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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 358

Girls Burn Brighter, written by Shobha Rao, is a 2018 novel set in India and America. This novel explores the themes of friendship, feminism, and family.

The novel begins by introducing a young girl named Poornima. Poornima's mother has recently passed and Poornima is left to take care of...

(The entire section contains 2001 words.)

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Girls Burn Brighter, written by Shobha Rao, is a 2018 novel set in India and America. This novel explores the themes of friendship, feminism, and family.

The novel begins by introducing a young girl named Poornima. Poornima's mother has recently passed and Poornima is left to take care of her father and her siblings. Readers quickly learn that being a girl from a poor family in India is not a good thing as women are seen as less than equal to men. Poornima's father is especially degrading to her and often comments on her looks and that her attitude will affect his ability to find her a suitable husband. One day, Poornima's father hires another young girl to help him work one of their sari looms.

As soon as Savitha is hired, the two girls immediately form a friendship. Poornima discovers that Savitha is even poorer than her own family. Despite being poor, Savitha is full of energy and a willingness to make the best of her life. Savitha and Poornima dream of their futures together and vow to be best friends. One night, a horrible incident causes Savitha to run away from home. She leaves without saying goodbye to Poornima who is devastated.

Poornima's father finds her a husband who is abusive. She eventually leaves his household to find Savitha. Poornima finds herself involved in a human trafficking ring and discovers that, at one point, Savitha was involved in the same ring. Savitha, after making a heart-wrenching deal, is sent to Seattle, Washington.

When Savitha arrives in Seattle to work as a maid, she finds herself in the middle of another human trafficking ring and is sexually abused frequently. One of the men involved in this ring falls in love with Savitha.

Poornima cleverly finds a way to join Savitha in Seattle only to discover that she is no longer there. Poornima finds herself on a journey through America in order to find her best friend.

The two girls must learn to navigate their struggles to overcome the circumstances they were born into. This story is an eye-opening one that warns of the horrors that the world holds.

Summary

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Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1643

Author: Shobha Rao (b. 1973)

Publisher: Flatiron Books (New York). 320 pp.

Type of work: Novel

Time: 2001–ca. 2005

Locales: Indravalli Konda, Namburu, and Vijayawada, India; Seattle, Washington; South Dakota

With Girls Burn Brighter, debut novelist Shobha Rao tells the harrowing story of two young people from a poor village in India who become fast friends. They are traumatically separated, endure a series of hardships, undergo horrific ordeals, and survive by clinging to the hope of an eventual reunion.

Principal characters

Poornima, a.k.a. Poori, a teenager from a poor weaving family

Savitha, her friend from an even poorer family

Ramayya,a marriage broker

Kishore, her husband by arranged marriage

Guru, the operator of a chain of brothels, a human trafficker

Mohan, the sensitive son of a human trafficker

The protagonists of Girls Burn Brighter, teenagers Poornima and Savitha, have major obstacles—poverty, gender, tradition—to overcome in the course of their fractured friendship. They live in Indravalli, Karnataka, India, a poor rural village of several hundred individuals. Both come from families of weavers. Poornima’s mother has just died of cancer, and her family barely scrapes by with the extra rupees Poornima, as eldest of five children, earns spinning thread to supplement her father’s meager income weaving cotton saris. Savitha’s family, with her father disabled by alcoholism and arthritis and with a broken charkha (spinning wheel), is even worse off. Savitha has to fight feral dogs and pigs while picking over the town dump for scraps of paper and plastic to sell. Both young women operate at a disadvantage in a patriarchal society where women do not count, literally or figuratively: the village only records the births of male children. Poornima’s father, in fact, when his daughter was a toddler and ran into a river, nearly let her drown because she was “just a girl.”

Now that she is of age, Poornima’s father wants to marry her off as soon as possible. First, however, he will have to raise the money for his daughter’s dowry. In local custom—despite laws against dowries in India—this is a combination of money and property. The amount and a payment plan will be negotiated between marriage broker Ramayya and the groom’s family. The price must be of sufficient value that they will consent to take Poornima off his hands, yet low enough to be affordable to a man of modest means. Poornima is resigned to her fate: “Everything is already written in the stars.”Courtesy of Flatiron Books

But the stars did not reckon on the influence of Savitha. Poornima’s father hires the young woman to help complete orders for saris. Savitha will work twelve hours per day on the second loom Poornima’s late mother once used, and be given lunch daily and a portion of the profits. Though Savitha is just a year or two older than Poornima, she seems much more mature. She has large, strong hands, perfect for gripping a loom picking-stick. She has confidence: Savitha was born during a solar eclipse, a bad omen among the superstitious villagers, but does not care. She has attitude, characterized by her favorite meal: rice, yogurt, and banana, all mashed together. Poornima and Savitha hit it off, especially after Savitha protects her friend from the catcalls of village layabouts who accost them as they hike from the town well with their water.

The friendship between Poornima and Savitha grows and becomes more complicated as a heat wave and drought hit the region. Savitha is a tireless worker and produces well-woven saris; she promises to make a special sari for Poornima’s wedding—if she ever gets married. A potential mate, a farmer, thinks Poornima too dark-skinned for his liking and looks for someone else to wed. A meeting with a second possible suitor, an apprentice weaver, is arranged, but some of Savitha’s personality has rubbed off on Poornima, for she fails a crucial test. When the prospective groom asks if she can sing (a question that concerns obedience more than musical ability), she says she cannot. The family demands a higher dowry that Poornima’s father cannot afford, and the wedding is called off. Worse, word gets around about Poornima’s less-than-submissive behavior. Her father abuses her for her failure, and Savitha comforts her. © Carlos Avila Gonzalez

Finally, a match is made with Kishore, an accountant whom she has never met. Poornima’s father has, by this time, come to hate her, and he does not know how he will raise the high dowry. Before the wedding, however, something occurs that splits Poornima and Savitha apart: Savitha is traumatized by a sexual assault, after which Poornima comforts her. The community is scandalized by the event, and village elders declare the attacker must marry Savitha as punishment for his actions. The thought of marrying her rapist is repugnant, so Savitha takes Poornima’s half-finished sari and flees.

