At the heart of this novel is an exquisite saree devoted to Saraswati, Hindu Goddess of knowledge, arts, science and culture. These six yards of fabric link six stories that traverse the globe and, in the final tale, binds them all together in a moving finale that is neatly and artfully woven from all the various threads.
Billed as a book about the enduring power of love, what I found most absorbing about SAREE is the way in which women’s relentless oppression is stitched into every seam of the fabric of society. From the daughters resented and outcast for not being sons, to the girls forced into sex work or domestic service, this is as much a story about the unyielding nature of inequality and injustice as it is about hoping to escape them.
SAREE opens with the story of downtrodden Nila, who has to fight years of familial neglect to be taken on as an apprentice at a Sri Lankan saree mill, where she meets the captivating saree draping teacher Guru Raju. But long running tensions between Tamils and Singhalese conspire to threaten her happiness and this first installment of the book ends in tragedy, with only Nila’s prize winning saree left of her dreams.
Next the story moves to a remote coastal village, where we meet Mahinda who is planning to turn his back on the opportunity of a university education as an engineer. Consumed by a promise he made to his now dead mother, Mahinda secretly cultivates silkworms and is overjoyed when he finally discovers how to extract their fibres without killing the moths in the silk cocoons. But his elation is short lived thanks to the betrayal of his best friend Vannan, which sees Mahinda forced to sell the silk he has laboriously spun in order to flee Tamil soldiers and the corpses of his remaining family members and neighbours.
Mahinda’s silk ends up woven into a priceless saree that hangs on the wall of the house where Pilar has worked for many years, whilst also raising her son Lacksman. The boy has grown up enjoying the attention of his mother’s employees, especially Shanthi and Raju, who are unable to have children of their own. In perhaps the most heartbreaking chapter of the book, Pilar ends up stealing the saree and using it to try to save her unborn daughter from abortion, a move which requires her to abandon Lacksman in the process.
Then we meet Sarojini who is a devadasi – a girl dedicated to a life of sex work in the name of religion. She yearns to find true love but struggles to escape the stigma of her profession until she meets a man who is similarly stigmatised and learns that happiness is a choice we make. One evening, dressed in a loaned saree, Sarojini captivates and enchants her lover’s friends but all he can see is red, prompting her to leave the security of his controlling patronage and strike out instead for the chance of freedom.
The saree then journeys from India to Australia, where it crosses the path of Madhav, a pious pundit who has rather lost his way and must rediscover the true meaning of his religion. He and the saree are supposed to have a starring role in a technicoloured pageant dedicated to Saraswati but Madhav has other plans, involving an attempt to heal the mental scars borne by an elderly worshiper at his temple and the physical ones inflicted on a young neglected local boy.
And finally, there’s Marion, a palliative care nurse by day and fabric painter by night. Loathed by her mother, Marion is broken by a life that’s never known love. Until that is, she meets Lacksman and the remarkable story of the saree becomes a backdrop to the stories of their pasts, presents and futures together.
Whilst I am left with a residual sadness at the way, even today, women and girls continue to be sold, beaten, raped and objectified, Dharmapala’s story telling is irresistible and carries you with it right to the last page. Coincidence plays a big part in weaving all the different narratives together but I can forgive that – and perhaps what seems like fate is in fact just the nature of the Sri Lankan diaspora. Richly embroidered and embellished, this is a lavishly imagined and gorgeously executed novel – I thoroughly recommend it.