Friendship, Loss, & Human Trafficking: On Shobha Rao’s ‘Girls Burn Brighter’

(Originally published here. Check out Alternating Currents other reviews; they’re pretty sick.)

Shobha Rao’s Girls Burn Brighter is a mellifluous, striking novel filled with love, loss, and beauty. The book tackles issues like the sexism, sexual assault, and human trafficking that are present in modern India. It also provides an outside perspective on America and highlights the enslavement of those captured by human traffickers. For a book from a major publishing house to use fiction in order to touch on these important and horribly relevant topics is a step toward creating a conversation about issues that may not be addressed openly. This conversation is globally important so that we, as citizens, can pressure our respective governments to crack down harder on human trafficking. Rao uses fiction as a vehicle for conversation.

The book first takes us to Indravalli, India, where protagonists Poornima and Savitha each live simple lives before they meet. Poornima is the daughter of a weaver struggling financially after his wife died. Savitha and her family are among some of the poorest in Indravalli; her mother cleans houses, but Savitha and her three sisters scour garbage heaps for paper and cloth to earn enough money for food. Once they come together, they relish one another’s company, spending as much time together as possible. But then sexual assault and marriage befall them, and Savitha runs away. Two years later, Poornima takes things into her own hands and goes to find her friend.

Rao’s characters encounter sexism, rape, human trafficking, and culture shock and handle it with strength and determination. Savitha is faced with losing her own body parts to a man who has a sick fascination with amputees when she is promised a portion of the money her trafficker would get for her limbs — money that would help provide for her family back home.

“‘What about the money?’

‘Forget about that measly one lakh. I have a better deal.’

Savitha was seated in front of his desk, but she still slumped. She was tired. She was tired of deals. Every moment in a woman’s life was a deal, a deal for her body. First for its blooming and then for its wilting. First for her bleeding and then for her virginity and then for her bearing — counting only the sons — and then for her widowing.”

Though I ultimately felt like I didn’t see a deep-enough reaction from Savitha about the importance or end result of this transaction — the only part of the book that felt underwhelming to me, with Savitha’s emotions not matching my own as the reader — the rest of the book is provoking and emotional. As I neared the end of the story, I was completely tense, worried about the outcomes of Savitha’s escape and Poornima’s search. I had four chapters left in the book, and I had to take a walk before I could finish it. Rao’s words sing:

“The air in the hut was liquid. It throbbed white and raw with heat. The flies buzzed listlessly, lifting a little off the ground and settled back as though exhausted by the effort. Savitha was sweating from sitting at the loom. Beads of perspiration stood at her hairline, studded her collarbone. Poornima could smell the scent of her body: jungled, musky.”

The book pierces a reader’s heart with its statements on the power of friendship and commentary on casual racism in America. Savitha, remembering Poornima after years of separation, realizes that she loved Poornima, and that kind of love is stronger than the romance she finds in America. Savitha never considers that Poornima may be out there looking for her, and their storylines are distinct and lonely. Each thinks of the other constantly, and they long to be together again, back in Poornima’s hut in Indravalli, where Savitha had once fed Poornima bits of banana mixed with yogurt and rice. The fondness for one another that these dear memories evokes is intermittently interrupted by casual racism. Sometimes Poornima and Savitha don’t realize or understand it because of their limited English, but Rao still lets us hear the words. Once, Poornima rang at an apartment, and when the woman who lived there heard Poornima’s accent, she said, “I already got a package today.” My heart broke for the characters’ positions, giving me — white as I am — their side of the ‘speak English or get out’ exchange that’s all too common in America.

Rao creates a vivid and delicate world full of hardships that, for some of us, are totally unimaginable.The language is beautiful but almost pointed: I imagined I could feel Rao’s hand guiding me to the realization that things like this happen in real life. Real people have to scrounge through garbage just to be sure that their families can eat. Real people are captured by human traffickers. One of the scariest reasons keeping someone there: her traffickers may know her family and could hurt them if she escaped. Real people are sold to human traffickers by their family members. I know that many of us live comfortable lives complete with ‘first world problems,’ and to be faced with this sort of knowledge can be incredibly uncomfortable because it makes us feel our privilege. We tend to avoid talking about subjects that make us uncomfortable, but if anything, this book — though fiction — proves that we need to talk about it.

I was fortunate enough to receive a copy of the audiobook, and Soneela Nankani, who narrates the audio version, brings Rao’s words to a full chorus. She reads with the passion and care that the book deserves. She also portrays the characters’ voices in ways that enable the listener to clearly identify each specific character. The fact that Macmillan chose someone of Indian descent to narrate Girls Burn Brighter makes the book sound more authentic and accurate, setting it apart from the whitewashing of which many notable movie production studios have been guilty. Even more fitting is Brooklyn-based Nankani’s connection to both India and America, which lends itself authentically to Poornima’s and Savitha’s treks through regions of both countries.

Girls Burn Brighter has the potential to start powerful conversations about urgent social issues, and the book leaves it up to the reader’s active imagination to decide what’s the final outcome, what’s behind the door. If you’re passionate about social change, interested in being immersed in a perspective with which you may not be familiar, or just looking for a breathtaking story of friendship, Rao’s masterpiece is the book for you.


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