Culture

Shobha Rao's debut novel Girls Burn Brighter is the emotional rollercoaster you didn't know you needed

"What is a girl worth?"

"I read this somewhere,” says Shobha Rao. “A doctor is examining a woman, and he asks, ‘On a scale of one to 10, what is your pain level?’ She says six. When she leaves, he tells the nurse, ‘Put down nine. Women always underestimate their pain.’ Then a man walks in with the same condition, and the doctor asks him the same question. He says 11. It makes you think, what are women being made to endure?” The San Francisco-based Indian-American author offers some devastating answers in her debut novel, Girls Burn Brighter.

Crushing physical labour, bad nutrition and a bracing lack of love, are the order of their lives for adolescent protagonists Poornima and Savitha, who come from impoverished weaver families in the village of Indravalli in Andhra Pradesh. Poornima toils at the loom to provide for her younger siblings and cold, lazy father, who can’t wait to marry her off. She meets even poorer Savitha, who’d been reduced to picking garbage to make ends meet, when Poornima’s father hires her to work the family’s second loom. Their friendship is immediate, electric and sheltering from the wanton unkindness they regularly face. And when a shocking incident rips them apart and sends them hurtling towards catastrophically worse fates — marital rape and torture, sexual and menial slavery, and mutilation — the memory of it is the fraying thread by which they hang on to life.

GIRLS BURN BRIGHTER

Rao, 45, sounds cheerful over the phone — and that feels unfair after what her book puts you through. “I don’t know if I should apologise or say thank you,” she chuckles. “I passionately believe in what Kafka said, ‘A book must be an axe for the frozen sea inside us.’ Books should destabilise us. They should make us uncomfortable and outraged, because so many people are locked into lives that are completely unacceptable. This is not horror I’m writing.”

The novel’s plot began to take shape while she was working as a legal advisor at a San Jose-based NGO for victims of domestic violence, right out of law school. Like Savitha, one of her clients was a Telugu woman who had been trafficked into the United States by a rich Telugu businessman. (Andhra Pradesh is second in the country in human trafficking, after West Bengal, according to a survey conducted by United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.) The novel’s central meditation, however, had occupied her for long before that.

“The question I wanted to ask in the novel was, what is a girl worth? Not just her body, but what is her melancholy worth? What are her memories worth?” says Rao, who was born in Kanpur where her father was an IIT professor, but like her protagonists, hails from the weaver caste of a small Andhra village called Mangalgiri. “I grew up observing the lives of women around me, this subset who had poor education, poor health their lives were very devalued. I’ve always been interested in the specific vulnerabilities of some women, especially in times of conflict.”

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Rao first explored these themes in her debut collection of short stories, An Unrestored Woman (Little, Brown Book Group, 2015), about the direct, insidious and generational damage done to people, especially women, by Partition. “I’ve observed that when a woman is without choice — she becomes, in many ways, nationless. Her body becomes the extent of her nation. Her body is what has to be negotiated and bartered.”

It is to her credit that you can go along on the girls’ harrowing journeys without needing to curl up in the foetal position. Her prose is elegant but unadorned; suggestive yet never sensationalising; and while she refuses to gloss over the unconscionable suffering they endure, she tempers the excruciating with moments of genuine pleasure and lightness — like the dubious combination of bananas mashed into yoghurt rice, that can still delight Savitha, even in brutal captivity. Or how the barely-literate Poornima clings to the certitude of the rows of numbers in her accountant husband’s work files. “I tried to balance the moments of incredible sadness and incredible joy. Because both darkness and light exist dramatically for some people,” says Rao.

For someone who emigrated to the United States at just seven, and at the time of our interview is visiting India for the first time in 12 years, Rao renders her native place — its equatorial heat, the squalor and superstition, and the self-conscious reach for modernity — with remarkable texture. “India is very alive in me,” she says. “As a child, it’s not your choice [to move], you don’t know what’s happening. The severing becomes much more violent. You always keep thinking, what did I lose? What did I gain? And it never ends, because home is never found.” 

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But a home she did find, in literature. “Books happened to me when I moved to America. There was this bookmobile that would come around our university town in Indiana, and I picked [Laura Ingalls Wilder’s] The Little House On The Prairie — I couldn’t even read English, I chose it because of its cover. But when I did learn to read, that was the first book I read. And it was about a girl who had moved to a new place, which just happened to be in the country I had moved to. Once literature opens up to you in that way, the love comes alive.”

Rao’s journey from loving books to publishing them took her 15 years from when she began writing in her late twenties — and many rejections. “It comes down to if you truly have something to say, and if you feel it is imperative that you say it. Every year, I’d ask myself, do you have to say this? And it was always a resounding yes."

Now that the waiting and working has paid off, and we can appreciate her gift for shepherding us gently, compassionately and unflinchingly through the very worst of the human experience, does she feel like she’s said all she had to? Not even close. “For now, my mandate seems to be to write about those lives that are easy to look away from. This novel came from just forcing myself to stay awake — and to not become overwhelmed, because if it distresses you so much, you’ve already lost.”

Photograph: Carlos Avila Gonzalez (Shobha Rao)