Ladies’ Tailor: A Partition tale of falling apart and coming together

Anuradha Kapoor | Updated on: Jul 01, 2022

Priya Hajela in her gripping novel about refugees, recreates an authentic imagery of the places, food, culture, dress, and social mores in the ‘40s and ‘50s in the subcontinent.

The partition of India 75 years ago still lives vividly in the memories of those who experienced it first hand and heard stories second hand from their parents or through the many books, films, documentaries, and most recently even a museum dedicated to the Partition in Amritsar.

Priya Hajela, the author of Ladies’ Tailor, uses the partition of India as the backdrop to tell the fictional story of Gurdev, a Sikh who travels from west Punjab, now Pakistan, with a group of refugees to Delhi, braving the horrific massacres and ordeals along the way, 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 two children, but he proves to be quite a meticulous, strategic planner and motivator for fellow refugees in the camp. He befriends two sardars, Nirmal, a Ladies’ Tailor, and Sangat, 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 don British fabrics and wanted only ‘Made in India’ clothing.

Along the way Gurdev’s wife, Simrat, suddenly disappears with the boys, leaving him baffled and alone. He, being the practical sort, takes it all in his stride, with his focus on getting the business off its feet.

He sets up shop in the upcoming Khan Market, provided by the government in lieu for his land in Pakistan, forms a partnership with a trader in Shahadra to supply superior quality Khadi exclusively to them, and together the foursome start attracting a steady clientele, with the feisty Noor, a war widow from nearby Nizamuddin, as their brand ambassador.

However, Nirmal, the tailor, is not completely satisfied with the output, his clothes lack the very important embellishment that used to make his outfits stand out across the border in Lahore, i.e. embroidery. And, the only embroidery Nirmal wanted on his garments was the kind crafted by two orphaned boys, who he had nurtured like his own sons, living in Lahore. Gurdev, the mastermind, plans a daring trip to the other side of the border with Noor as his partner, to bring the two boys to Delhi for Nirmal and for their business to succeed. Will Gurdev manage to do that?

Hajela, in the foreword to the book mentions her grandparents who, too, were refugees as her inspiration, and recreates an authentic imagery of the places, food, culture, dress and social mores in the 40s and 50s in the subcontinent. She peppers 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 samosa and jalebi 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.

Thankfully  Ladies Tailor is not a book about religion, though the writer does touch upon religious issues briefly, for example when Gurdev shaves off his beard and his long hair to don the disguise of a Muslim so as to visit Pakistan. Nirmal, his partner, is aghast at his sacrifice, but Gurdev reassures him, “Calm down, Prahji. My appearance is not what makes me a Sikh. It never has. And we are no longer in battle. I’ve done this before in front of my father, and my grandfather…It doesn’t change anything about me. It’s only my appearance. My heart still says ‘Wahe Guru Wahe Guru,’ okay?”

And the book doesn’t bore you with historical facts, rather it uses the time frame of the partition to tell a story of the grit and determination of Gurdev, his cohorts, families who were suddenly torn asunder and displaced, their indomitable spirit to rebuild their lives from scratch and their inherent attitude of never giving up. And, yes, there’s a hint of romance, too, between Gurdev and his partner in crime Noor, in the midst of adventure, strife and rebuilding, but much is left to the reader’s imagination. A good read that leaves you with a feeling of admiration for the characters who withstood the mayhem, fought spiritedly and built their lives afresh. 

(The founder of Soul Media, Anuradha Kapoor is a former journalist and corporate communications professional, who oscillates between attitudes of c’est la vie and ‘I can do it’ , a survivor in this mad mad world!

About the Book

Ladies’ Tailor

Priya Hajela

Harper Collins India

304 pages; Rs 319

Check out the book on Amazon here

Published on July 01, 2022
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