From this point, at about the one-quarter mark in the novel, Girls Burn Brighter divides into the separate and alternating narratives of Poornima and Savitha. Neither story is cheery, though both illustrate the protagonists’ resilience, their willingness to do whatever it takes to survive, and their common bond: in times of strife, each gains strength by thinking of the other.

There is plenty of strife ahead. Poornima eventually marries Kishore and discovers his secret. At first, everything seems fine, however. The groom and his family live in a two-story house made of concrete. With her husband and his sisters, Poornima eats at her first restaurant and sees her first movie. When she examines her husband’s accounting work, she realizes it is simple mathematics and teaches herself to do some of that. But storm clouds soon gather. The in-laws question Poornima about missing jewelry and accuse her of purposely staining an expensive sari while doing laundry. When her father has difficulty paying off the dowry, the in-laws blame her for his failure. After Poornima does not become pregnant following six months of nightly rough sex, she is called barren but has the temerity to suggest her husband might be sterile, for which she is punished and threatened. After eighteen months of marriage, the family’s hostility toward the perceived interloper culminates in a vicious, coordinated attack on Poornima, who then does steal and escape, intending to find Savitha. As she travels, people look at her disfigurement and wonder about which method was used. This is a sad commentary on the fact that violence associated with dowries is not uncommon in India. It also suggests a sinister possibility: that her father may have intentionally withheld dowry payments, anticipating she would be harmed.

Poornima makes it as far as the train station a large northern city before she runs into a major obstacle. Through a convoluted set of circumstances, she ends up working as a bookkeeper for Guru, the owner of several brothels in the city. Nine months later, she learns that Savitha was one of Guru’s working girls—but it is too late to reunite with her, as Savitha has left for what at first appears to be a better situation in the United States. Nevertheless, Poornima painstakingly plans and prepares to reconnect with her in America. To earn money, she carries out assignments for Guru, escorting young women to be sold to wealthy men abroad. Finally, her chance comes: Guru asks Poornima to deliver a girl to Seattle and she eagerly sets out, prepared to follow her missing friend across America, if necessary.

Upon publication, Girls Burn Brighter met with mixed reviews. Though punctuated by strong lyric scenes, and peppered with Indian terms that add to the flavor, the novel is unrelenting in its depiction of the many ways in which men take advantage of or abuse women, to such an extent that some readers may feel it becomes gratuitous. As several reviewers noted, the story relies heavily on coincidence, though some of that can be excused by the intuitive relationship between two individuals who probably never had a friend before they met. The narrative is one of contrasts: Poornima is demure and Savitha independent; small-town values come into conflict with the callousness of big cities; and the girls’ poverty is magnified by the wealth accumulated by the men who exploit them. Along with its use of foils and lyricism, the novel is to be commended on its steady pacing and, as an anonymous reviewer for Kirkus Reviews noted, its “resplendent prose” that “captures the nuances and intensity of two best friends on the brink of an uncertain and precarious adulthood.”

In the end, Rao’s novel—part character study, part adventure tale, part East-versus-West parable, part polemic against the traffic in human sex slaves—leaves several questions unanswered. Regardless, it is ultimately both a fascinating and insightfully disturbing read.

Review Sources

  • Basu, Diksha. “A Devastating Friendship Forged in India’s Underbelly.” Review of Girls Burn Brighter, by Shobha Rao. The New York Times, 26 May 2018, www.nytimes.com/2018/05/26/books/review/girls-burn-brighter-shobha-rao.html. Accessed 15 Feb. 2019.
  • Beckerman, Hannah. “‘Girls Burn Brighter’ by Shobha Rao Review—Teenage Trial by Misogyny.” The Guardian, 13 May 2018, www.theguardian.com/books/2018/may/13/girls-burn-brighter-shobha-rao-review. Accessed 15 Feb. 2019.
  • Felicelli, Anita. Review of Girls Burn Brighter, by Shobha Rao. San Francisco Chronicle, 21 Mar. 2018, www.sfchronicle.com/books/article/Girls-Burn-Brighter-by-Shobha-Rao-12771665.php. Accessed 15 Feb. 2019.
  • Review of Girls Burn Brighter, by Shobha Rao. Kirkus Reviews, 7 Dec. 2017, www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/shobha-rao/girls-burn-brighter/. Accessed 15 Feb. 2019.
  • Levin, Ann. “‘Girls’ Burns with Intensity as Two Teen Friends in India Face Abuse.” Review of Girls Burn Brighter, by Shobha Rao. USA Today, 13 Mar. 2018, www.usatoday.com/story/life/books/2018/03/13/girls-burn-brighter-novel-burns-intensity-teen-friends-india-face-abuse/386294002. Accessed 15 Feb. 2019.
  • Patrick, Bethanne. “Women Tend the Flames of Their Ambition in Shobha Rao’s ‘Girls Burn Brighter.’” Review of Girls Burn Brighter, by Shobha Rao. Los Angeles Times, 9 Mar. 2018, www.latimes.com/books/la-ca-jc-girls-burn-brighter-20180309-story.html. Accessed 15 Feb. 2019.
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