Monday, May 14, 2018

Girls Burn Brighter by Shobha Rao

Shobha Rao’s 2018 novel, Girls Burn Brighter is the story of two very poor Indian girls who become fast friends, and once they are separated, they spend much of the rest of their lives looking for one another. The two girls Poornima and Savitha, just a year or two apart in age. 
At fifteen Poornima came of marriageable age, and she stopped going to convent school. She began to sit at the spinning wheel, the charkha, in her free time to help the household…that she, a girl, could earn anything at all, lent her such a deep and abiding feeling of importance, --of worth—that she sat at the charkha every chance she got….Their hut had no electricity, so her spinning was a race against the sun.
At sixteen, Poornima’s mother dies, and she is promised in marriage to a farmer from another village. 
After a family death, it was inauspicious to have a celebration of any sort, let alone a wedding, for a full year. It had been two months since her mother’s death. In another ten—her father was saying—she would be married.
Savitha comes into Poonima’s life because her father takes her on as a helper now that there is one charkha in the house free for use. 
Savitha was quiet around Poornima at first. She was a year or two older, Poornima guessed, though neither knew their exact ages. Only the birthdates of the boys were recorded in the village. 
Poornima’s father tells a story about how, when she was a baby, she had wandered into the river, "within seconds she was up to her neck". Her mother panicked, and her father chased after her. 
When I got near the waterline though, he said, I stopped. I know I should’ve plucked her up and given her a slap, but I couldn’t. You see, he said, she looked like she was nothing. Just a piece of debris.  In that mist, in that gray, in that vast, slippery rush of water, she looked like nothing. Maybe the head of a fish tossed back in the water...I looked at her, he said, I looked and I looked, and I could hear her mother shouting, running toward me, but I couldn’t move. I was standing there, and I was thinking. I was thinking: She’s just a girl. Let her go. By then, her mother had come up from behind me, and she’d snatched her out. Poornima was crying, he said, her mother was crying, too. Maybe they both knew what I thought. Maybe it was written on my face…An  then her father had let out a little laugh.’ That’s the thing with girls isn’t it?’  he’s said. ‘Whenever they stand on the edge of something, you can’t help it, you can’t. You think, Push. That’s all it would take. Just one push.’
Before Poornima is shipped off to her new family, Savitha is raped by Poornima’s father, and since that means she is ruined in the village, there appears to be no future for her. The village men decide that justice requires Poornima’s father to marry Savitha. Before that marriage can take place, Savitha disappears from the village, and little attempt is made to find her. Poornima’s new husband disgusts her, and his family sees her as unworthy, eventually shipping her back to her village. Of course, the only thing Savitha has that she can sell to survive is her body, and she is soon in the hands of a brothel keeper named Guru. Turns out she has a skill for math, and eventually keeps the books for Guru. 

All of the rest of this beautifully written but heartbreaking novel is taken up with Poornima’s search for Savitha—a search that takes her to many places and eventually to Seattle. Both girls end up in brothels, getting by only through the use of their bodies. While Savitha’s skill with numbers increases her status with the brothel keeper, there is no way to freedom.
Savitha was seated in front of his desk, but she still slumped. She was tired, She was tired  of deals. Every moment in a woman’s life was a deal, a deal for her body: first for its blooming and then for its wilting; first for her bleeding and then for virginity and then for her bearing  (counting only the sons) and then for her widowing.
It is hard not to focus on the horrible details of these girls servitude, but there are also wonderful passages about the love between the two, and the hope that somehow, some way they can be reunited and free. 

Poornima is badly burned at one point, and her scars are yet another reason for people to shun her. As she discovers that a girl she is trying to help is afraid of the help because of Poormina’s scars:
She felt something rise inside her, something bitter, something angry, and she spit out, ‘You fool.’ She heard the girl back away from the door. ‘you fool,’’ she cried again, and heard the girl whimper. What a fool you are, she thought, fuming. What fools we all are. We girls. Afraid of the wrong things, at the wrong times. Afraid of a burned face, when outside, outside waiting for you are fires you cannot imagine. Men, holding matches up to your gasoline eyes. Flames, flames all around you, licking at your just-born breasts, your just-bled body. And infernos. Infernos as wide as the world. Waiting to impoverish you, make you ash, and even the wind,. Even the wind, my dear, she thought, watching you burn, willing it, passing over you, and through you. Scattering you, because you are a girl, and because you are ash.
Finally, hot on Savitha’ trail in Seattle, they  are so close to finding each other again, but will they? You will have to find out for yourselves by reading this wonderful debut novel.

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