Why you should care

This heart-wrenching tale of friendship and survival is also a story of now.

For hundreds of years, the mantra of fatalism has been a necessary salve for millions upon millions of Indians. The very concept of karma, that our previous lives are to be blamed for what we’re suffering (or not) in the present, is an escape valve that makes a life of extreme poverty at least slightly bearable. But the tides have been shifting in the world’s largest democracy. We are slowly seeing the end of karma, argues Somini Sengupta, who worked as the New York Times Delhi correspondent for many years. The young are instead fueled by hope and fury.

Sengupta might as well have been talking about Poornima and Savitha, the fierce protagonists of Shobha Rao’s dark yet fiery debut novel, Girls Burn Brighter. At first glance it might appear that even if it is 2001, the turn of a new century, societal shifts in attitudes have largely passed by the remote Indian town of Indravalli. At the novel’s outset, Poornima and Savitha are teenagers who seem to have bought into the idea of a life that has been preordained for them: endless toil, an arranged marriage and servitude to in-laws until death. After all, Poornima’s deceased mother had once reminded her: “Everything is already written by the stars, Poornima. By the gods. We can’t alter a thing. So what does it matter? Why worry?”

But the girls have hope and fury, both of which are needed in equal measure to propel them out of their prescribed paths. And it is hope and fury that will sustain them through every sort of unimaginable, gut-wrenching horror.

Through her fierce writing, Rao situates the girls’ story of friendship and stark survival squarely in a man’s world.

Rao gave us a taste of her arresting writing in her brilliant debut collection of short stories, An Unrestored Woman, about the effect of India’s wrenching partition on its most vulnerable populations. She brings her keen eye to this dark yet ultimately hopeful story. Through her fierce writing, Rao situates the girls’ story of friendship and stark survival squarely in a man’s world, and spares no punches as she does so.

In one of the novel’s many striking scenes, Savitha narrates a folk tale in which an elephant must punish a crow by eating him. The elephant offers him a choice: Should I chew you up in pieces or eat you whole? The crow picks the latter. Once inside, the crow pecks away at the elephant’s organs and emerges relatively unscathed. The moral of the story, Savitha tells Poornima: As girls, we know we are going to get eaten up. But try to get eaten up whole. “Only then can you win … Only then no elephant can do you harm.”

It comes as no surprise that life has other plans for the friends, as they are torn apart by tragedy and do sadly get eaten up in pieces. The endless stream of hardships the women face gets relentless after a while. Even if there are a few lighthearted moments thrown in, the reader yearns for a break, a ray of light through all that despair.

But Poornima and Savitha are not ones to stay down and out for long. Some of the most touching moments are when each discovers a talent or asset that will be her one agency to be leveraged to her advantage. What lies at the end? Is it hope? A better future? Whatever it is, by now you know that nothing will faze these extraordinarily strong women.

“What is love if not a hunger?” asks Savitha of her friend. As this bold novel illustrates, they truly are one and the same.

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