Girls Burn Brighter is the debut novel of Shobha Rao. It is the story of Savitha and Poornima, who we first meet in a small village in India.
Poornima’s family was poor. They had enough to afford basic food, but not to pay for treatment when her mother got cancer. Poornima worked at spooling thread to afford fruits and nuts for her mother. Once her mother passed away, she took on the duties of the household.
Savitha grew up not far away, in a much poorer family. Her father was an alcoholic and had to stop working due to this and rheumatoid arthritis. The family could not afford enough to eat, even with the mother’s job cleaning for other people and the children salvaging materials from the large garbage dumps on the outskirts of the village. Being from a caste of weavers and having learned to weave, Savitha sort a job.
Savitha meets Poornima
Savitha got a job weaving cotton into saris for Poornima’s father. The girls grew close, with Poornima saving money to buy her friend bananas, her favorite food to eat with rice and yogurt. In turn, Savitha taught her something like confidence, and was determined to make a sari as a wedding gift for her.
Preparing for Poornima’s Wedding
Poornima was to get married once the year of mourning was over for her mother. She sabotaged one match, refusing to sing; she didn’t want to be matched with a man that would take her too far from the village, farther than it would be possible for Savitha to visit. Her father was furious with her, especially given the difficulty of finding a man who was willing to marry her. Her dark complexion made her less desirable. When her father finally found a match for her, it was to a man with an “idiosyncrasy”; they were just able to scrape together the dowry. At the last minute, the groom’s family made additional demands and the father had to negotiate credit for the wedding to proceed.
Overhearing her father with the matchmaker, Poornima learned a story of how she’d almost drowned as a girl, and how her father did not save her, thinking that she was only a girl and no great loss. It was her mother that saved her.
Savitha’s memories of being a girl-child were sweet. She remembered falling onto many sugar birds her father had made. When she got up, her father laughed and told her how sweet and precious she was, more than the birds. This early beginning made each girl thinking differently of her worth.
As Poornima’s wedding approach, Savitha worked longer and longer hours, often staying over. One night, as she was working on the loom to make Poornima’s wedding gift, a sari of indigo thread, Poornima’s father raped her. Poornima found her curled up, ravaged, and started to scream.
The whole town consulted on what to do next and decided that Savitha should marry Poornima’s father. Refusing this decision, she run away in the early hours of the morning, trying to get to a magical place she had once heard an old lady talk about. She tried to take a bus north but she had no money. So she resorted to hitchhiking. She got off the lorry only 20km later, understanding that the driver expected payment in kind.
Once Poornima was married, she found out what was wrong with her husband. She was disgusted by his hand which had 3.5 fingers. The family was not welcoming to her, treating her like their maid, but the real trouble began one year later.
Poornima’s father owned the family money for her dowry and they were not happy when he didn’t deliver it one year after the marriage as promised. Both her husband and his mother punished her but hurting her and they threatened her that worse would come. She didn’t understand what they meant until the day they asked her to prepare pakoras for them.
She didn’t know to be afraid when they spoke to her and smiled. But once the oil was hot, they tripped her and dropped the oil onto her face. She had third degree burns on one side of her face and neck.
Poornima’s husband was an accountant and she was used to doing the accounting for her father. She learned what she could by looking through her husband’s papers, which he left on his desk. After she was hurt by oil, her father-is-law bought her a train ticket back to her father. In the early hours of the morning, she stole some money from her husband and run away to find Savitha.
She got a bus to Vijayawada, planning to take a bus north. However, after several days sleeping at the train station, she was tricked into work at a brothel. Because of her disfigured face and her knowledge of accounting, she managed to get a job with Guru. Eventually, she learned about a girl who liked bananas with rice and yogurt and knew it was Savitha. However, the girl had been sold to the United States, to Seattle.
What she didn’t know was that Savitha had been drugged with a cup of tea, offered by a man at a tea stand. She was kept high and on drugs, and then made into a prostitute. Finally, she agreed to have her hand cut off to make her eligible to be sold off to a Saudi man who liked missing limbs. After that fell through, she was offered the chance to go to America. They would pretend it was a medical need and put her arm in a cast. Her parents would get paid and could have a better life. She confirmed this, going to take a look at her family for a last time, at night when they couldn’t see her. They had moved to a new house and it was clear that they had received the money she was promised.
Savitha had been sold to an Indian family in Seattle. She was kept in a studio room with two other girls. They were kept as slaves to work on cleaning for the Indian patriarch and used as sexual playthings by one of his two sons. The other son was an alcoholic, and he and Savitha started a relationship. One brother used him for his perversions and the other one built a relationship with her, something like love. Through her conversation with him, she learned that they didn’t know who her family was in India. She realized that she didn’t have to worry about her family being killed if she ran away.
Patiently, over years, Poornima gained the trust of Guru. She learned English and got a passport. She was going to make it to a America but had to avoid letting Guru know her plans. Finally, she got the chance to “shepherd” a girl to America. She arranged to stay for 3 extra weeks to search for Savitha.
Poornima was kept in an apartment and Mohan, the nicer of the two sons, checked on her every evening. That gave her lots of time to walk around the city. She got some information from the girl she had delivered but it was not helpful; the girl didn’t know Savitha. Finally, with one week to go, she realized she needed Mohan’s help.
Using whisky and her discovery, that Mohan liked poetry, she got him to talk. She told him the story of Savitha, and learned what he knew of her, and that she had ran away two days earlier. She convinced him to take her to Spearfish Canyon, a place Savitha’d learned about from him and had compared to flute song.
Savitha wanted to get to New York. She had a business card that a woman had given her from New York while at JFK airport. Although she didn’t understand what the woman said, she kept th card.
Savitha left with about $100 she stole from Mohan’s wallet after their last time together. She also took the picture he carried in his pocket of him at Spearfish Canyon, leaving half of the picture, the half with his brother behind. She took a bus to Spokane and there, she realized that she didn’t have enough to get to New York. However, she met a couple who took her part of the way. She though they were going to NY but they only had NY plates. The man told her a heartbreaking story of abuse but she understood none of it.
At her next stop, she stayed in a cheap room for 2 nights. Then she met a kindly black man in a cafe. He took her to Spearfish Canyon which was on his way. There, she realized she didn’t have money to find somewhere to stay. She tried to get help from people coming into a gas station but with her limited English, they thought she was a prostitute and mostly ignored her.
As she was leaving the gas station, she was accosted by 2 men. They took advantage of her, leaving her broken behind the gas station. They stole her money and her backpack, leaving her with nothing.
The Ending of Girls Burn Brighter
At that gas station, Poornima and Mohan stopped for snacks. The story ends with Savitha curled up on the floor of the gas station bathroom. She has to get up because someone is jiggling the door. Poornima is trying to get in to use the bathroom, Mohan waiting in the car behind her.