It’s an interesting story unusually told. It is folded up like a scroll, and as you begin to unfold it, it reveals possibilities that you would not have initially suspected it off. It revolves around a sari belonging to the mother of Allarmelu, a child who is nine when the story begins and is 15 when it ends. Just before her untimely death, Allarmelu’s Chellamma had given her sari to Dharma, her brother-in-law, in order to have it darned.
Dharma, however, happened to lose it escaping after a rapid session of lovemaking with a Russian ballerina (Valentina) he was smitten by (who was also the mistress of his friend, Beppo).
Crestfallen by Chellamma’s death, Dharma brings back a sari, which Allarmelu identifies as an ‘imposter’. Determined to give the lie/mistake away (for she was unwilling to believe that her uncle was trying to fool them), she gets him to read the story of the sari, written by the foster daughter of the man who had woven it in a Tamil village, whose name was woven into the hemline of the sari in the guise of a design by the doting father.
The story ends with a somewhat hurried retrieval of the valued item in circumstances that would give even filmmakers of the ilk of Manmohan Desai a thing or two to think about. The tale is told against a fascinating tapestry of a wealthy upper-caste household in late-19th century Madras.
The attention that the author pays to minute details of an upper caste household is commendable. So long as the story revolves around Allarmelu and her Chellamma, the plot unfolds in an immensely credible manner—including how Chellamma decides to let her two widowed spinsters live a life less painful than most living under the cruel dispensation that existed for upper caste Hindu widows.
The plot wavers somewhat when we start plotting the journey of Chellamma’s sari, told by the girl who was adopted by the weaver Veerappan, who was killed during the great revolt of 1857.
The girl, Chandrika, was raped and carried away, then rescued, sent off to England with an English family, where she became associated with a project, and met another man from her village. The dictionary project takes her across the seas into America, where her life appears to be crashing around her and she decides to write the story of her life and couriers it to her fellow villager, who then somehow sends it back to India.
Her description of the Tamil countryside, of weavers who adopt a Muslim child without
a comment by anyone, is unconvincing if heartening. Her depiction of the weavers’ daughter’s life-journey through the prism of Allarmelu reminds one of Amin Maalouf’s Samarkand. Naidu makes a bold attempt in telling a story within a story. Unfortunately, she did not quite handle it as well as Maalouf.