In early 2010, fresh from a writing retreat in Scotland, I set out to write a novel about the friendship between two girls — Tara who has a privileged upbringing like many girls in India’s cities and Mukta, a poor village girl whose circumstances seem fatally unlucky. I did not realize at the time that many of my experiences would imbue this novel with its own color.
I was and raised in Mumbai, India —the city I fondly remember as Bombay before its name change. There is a sense of belonging to this city, the feel, taste, smells of which permeate this novel. I grew up listening to my maternal grandfather tell me of the village that he came from before he moved to Bombay in search of better opportunities. Like Tara, I was left wondering about the village that my grandfather talked about so much; all I had ever known was the city of Bombay, “where there were buildings after buildings, and when there were no buildings, there were construction sites.” In my teens, I had a chance to visit my grandfather’s village near Mangalore, where I met some incredibly kindhearted villagers. I remember a woman—a stranger, really—who welcomed me into their home because I looked tired and hungry. I sat on a stool with a bowl of jackfruit listening to her stories What also stuck with me during that trip was there were girls in villages that did not receive an education and were easily married off in their teens to strangers.Superstitions were rife and people fiercely held on to obscure traditions for fear of offending a god or a goddess.
The pivotal plotline for this novel was born from my experience of trying to teach the daughter of a servant who worked for my family. Her name was Shakuntala. We used to call her Shaku. When I sat down to write about Mukta, she was the one who appeared before me. When I first met Shaku, she was ten, with striking brown eyes and shoulder length hair. I would usually find her sitting in the corner of our living room unwilling to make eye contact with anybody, refusing the food my mother offered her. She was strictly admonished by her mother not to create trouble by talking to the people she worked for. I was nine, and I remember being intrigued by this shy girl. I tried talking to her but she would reply in monosyllables, always checking to see if her mother was around, afraid she’d get a good beating if she talked to a privileged girl like me.
My mother is a school teacher and at the time, would teach some children in our home. As a kid, I was always enthralled by the notion of teaching someone. I think like most Indian/Asian families, I was brought up with a high regard for education. So in my naïve way, I thought teaching Shaku to read and write could solve her problems. I persuaded my mother to convince our servant that while she worked, I could teach her daughter the alphabets. Shaku seemed elated.
We’d sit on the balcony under the morning sun and scribble on a small slate with chalk. She learnt the alphabets well and in a few months she was able to read — if not very fluently. However, in a while, her interest started dwindling. When I pestered her to tell me the reason, she confessed that she would be married soon and had no use for reading and writing. She was married at thirteen. In the days to come, she rarely came home and when she did, she would show up with a bruised forehead or a cut lip. She had married a drunk many years older to her. For a while, she worked as a servant for other families in our apartment building. And then one day, she disappeared. My mother said she would have gone back to her village. Someone else said she must have run away from her drunk husband. Another whispered that she was sold. Rumors were rife but no one really knew. On the busy street of Bombay, apathy is common but not a crime. I try to convey the helplessness I have heard time and again in women’s voices when they weren’t allowed to make a choice because of tradition, and their gender.
About the Devdasi Tradition: there are so many village girls like Mukta who are sacrificed to the Devdasi tradition, even though it is illegal. Anti-trafficking is a cause close to my heart and it found voice in this novel. During my research, I discovered that NGOs send some of their own employees as customers into the brothel areas to convince the girls to come back to a safer environment. Some women go but many have lost the ability to trust another person and refuse to leave the brothels. I was told that victims of abuse often blame themselves because this becomes the only aspect of their life that they can truly control, or they simply have Stockholm Syndrome after so many years of suffering. I also wanted to show the reality that there are women trafficking other women, and men who help women get out of this cycle of abuse. Their roles have less to do with gender, and more to do with choice (and circumstances.)
So I leave you with my characters. I hope I have done them and their world some justice. In many ways, I imagine the construction of Tara and Mukta’s friendship is what our friendship would have looked like in another world. My novel is an intersection of these two voices. For me, the Tara who comes back seeking redemption represents hope for a better tomorrow, for girls like Mukta. Mukta is a representation of a life wrought in the ugliness of the world. If we didn’t have people like Tara in real life, there is simply no hope for these children. It is reassuring that there are a few who really care and want to hear their stories.
The Apne Aap foundation: http://apneaap.org/
The Bachpan Bachao Andolan : http://www.bba.org.in/
Maiti Nepal : http://www.maitinepal.org/
Prerna : http://preranaantitrafficking.org/
Prajwala : http://www.prajwalaindia.com/home.html