The enduring flame

'Girls Burn Brighter' is written by Shobha Rao

Shobha Rao’s debut novel Girls Burn Brighter is poignant, powerful, a moving read. Reminiscent of the Elena Ferrante books, this book too delineates a deep, enduring bond between two women. As the protagonists move from village to city and finally across oceans, so does the story. The book’s two principal characters, Poornima and Savitha, find their hope and salvation in the strong friendship that they forge. Thus, it’s a tale eulogising friendship.

Their relationship begins in the village of Indravalli which lies in the shadow of the Indravalli Konda, the largest mountain in Andhra Pradesh. Rao establishes a strong connection that grows between two impoverished women belonging to a weaving community with a certain delicacy whilst contrasting it with the regressive patriarchy that reigns in the region. This village, of course, is a microcosm of most villages in India, a village which reflects the attitudes and perceptions prevalent all over the country. A village where fathers view their unmarried daughters as a millstone around their neck; where the dowry to be paid for a girl’s marriage is considered a huge burden for a poor family; a place where the colour of a girl’s skin decides her fate.

Poornima, being dark, is constantly demeaned because of this and finds it difficult to get a good match. It is also a world where girls like Poornima and Savitha work their fingers to the bone from dawn to dusk with scant appreciation and no affection forthcoming.

Despite being mired in poverty and part of a patriarchal society, Poornima and Savitha slowly but surely find their inner strength, drawing from the core of their bond. Circumstances dictate that the two separate, after which the story alternates between Poornima and Savitha. As Poornima moves to Namburu after marriage and Savitha to Vijayawada, their tales become more harrowing. Now it is the memory of their close friendship that sustains them. The physical embodiment of that friendship is an indigo saree that Savitha had woven for Poornima’s wedding, but carries with her instead. The saree slowly disintegrates, the women face much hardship, both are maimed physically but stay strong mentally. And it is the memory of their friendship, forged in the crucible of poverty and hardship, that sustains them and indeed, keeps them going.

Rao’s strength as a writer is evident in the even manner she adopts to take the reader through the difficult journeys her characters traverse. This has to do both with the author’s direct, matter-of-fact tone, as well as the ease with which the story flows. It also helps that Rao’s characterisation of both Poornima and Savitha is such that the reader is immediately aware these two will not go meekly like lambs to slaughter. These are not women who will lose their ‘interior light.’ These are women who see themselves equipped with wings, however feeble or bruised those appendages might be at times.

In the latter parts of the book, the story moves to Seattle, where both Poornima and Savitha land up, one seeking the other. Rao gives the same sense of place to both Indravalli and Seattle and other places in the US, whether it’s the deepa burning in the temple on top of the Indravalli Konda or the gas station at Spearfish. It is at this unexceptional gas station that the climax of the book takes place. The reunion of Poornima and Savitha takes place off-the-page and yet Rao has the reader very much on the spot with them. These women, though devoured bit by bit by their experiences, still manage to retain some part of their integral individuality, rather like how Savitha holds on to the shreds of the indigo saree.

Rao’s characters are perceptively detailed and her writing is evocative. Poornima’s mother’s eyes are described as ‘‘deep black pools with tiny silver fish gleaming in them when she laughs.’’ Elsewhere, Savitha notices a faded blue tattoo on a woman’s hand. She feels the woman had intended the tattoo to be a rich blue ‘‘but it hadn’t worked out that way. Nothing had.’’ This detailing also holds good for the supporting characters like Guru with his streak of cruelty and Mohan with his deep well of sadness. If at all some bits have a touch of the implausible to them, it’s the Seattle section of the story.

A minor quibble this reviewer has is with the somewhat clunky title of the book. The title is obviously both metaphorical and literal as it alludes to the fire that burns within both the women, Poornima and Savitha, a fire that nourishes but also burns and maims. Oftentimes, a catchy title makes the casual reader pick up a book. This wonderful book deserves both, a better title, and to be picked up and read.

 

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The enduring flame

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