Book Review by Somdatta Mandal
Title: Ladies Tailor: A Novel
Author: Priya Hajela
Seventy-five years after the Partition of India took place, the cataclysmic event on both sides of the country — in Bengal in the East and in Punjab in the West — has fuelled research on the trauma of migration, loss, and resettlement, and the interest in the theme is still proliferating today. It is interesting to note that apart from documentation through innumerable non-fiction and memoirs, stories of grim reality of the Partition as documented in stories by earlier writers like Sadat Hasan Manto or Khushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan, the interest on the theme remains unabated even today. The only difference now is that with the passage of time, writers are often relying on memory of the Partition as narrated by their ancestors firsthand, or through books, films and documentaries in a new sort of writing that blends fact and fiction and try to use the background events of migration and displacement into stories of resilience, grit, and people rebuilding their lives anew after crossing borders as refugees with even more stamina.
Priya Hajela’s debut novel Ladies’ Tailor is an attempt to recreate the story of the actual Sikh migration of her paternal grandparents Bakshi Pritam Singh (Papaji) and Beant Kaur (Biji) who left their home in Harial Gujarkhan (Pakistan) and made a new life in Ludhiana, Punjab. Dedicating the book to them, she mentions in the foreword how the places she has written about in the novel – Delhi, (Nizamuddin, Patel Nagar, Khan Market, Shahdara, Kingsway Camp), Lahore, Amritsar and Sukho are all real, but many elements are fictional. All these places provide the setting needed to tell the story, many details imagined and manipulated based on the needs of her characters. Ladies’ Tailor is a story that captures a setting and a group of characters that represent the immigrant and the refugee spirit, the optimistic spirit of never giving up on what you want and a spirit of adventure and entrepreneurship that to this day is the driving force in Delhi and Punjab.
The novel begins primarily with the protagonist Gurdev, a Sikh farmer who had deliberately moved from his parent’s house in Lahore to settle and work in a remote village called Sukho for ten years where all the religious communities lived in harmony and led peaceful lives. It took a lot of time for people to realize the Muslim-Sikh violence in the village that began around 1946 and that resulted in fear, hatred, insecurities as real and when large-scale massacres, butcheries, annihilation of entire clans, that was beyond Gurdev’s imagination happened, and he participated like everyone else. He made a brief visit to Delhi where he judiciously deposited cash with different people so that he could use it later. When he finally decided to migrate to India along with his wife Simrat and their two children, he could not convince his parents in Lahore to join them as they were determined never to leave Pakistan, the birthplace of their gurus.
After braving the horrific massacres and ordeals along the way, Gurdev landed up at Kingsway Camp in Delhi only to reach safety and find new problems ahead of him. Not only is he determined to make a fresh start for himself, his wife and sons, but he proves to be quite a meticulous, strategic planner and motivator for fellow refugees in the camp. Simran, the all-enduring and never complaining type of wife, turns sick and is admitted to the hospital and by the end of the ninth chapter, she silently disappears after that when Gurdev hands her some ornaments that his mother had given her. We don’t hear from her again as well as the two sons who accompany their mother.
Though taken aback, the indomitable Gurdev takes it all in his stride and tries to concentrate on his business and survival instincts. He befriends two sardars, Nirmal Singh, a Ladies’ Tailor, and Sangat Singh, and convinces them to start a business venture for readymade and customised garments of Khadi, an affordable hand-woven fabric preferred by women in the refugee camp and for those who wouldn’t like to wear British fabrics and wanted only ‘Made in India’ clothing. He sets up shop in the upcoming Khan Market, provided by the government in lieu of his land in Pakistan, forms a partnership with a trader in Shahadra to supply superior quality Khadi exclusively to them, and together the four of them start attracting a steady clientele, with Noor, a Muslim war widow from nearby Nizamuddin, as their brand ambassador. Hajela focuses on interfaith camaraderie with intricate details about how survival strategies result in Hindu-Muslim marriages and how names are changed to remain safe in the community.
The next move in the plot comes when Nirmal, the tailor, is somehow dissatisfied with the output because his clothes lack ornate embroidery work, a very important embellishment that used to make his outfits stand out across the border in Lahore. He wants a special sort of embroidery on their garments that was the kind crafted by two orphaned boys in Lahore, who he had nurtured like his own sons. Gurdev, the mastermind, plans a daring trip to Pakistan with Noor as his partner, to bring the two boys to Delhi for Nirmal and for their business to succeed. A complicated procedure begins with Gurdev cutting off his hair and shaving his beard to take on a new Muslim identity, and procuring a false passport, plans to visit Lahore along with Noor posing as his wife. This is where Hajela finds ample opportunity to implant a sort of interfaith romance and love relationship between the two of them. Once they arrive in Lahore, they take shelter in a Hindu man’s house and both of them feel trapped because Shakeela Begum, the mistress, seemed suspicious of their visit and itch to see them in jail. More complications arise with the driver Akbar and actual agents who keep on shadowing them.
Hajela’s narrative is full of intricate details, be it in the furniture, clothing, food, social mores, and other material objects that prevailed in the Indian subcontinent in the 1940’s and 1950s. She fills the novel with little details like how the cut of the ladies’ salwar could determine which side of the border you belonged to, differences between the taste of the same food in Delhi and Lahore, and how people on both sides believed that one day, when things settled down, they could go back to their homes. Noor’s shopping for glass bangles, jootis, and dupattas with Phulkariwork in the tiny stalls of Liberty Market and Anarkali acts as a camouflage for their real mission to trace the two young boys who excel in embroidery. The novelist describes things here in great details, especially with new problems arising each day. But with his survival instincts, Gurdev takes each stride adapting to the situation and his determination to overcome all odds and thrive with new beginnings remains praiseworthy.
Despite crowding the plot towards the end with too many ramifications, like suspicion, counter espionage, breach of trust, car chases, bribing people with American dollars, the protagonists are constantly shadowed by unknown people. Strange twists to the story occur where Gurdev manages to locate his aged parents forcibly living in the outhouse of their grand home in Lahore when they were assumed to have been burnt alive during the riots. The way Gurdev plans to cross over to India once again through a remote and lesser-known spot along the border by bribing people left and right with dollars sounds a bit contrived no doubt and it seems that Hajela wanted to put in too many imagined situations to make her book a page-turner till the end with ample amount of suspense like a mystery thriller. It celebrates the unvanquished spirit of the Punjabi refugees, who, using their skills and energy, made a success of their business. Fairly linear in narration, a lot is left to the imagination at the end and therefore the novel is a feel-good read that celebrates the human spirit’s victory in the face of terrible odds. Apart from narrating the lingering afterlife of the Partition, Hajela’s statement clarifies the mission of her writing quite clear — “It’s not what sets us apart but what brings us together that’s important. How we resist the forces that are intent on separating us is what defines us. How we recover from past transgressions is what carries us forward. Ladies’ Tailor takes a resolute look at stumbling and making amends, at holding close and letting go and at turning back in order to move on.”
 A type of folk embroidery of Punjab
Somdatta Mandal, critic and translator, is former Professor of English at Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan, India.
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