Goodness this was an intense read.
Poornima is the daughter of a weaver, who makes cotton saris that their region is known for. After her mother dies of cancer, her father is unable to produce enough saris. Poornima is in charge of the household chores and takes care of her younger siblings. At first he is unable to find anyone willing to work the looms. It is 2001 and weaving doesn’t bring in much money anymore, so he has no choice but to hire Savitha, who also is from the weaver caste.
While Poornima feels like her family is poor, she realizes they are well-off compared to Savitha. Before this new job, Savitha earned a little bit of money by scrounging for discarded paper and plastic in the garbage dumps. It took her three days of rubbish collecting just to make twenty rupees. Her mother cleans houses, her younger sisters help dig through garbage and her father begs.
She remembered her mother saying once, as they passed them, “Don’t look,” and Poornima had not known whether she meant at the cemetery or at the children scrambling up the heaps. But now, standing in Savitha’s impoverished hut, and with her mother long dead, she thought she understood. Her mother had said don’t look and she’d meant don’t look at either the cemetery or the garbage heaps. She’d meant, don’t look at death, don’t look at poverty, don’t look at how they crawl through life, how they wait for you, stalk you, before they end you.
They become good friends. They eat their meals together and Poornima even visits Savitha’s home.
Obviously their futures aren’t exactly bright. Poornima, with her darker skin, is considered unattractive and there is barely hope for a decent arranged marriage. She gets an offer from a family but the signs aren’t good – she doesn’t get to meet her groom until the wedding itself and the family demands even more money – money that they don’t have.
For Savitha, an act of violence destroys her and she runs away from the village. And it seems like the two friends will now be separated forever.
Poornima’s married life is well, horrifying really. And she decides to go in search of Savitha.
What a brilliant debut novel. It’s full of emotion and vivid depictions of poverty in India. It is not an easy read – there is abuse, both mental and physical and sexual. There is so much pain and poverty. But Rao brings in some small moments of joy, such as Savitha’s delight in eating yogurt rice with a banana.
I read for Asian Lit Bingo – Poor or Working Class Asian MC