaningless.. Sick, sick, sick," (The Sari Shop, pp 111) enough to remind Burning Burning Burning Burning of Eliot's waste land.

The Sari of Indian woman is exploited maximum as a potent metaphor, a vehicle for all kind of feminine expression. Sari is a symbol of womanhood and courtesy, but it also constraints their movements and gait, providing a negative implication of concept and The Sari Shop would be a fit and plausible metaphor of restricted and reserved life, compartmentalized thoughts, associated with various women groups, a fine camouflage behind which all the actual selves remain mystified. Hordes of women visited it daily, some as a part of routine activity which ended in cheap shopping bout at sari shop, some for weddings and parties, some need not visit, they could pedal saris some like Kapoors or some occasional visits by sombre lecturers like Mrs Sachdeva etc. The idiosyncrasies and oddities
of women in choosing a sari or touching it brings out their common shared shopping idiocy. The pervading tone of buying, bargaining and spending sums a bizarre sentiment of meaninglessness in life, which Ramchand feels as "Money. Congestion and noise danced an eternal, crazy dance here together, l---eaving no moving space for other gentler things." (Sari Shop, pp, 5)

The remarkable thing is why only Ramchand, the traditionally unfair male protagonist is forced into the situation, to save, revolt and protest moved by helplessness and misery of the rape victim. For it is Ramchand who instead of getting numbed by social pressure and worldliness remarks, " What constant injustice! What a warped way of living! How wrong it all was! He felt reckless, strong enough to do anything, fight anyone for justice, for truth." (Sari Shop pp 222)

The two women rich, intellectual and powerful Ramchand chooses to narrate Kamla's story for 'more importantly they were women' are enraged by 'the whole ugly, sordid, jigsaw story.' This breakdown of
gynocentric world in which women can't live in perfect harmony and friendship with each other for their double standards or sub standards is alarming! Mrs. Sachedeva pushes away the Saris on her lap and speaks in clenched teeth, "I don't want to listen to all that rubbish again that too in Hindi.How dare you. tell me filthy stories about the kind of women you seem to know". Thus, women overdo and cut each other to size, especially the pearl faced, upper-upper intelligentsia who find bonding with women of their class only, and not with women of Ramchand's social class type. The gynocentric view is made complete by shooting arrows not only in the direction of men, but also women who are mimicked for their false Anglo-rational feminist, ideals adored and adopted so naturally only to turn deaf to the cries of a marginalized soul for help. A woman is oppressed by women for their tacit understanding of not understanding her plight. Kamla is belied, betrayed and berated by class of her own sex whereas a lone male cries for her existence, her voice, emotion and identity.

Kamla the wronged, robbed, and raped women becomes a symbol and prototype of emancipation and individuality, though, she says and does things theatrically in a Schizophrenic manner, but it is the will of weaker woman, which overrules the high handedness of society ladies. The quagmire of assaults she bears throws a neon light on abyss of women's agony at the hands of women, envisioning true feminist to embark on a revolutionary struggle in terms of class conflict among women. Thus a better study lies in giving micro attention to axis of social constructs intertwined with gender and synthesising feminist dogmas with socio-cultural dimensions.

Works cited
1.Bajwa, Roopa.2004.The Sari Shop. New Delhi:Penguin

2. Johnson,HarryM.An Introduction to Sociology

3.Khushwant Singh.2004.This Above All.The Tribune

4.Lodge & Wood.2003.Modern Criticism & Theory.Pearson

5.Rege, Sharmila.2003.Sociology of Gender.New
Delhi:Sage Publications

Mrs. Sarabjit K. is a
Lecturer ,Deptt. of English
Guru Nanak Girls College,
Model Town,











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