Book Review

The Sari of Surya Vilas by Vayu Naidu

--Isha Aggarwal

Publisher: Speaking Tiger

Genre: Historical Fiction

Extent: 224 pp

Price: Rs 299

A ‘performance storyteller of oral traditions’, Vayu Naidu in her latest work, The Sari of Surya Vilas combines historical narrative with oral storytelling tradition to weave a fascinating tale of women of Surya Vilas. Set in the colonial India of 1909 and Victorian England of 1857, the novel brings forth a personal tale of a generation of women whose histories are woven into a sari with ‘family secrets, betrayals and promises.’

Set in a zamindar household of Surya Vilas, the story revolves around a nine year old girl, Allarmelu and her life in Surya Vilas along with a vivid cast of characters – a family patriarch, spinster aunts and an uncle. Chellamma, the family matriarch, while dying, leaves behind a family heirloom for Allarmelu – a ‘wedding sari that her mother and grandmother had worn before her.’ However, the sari passed down from mother to daughter is a fake without the ‘smell of sandalwood and frankincense mixed with turmeric.’

Tracing back the origins of sari and family history, the narrative moves back in time to the 1857 British India where sari looms are burned on the Coromandel Coast and weavers are butchered and murdered and their history is erased. Amongst this plunder and bloodshed, another young girl named Chandrika is converted to Christianity and shipped to Victorian England by the East India Company. However, journeying from one continent to another, she carries away with herself, her only connection to the past, a sari woven with her name immortalized in it.

The author with her unsurpassed skills builds a thrilling history around the sari and keeps the reader guessing how the same sari that has, travelling back from the Coromandel Coast to Victorian England, come back to the women of Surya Vilas. The sari is not just a heirloom woven in gold. For Allarmelu it is the symbol of immortality, the symbolic representation of her mother and the women before her who have come back to her from beyond.

The sari is her only connection with the generation of women that has preceded her; it was ‘a tapestry of time weaving a hidden history of womens’ genealogy’. In trying to claim back her birth right, to appropriate the wrong done to her, Allarmelu tries to avenge the wrong done to her mother, to weaving, and to the entire generation of women. Not just a history of sari, the book is also an ode to the lost art of weaving and the destruction of Indian arts by the English rule, ‘His greatest fear…must have been the rise of merchant supremacy displacing the role of art and the artisan.’    

Fluidly moving across time the author beautifully imbues the narrative with the cultural details of the 1900s Madras and the 1850s England. In using sari as a motif, the author traces the unrecorded history of the lost art of Indian weaving and the horrors unleashed by the British in 1857 upon the marginalized people across South India. In tracing the history of the lost sari, Allarmelu gives voice to the obliterated history of these weavers who fought against greed, ‘…and the grip of profit above Art’, and left their mark through their art.

With unseen twists and turns and a rapid movement across time, the book is a compelling read. In the words of Vayu Naidu, ‘The skill of a good storyteller lies in taking an alien story to an unknown audience, and making them feel it as if it is their own’ and she beautifully captures the imagination of the reader in her latest work.