Never judge a book by its cover. Sari Caste seems to have been published by a no-longer-existent ebook website (E-booksonline (UK) Ltd – http://www.e-booksonline.net) back in 2001 and then forgotten. I picked it up on a stall in Darjeeling, carried it back to England with me, still unread, not very optimistic about it, but intrigued by the title. It was a phrase I had come across before. It can mean women in general. Or it can mean hookers, prostitutes: their own name for themselves, because of course, to everyone else they have lost caste, are outcastes. And anyway, the phrase “sari caste” would be considered a great joke, chortle, chortle.
Then I started reading it one boring English Sunday, and was hooked. (Sorry.) Manasa, our heroine, has a drunken father, a broken, abused mother, three sisters and no brother. Daughters mean dowries (legal or not) and the father, who hates the four of them, especially Manasa, and blames the mother for giving him no son, drinks away what little money he earns. Finally, the two eldest are married off but there is no more money for further dowries. Manasa, the third daughter, is sent to work as a weaver in a cotton-mill, and there she gets to know the son of the owner. They fall in love. We’ll get married! cries Patap, the boy. We can’t! No money for a dowry! cries the girl, Manasa. He doesn’t care. His father is rich and dowries are illegal. After that, of course, she allows him to seduce her – only to hear, later, that he is engaged not to her but to her younger sister, Kajal. The fathers had arranged it. And now Manasa has to work even longer hours at the mill earning to get together a dowry for her sister!
But it turns out she is pregnant.
When the baby is born, her mother gives her some of Kajal’s dowry money and she flees the house before her father comes home and learns of her defilement and throws her out.
She goes to Calcutta where, after a period living on the pavements among all the other street people, she becomes a prostitute. And that is what the book is about. Her life as a prostitute in Calcutta. And it is good, very good, and very realistic, believe me.