As crushing as it is beautiful, Shobha Rao’s debut novel follows two Indian girls through the most hopeless of circumstances, but their enduring friendship burns brightly—endlessly—through it all. Girls Burn Brighter is a light that will not go out. Here, Rao shares a look behind her book.
In November of 1999, two young Indian girls were found unconscious from carbon monoxide poisoning in an apartment building in Berkeley, California. One of the girls, who was 13 years old, died from the poisoning; the other survived. The building was owned by Lakireddy Bali Reddy. And as it turned out, so were the girls. Over the course of the investigation into the girl’s death, it was found that Reddy had trafficked the two girls, along with an alleged 99 other women and girls, into the United States over the course of a 13-year period. The girl who died, Sitha V., had served as a sexual and domestic slave to Reddy. These findings eventually led to the conviction of Reddy, one of the wealthiest and most powerful landlords in Berkeley, to eight years in prison.
Many years later, I found myself working at a South Asian domestic violence agency in nearby San Jose, whereupon I came into contact with one of the victims. She never told me her story, as all documentation related to the case was sealed, but meeting her—witnessing her warmth, her laughter—made me think more deeply about the case.
In this thinking, the first question that came to me was: How much did Reddy pay for Sitha?
The second question was: How much was she worth?
The answer to the first question was simple. I didn’t know it, but it was most certainly simple. At some point, in a small village in South India, Reddy had approached the destitute parents of a young girl. He had handed them money: a set amount of money, decided upon, bargained, negotiated by the powerless parents of a powerless girl. The exact amount he paid for her may be unknown, but it is not a mystery, it is currency: Somebody paid it, somebody accepted it, and a girl was bought.
It happens every day.
The second question though. The second question is what haunted me: How much is a girl worth?
It is this question that I set out to explore in Girls Burn Brighter. In some ways, the writing of the novel, the exploration of what a girl is worth is as straightforward as taking a knife to a frog on a dissecting table. There is a body. You can cut up the body, carve away the limbs; you can make a slit, take out the organs, put them back in. That is a body. It is, for instance, generally worth less without all the limbs intact, without all the organs in place. It is worth less if there’s a slit. Or if there’s a scar. Or if it is too fat. Too thin. Too short. Too tall. Or if the skin is too dark. It is worth less if the frog isn’t the exact shade of green that is preferred by the men of the country it is born into, and the culture and proclivities and notions of beauty that dictate its mores. The frog is worth less if it questions a single one of these mores.
In other ways though, writing the novel was nothing like looking at a frog on a dissecting table. It was instead like looking at a frog in a stream. The same frog, let’s say, but now sunning itself on a rock. The light glinting off the silk of its skin. Its eyes deepened by the memory of that first step onto land, feeling in that step the density of the waiting shore, its unending promise. But this frog on the rock is a girl frog, and so that promise is sometimes meager and offers hardly anything. It is sometimes false and feeds her with lies. It sometimes says to her, you are on a rock, dreaming, but you might as well be on a dissecting table, dead.
And so, then came the true question. What am I worth? What are you worth? Your body, your memories, the depth of your eyes, the fall of your foot, what you give to the world, what you take. What do they add up to?
It’s easy to blurt out a number: a million trillion dollars! A number that has no meaning. A number that is not a true reflection of anything but our fragile egos. A number that we hope and want to believe is maybe not even a number. But whatever it is, whether it is coins of gold or coins of light, we know, in the depth of our hearts, that our number is most certainly larger than Sitha V.’s number.
Is it cruel to admit this? Or is it cruel to not admit this?
And really, why admit anything at all? Why talk about the body of a girl? Now long dead. And why ask what she was worth? Why ask ourselves what we are worth? For surely, you and I will never be for sale. We will never be so poor as to be forced to sell our daughters. We will not lay awake, wondering if there is another way, aching to find it. We will not drop to our knees and clasp her in our arms, wordless, silenced by poverty, by inequity, by the ruthlessness of birth and chance. We will not (no, never) live in a place so horrible and unenlightened and remote as Berkeley, California. We will not let it happen in our midst, nor under our noses.
So why worry about a thing that is not our concern? That is not relevant to us. That is not worth our time.
I was talking once to a friend about overpopulation. I was having a pragmatic conversation about food distribution, water scarcity, land resources. But he was having none of it. He looked right at me, his eyes afire, and he said, “Saying there are too many people in the world is like saying there are too many stars in the sky.”
Too many stars in the sky. How romantic.
See. See how one of them is felled. A 13-year-old girl—born into poverty in India, sold by her poor parents to a rich man, trafficked to the United States, fettered into forced labor and raped repeatedly, before dying alone on a dirty floor. She was born and she was bought and then she died.
And like all stars, she hung for a time in the sky. She burned.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Girls Burn Brighter.
Photo credit Carlos Avila Gonzalez