Girls Burn Brighter by Shobha Rao
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Poornami and Savitha meet soon after Poornami’s mother dies of cancer. It seems her father views this as little more than an inconvenience. Poornami won’t be able to marry until a year after the death, and the loom Poornami’s mother operated stands empty, reducing the family income. Poornami’s father decides to hire a laborer, and Savitha, near Poornami’s age, joins the family business. While her father and Savitha weave the saris for which their region is known, Poornami spins cotton thread. As part of her wages, Savitha receives meals at the family home, but she and Poornami are only allowed to eat after the patriarch. Sometimes, he takes seconds, leaving very little for the teenage girls to share.
Immediately, the girls develop a strong bond of friendship, with Poornami in awe of Savitha’s zest for and enjoyment of life, and Savitha telling Poornami that everything is bland and colorless except her. They look forward to seeing a movie for the first time together, and Savitha starts staying at Poornami’s during the night so she can work on an indigo sari for Poornami while still completing her tasks for her father. Poornami even sabotages a meeting with a potential husband because he lived too far away for Savitha to visit. But after a harrowing ordeal, Savitha leaves the village, taking only the half-finished sari, and Poornami, alone, marries into a family that values her only for her domestic labor. So begins Savitha’s quest to find freedom and Poornami’s journey back to Savitha.
The women encounter domestic abuse, prostitution, human trafficking, poverty, and sexual violence as they struggle to maintain the internal hope–the light that burns inside–that allows them to press forward despite the numerous setbacks and overwhelming odds. Although some of the men with which they cross paths are kind, or at least helpful, the majority are predatory and treat the women as objects or investments giving them the feeling they are owned and have little agency, though both of them in turn use men, and Poornami is particularly adept at reading people and manipulating the men around her. Still, these moments are few.
About halfway through the novel, the setting moves to Seattle, and it is interesting to read how Savitha and later Poornami react to America. At one point, Poornami reflects, “What a mysterious country, she thought, how small for all its vastness.” The move also complicates Savitha’s efforts to escape her bonds since she is unable to speak English, and, even when people might be trying to help her, she can’t understand them. One moment of clarity comes when a character points a gun at her forehead. “”Now she understood. The whole night now a violence of understanding.”
Overwhelmingly, this is a novel of false starts and setbacks, and when Savathi finally realizes that “all the beacons of the world, standing all in a row, couldn’t save her,” it’s easy to understand her hopelessness. In fact, it was hard to imagine how the characters maintained a drive to press forward when they faced so many obstacles. There were times I had to put the book aside because the pain and devastation were so completely relentless. With a somewhat ambiguous ending, there’s nothing to halt the despair. So while the novel is well-written, it is difficult emotionally. I found the book valuable for the depiction of the oppression of Indian girls and women, particularly of a particular social class but I questioned if the presentation was the most effective possible.