Trigger warning: the following book and book review involves rape, sexual slavery, human trafficking, and abuse.
My book club buddy gave me an ARC of this novel back in the beginning of the year, and it came with a caution. She told me it would break my heart, that it’s heavy, and that there was just no hope in the novel, so I should prepare myself. With a warning like that, I couldn’t help but put off reading it. In fact, I wasn’t sure if I should read it at all! However, I decided this month was the time to read it, to knock it off the TBR.
Set in modern times in eastern India, Poornima and Savitha are two young, poor, intelligent women. Poornima’s family makes thread and saris, and Poornima’s thrills on having a small amount of rupees to purchase a banana for her sick mother on a regular basis. When her mother passes away, her father is at distraught- not because of the loss of his wife, but for the loss of income. He is trying to maintain enough of a dowry to marry off Poornima, and now he there is nobody to run the second loom. Savitha, hearing that there was an opening for a sari weaver, gets the position, and befriends Poornima. Savitha comes from a very poor family, and with four daughters, Savitha’s Nanna (father) is struggling to provide for them. So, Savitha is encouraged by her father, and she works tirelessly, even overnight, to earn enough to feed her family.
As the two grow closer together, Poornima starts purchasing bananas again, this time for Savitha, and in turn, Savitha plans to create a sari for Poornima. They become close confidants, sharing their ambitions, fears, and genuine affection for each other. Meanwhile, Poornima’s father is determined to marry her off. As custom dictates, the families meet a few times, haggle over the price of the bride’s dowry, and then she sent off in a wedding ceremony. As Poornima is being haggled over and treated like a slave, Savitha is raped by Poornima’s father, and though the village is shocked, they decide the punishment for him is to take Savitha as his new wife. Refusing, Savitha runs away in the early hours of the morning. Though the authorities search for her, she is never found. Poornima refuses to give up the search, and determines that someday, she will find her again.
A few months go by, and Poornima is married to an accountant- one that she has never met. The family, particularly the women and her new husband, treat her with such abuse that it was difficult to read. After two years of suffering and abuse, and a catastrophic attack, Poornima runs away in the hopes of catching up to Savitha.
I am struggling to express how heavy this book is, how dark, and yet how beautifully written it is. Though these two women go through the most terrible circumstances, the narrative of how they hold on to the thought of being together and free again is just absolutely heart wrenching. Rao doesn’t skim over the seedy, grim details of what it’s like to be customarily married off in India for money, nor does she spare the details of how these women in desperate scenarios are picked up and sold into sex slavery or human trafficking markets. Pardon my french, but it has absolutely fucking wrecked me. And to end the novel the way Rao does, where you can only have a sliver of a hope for these girls and their happy reunion…
Rao’s writing is skillful, and her use of multiple points of view is effective for understanding the characters and their situations. I’m going to say that this novel gave me a perspective that I wouldn’t have sought out. I absolutely get the caution that my friend gave me when she handed me the book, and can understand her hesitance to recommend it. So in this case, I’m not going to recommend this read, but instead I’ll say it’s not for the faint of heart, but it is absolutely a tale deserving of being read and discussed.