There are so many books out there that I need to read, it’s overwhelming. Girls Burn Brighter by Shobha Rao was one I’d found last year on NPR’s Best Books of 2018 List–but hadn’t gotten around to reading until now. This book was more difficult to read than I had expected. The unrelenting hardship and abuse would have been impossible to read except for the connection between the girls that keeps them hopeful for something better. Rao uses allegories and vivid language to create a story that was unexpectedly moving.
Poornima and Savitha are poor teenage girls in Indravalli, India. They meet when Poornima’s father hires Savitha to work one of his looms. Poornima is slightly better off materially, but Savitha has a family who loves her. Savitha is optimistic and engaging despite her circumstances. Savitha’s friendship is the only thing that Poornima has that is equal and loving–with no burdens and no expectations. So when they are separated, what keeps them going is the thought of each other. Poornima is determined to find Savitha and make sure she’s okay.
Part of what makes this book so disturbing is that there is no way out for the girls. They have no power. Although they are likable and intelligent, they have so little knowledge of the world and how they will be put to use in it. I found it haunting, and it has changed my perspective. I liked how Rao switched between the point-of-views of Poornima and Savitha as the story progressed. Recommended if you can handle the content.
I feel the need to go into some detail of the horrors faced by Poornima and Savitha because their survival is truly remarkable. The two are split up after Poornima’s father rapes Savitha. It is decided that a just reparation is for Savitha to marry Poornima’s father. Savitha runs away instead, and Poornima is later married off to a vicious man. The man and his mother treat Poormina more and more poorly when her father does not pay the second installment of the promised dowry. Every night she has to go up to their shared bedroom to be raped, increasingly violently, by her husband. This culminates in her husband and mother-in-law severely burning her face and neck with hot grease before she is kicked out of their home.
Instead of going back to her father’s place, Poornima decides to find Savitha. But with almost no knowledge of geography and very little money, she gets stuck at a train station. From there, she is lured by the promise of Savitha and a job to a heartless man who traffics women both within the city and internationally. Fortunately for Poornima, her burned skin and knowledge of accounting (learned from her husband’s books) keep her from being sold for sex. She tries to use the position to find Savitha, who she later learns was sold to a man in Seattle to clean apartments.
When Savitha runs away to avoid marriage to Poornima’s father, she takes with her the half-finished sari that she’d been making for her best friend’s wedding. It is her only connection to Poornima, and it is her most important possession. The cloth and what it represents holds her together through the rest of the book. She is almost immediately picked up by the human trafficker at the train station. They inject her with drugs until she is addicted and then force her to go through withdrawal. She is forced to work in a brothel. But when the trafficker offers Savitha a large sum of money to be sold to a rich Saudi Arabian man, she agrees. The hitch is that this man has certain proclivities, and she has to have her hand cut off before she is sold. She does this, losing the ability to weave. The Saudi Arabian man changes his mind and Savitha is eventually sold to Seattle to clean apartments.
I was hopeful that Savitha’s lot might improve in the United States. But Savitha knows nothing about the country and doesn’t speak or read English. A woman asks if she’s okay in the airport, and Savitha can only smile and nod. She is driven from building to building, working long hours with no freedom. And the cleaning does not save her from sexual abuse by the brothers who run the operation. She finally decides to run away, to try to get to New York City, where the woman asked if she was okay. This part of the book was probably the most stressful for me to read because I knew it wouldn’t end well. Although Savitha is assisted by a couple of good Samaritans, she quickly finds herself at the lowest point of her life.
At the same time, Poornima has learned that Savitha has been sent to Seattle, and she’s doing everything she can to be able to follow her there. After learning English, Poornima convinces the trafficker to allow her to be a “guardian” to women being sent overseas after they are sold. Poornima finally makes it to Seattle and eventually convinces the younger brother, Mohan, to tell her where Savitha is. But Savitha had run away two days before. Poornima goes after her.
The last scene has Savitha in a gas station bathroom after she has lost all hope and all her possessions, including Poornima’s sari. With Savitha strong for so long, it hurt so much to see her finally give up. However, at that moment, Poornima arrives at the gas station and runs to the bathroom, waiting for the door to open. And the book ends. On the one hand, I was so glad the girls found each other, and I was imagining their reunion. I figured their lives had to be better when they were together and Poornima’s knowledge of English would help them. On the other hand, the fact that Poornima had been able to follow Savitha’s path in India, then to Seattle, and throughout the United States is more fairy tale than reality. This wouldn’t happen in real life. In real life, Savitha would be left on that bathroom floor alone, and that’s heartbreaking. Even if you believe that Poornima found Savitha, it doesn’t make them safe. Mohan could decide to bring them both back to Seattle. They still have very little money and almost no knowledge of how the country works. It is a haunting ending: joyful, sad, and fearful.
“Understand this Poornima: that it’s better to be swallowed whole than in pieces.” (43)
“She’s just a girl. Let her go.” (60)
“Forget those birds,” he said. “You, you, girl of mine, you’re the one with wings.” (64)
“She’d left her father’s house and nothing had changed.” (106)
“[T]here could be no love without fear. The two had always been bound for her.” (207)
“Don’t you see, we were never safe. Not against rain, not against anything. And you, she railed, all you thought to do was huddle under that indifferent tree. As if, against rain, against my father, against what remained, all we had to do was stand closer.” (249)
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