Rising With Resilience From Unrelenting Abuse
In conversation with author Shobha Rao on her thought-provoking book Girls Burn Brighter, we learn about unspoken-of worlds and emancipating tales
Where does the inspiration for Girls Burn Brighter lie?
In the world as experienced by the poorest, the disenfranchised, the most marginalised…because that, too, is our world. We have an imperative, compassionate obligation to imagine lives that are not our own. For me, that meant looking around, and seeing the many vulnerabilities and challenges of what it is to be female, in certain sectors of society. It meant looking beyond the comfortable edges of my own life.
Were your characters based on real people you’ve encountered?
Undeniably, my characters are based on real people: the young girl looking lost at the train station, the mendicant on the corner, the battered women who walk the streets beside us. All of them feed our river of understanding, empathy, and my writing life. But none of my characters is based on one particular person, though working for many years with victims of domestic violence gave me a sense of what horrors we hold in our hearts, our bodies, and the privations that infect each of our lives. It also gave me some recognition of our endurance in the face of these horrors, our resilience in the face of unrelenting abuse. Savitha and Poornima get their determination and their grit from these women I’ve met, from the light in their eyes that refuses to be extinguished.
While the problems the girls face — abuse, assault — are universal, you chose to have your characters come from the villages of India — why so? Do you identify with India as ‘home’?
I think when one emigrates the idea of home is shattered. No single place will ever be home again. But I turn to India again and again in my fiction, as it is the country I lost. What we have lost will always hold an allure, a near-constant seduction. Beyond that, as any woman, I look at the statistics of (reported) rape and sexual assault in India and I am heartbroken, disgusted, and outraged. This novel is my dirge and my bellow.
Who is your favourite character and why? Which one was hardest to write?
Asking me to choose a favourite character is like asking me to choose a favourite limb! But certainly, creating both Savitha and Poornima was such a joy. I delighted in watching them grow up, persevere, trade sorrow and strength between them with such love, such hope. As if sorrow and strength, as if love and hope, were simply handkerchiefs they passed back and forth. Isn’t that, after all, what friendship is? Mohan was probably the hardest to write. To create a character who traffics women and exploits them horribly, but nevertheless has a streak of tenderness in him, and the benevolence to help the very woman he’s trafficked? That was a challenge.
The story was left quite open-ended. Will readers see more of Savitha and Poornima in the future?
There would be a magnificence in Savitha and Poornima finally meeting, after so many years apart and after all that they’ve endured, a magnificence that, to me, would be beyond words. Some rare moments in life are like that: so achingly beautiful that we are left speechless. We are left suspended in the nothingness and everything-ness of that moment. It is good to know those moments; it is good to know great silence. As for seeing Savitha and Poornima in the future, I have no plans either way! But if I were to do so, I would first want us — all three of us — to age, to wait, to watch the years, and only then would I want us to encounter each other again.
Do you see Girls Burn Brighter as a feminist novel?
If we are to understand feminism as the advocating of equal social, political, legal, and economic rights for women, then the air I breathe is feminist. The water I drink is feminist. Every word I write and will ever write is and will be feminist. So yes, Girls Burn Brighter is a feminist novel.
If you had to give readers one reason to pick up your book, what would it be?
There is no reason, or there is the most ancient reason of all: we are sitting in a cave, there is a fire, outside it is dark and wild animals roam. Let me tell you a story, I say, and let’s get through this long night together.
What makes you feel most empowered?
Empowerment is a state of being. It is the sheer astonishment of knowing your own worth, knowing that you are infinite, that you are immensely capable, and downright unstoppable. What makes me feel empowered is the witnessing of another’s power. A power that is inward, answerable, thoughtful, respectful, and one that understands the fragility and courage of what it is to be human.
What are the themes you enjoy reading and writing about?
I love stories of journeys — the journey of a mouse toward a piece of cheese, or the journey of two people towards love. It is while we are journeying that we are made more alive, more inquisitive, more lonely, and also more limitless.
One author who has had the greatest impact on you as a writer?
There have been so many — Elfriede Jelinek, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Kamala Markandaya, Forough Farrokhzad, Clarice Lispector, Simone de Beauvoir, and on and on. Each one gives me courage. Each one of them says, ‘Write something true’.
What can we expect next from you?
I wish I knew. But I was thinking vaguely, somewhat trepidatiously, of turning my gaze towards the United States; of exploring a different kind of richness. Because it’s inaccurate to say I lost a country. What happened, in truth, is that I gained a new one.