GIRLS BURN BRIGHTER
An electrifying debut novel about the extraordinary bond between two girls driven apart by circumstance but relentless in their search for one another.
Poornima and Savitha have three strikes against them: they are poor, they are ambitious, and they are girls. After her mother’s death, Poornima has very little kindness in her life. She is left to care for her siblings until her father can find her a suitable match. So when Savitha enters their household, Poornima is intrigued by the joyful, independent-minded girl. Suddenly their Indian village doesn’t feel quite so claustrophobic, and Poornima begins to imagine a life beyond arranged marriage.
An electrifying debut novel about the extraordinary bond between two girls driven apart by circumstance but relentless in their search for one another.
Poornima and Savitha have three strikes against them: they are poor, they are ambitious, and they are girls. After her mother’s death, Poornima has very little kindness in her life. She is left to care for her siblings until her father can find her a suitable match. So when Savitha enters their household, Poornima is intrigued by the joyful, independent-minded girl. Suddenly their Indian village doesn’t feel quite so claustrophobic, and Poornima begins to imagine a life beyond arranged marriage. But when a devastating act of cruelty drives Savitha away, Poornima leaves behind everything she has ever known to find her friend.
Her journey takes her into the darkest corners of India’s underworld, on a harrowing cross-continental journey, and eventually to an apartment complex in Seattle. Alternating between the girls’ perspectives as they face ruthless obstacles, Shobha Rao’s Girls Burn Brighter introduces two heroines who never lose the hope that burns within.
- Flatiron Books
- March 2019
- 416 Pages
Best Book of the Year: The Washington Post, NPR, Shelf Awareness, Paste, LitHub, Real Simple
2018 Goodreads Choice Awards Finalist: Best Fiction
Amazon’s Top 20 Picks for the Best Books of the Year
One of the Best Books of 2018 – So Far (PopSugar)
One of the Best Books of the Month (Harper’s Bazaar, Entertainment Weekly, Bustle, Vulture, PureWow, Paste, Book Riot, Signature Reads, and The Chicago Review of Books)
A Most Anticipated Book of 2018 (Goodreads, Bustle, Huffington Post, Cosmopolitan, BookRiot, PopSugar, The Chicago Review of Books, Ms. Magazine, Seattle Post-Intelligencer)
Longlisted for the 2018 Center for Fiction First Novel Prize
“The debut novelist who has everyone talking this spring….The blurb on the cover of Shobha Rao’s Girls Burn Brighter uses a very particular and descriptive phrase by fellow author Charlie Jane Anders to describe what happens after reading the book: ‘Heart shards everywhere.’ If truer words have ever been spoken about the way a novel made us feel, we’d be hard-pressed to find them.” —Entertainment Weekly
“Engrossing…The pages keep turning, the language is lyrical and lovely, and many phrases call for pause and appreciation…Rao is a capable and confident writer, able to handle a vast and ambitious story line.” —The New York Times Book Review
“Skillfully rendered…. What’s most memorable about the novel, however, is the unadulterated, feminist voice.” —San Francisco Chronicle
“Shobha Rao writes cleanly and eloquently about women who, without their brightness, might have been left to die in their beds. She writes them into life, into existence, into the light of day.” —Los Angeles Times
“Incandescent…A searing portrait of what feminism looks like in much of the world.” —Vogue
“An incredibly raw and compelling story about two young girls who forge a strong bond while weaving saris in a small Indian village plagued by sexism and misogyny.” —InStyle
“Unforgettable.” —Lit Hub
“This debut novel is a compelling story of unbreakable friendship…” —Real Simple
“A devastating debut, Girls Burn Brighter is a testament to the strength of female friendship…. Shobha Rao astounds in her debut novel, not just with stunning prose, but with mastery of pacing, too. In Rao’s hands the heavy, unrelenting subject matter, which might otherwise have been shattering for its raw honesty, is fluid and propulsive. The novel never loses sight of the two strong, sensitive souls at its center, and it leaves the reader breathless in the presence of their power.” —Shelf Awareness
“Burns with intensity…Rao…is clearly a writer of great ambition.” —USA Today
“A definite must-read for readers who love authors like Nadia Hashimi and Khaled Hosseini.” —Bustle
“A treat for Ferrante fans, exploring the bonds of friendship and how female ambition beats against the strictures of poverty and patriarchal societies.” —The Huffington Post
“An unbelievably beautiful and harrowing story of friendship and devotion.” —Book Riot
“Harrowing and beautiful…. Trust us—your book club will want to know Rao’s name.” —BookPage
“A beautiful testament to female friendship.” —PopSugar
1. Discuss the novel’s title. What does it mean to you? How is the experience of being a girl portrayed here? Did you find it eye-opening?
2. Why do you think the author chose to begin with the story about the old woman and the temple doors? What tone does that set for the rest of the novel?
3. How is friendship depicted in these pages? Why do you think Poornima and Savitha are so drawn to each other? What qualities do they share, and what qualities distinguish each of them? Do they change over the course of the novel?
4. Savitha tells Poornima about encountering an owl on the road in Indravalli. The owl tells Savitha, “If two people want to be together, they’ll find a way. They’ll forge a way. It may seem ludicrous, even stupid, to work so hard at something that is, truly, a matter of chance, completely arbitrary, such as staying with someone—as if ‘with’ and ‘apart’ have meaning in and of themselves—but, the owl said. . . but that’s the thing with you humans. You think too much, don’t you?” Discuss the owl’s words. What does this novel have to say about willpower versus fate or coincidence?
5. Poornima and Savitha have very different relationships with their fathers. How do those relationships shape their childhoods and their worldviews? Do you feel any sympathy or understanding toward Poornima’s father?
6. Savitha’s last words to Poornima are“I’m the one with wings.” What do you think she means by that? How are bird and flight imagery used throughout the novel?
7. On her wedding night, Poornima remembers a story from childhood, when she stole a candy and her mother told her to never take what isn’t hers. She reflects,“Don’t you see, Amma, if only I had taken the things I wasn’t meant to take. If only I’d had the courage.” Are there examples after this moment in her story when she does take what she isn’t supposed to? How does she exercise control over her own life?
8. In her husband’s house, after she has been terribly burned, Poornima imagines the banks of the Krishna river: “When she closed her eyes, there were the saris drying on the opposite shore. Every color, fluttering in the river breeze, fields of wildflowers.” Saris and weaving play an important role throughout the novel. What do they represent for Poornima and Savitha? Why does Savitha guard the fragment of cloth from Poornima’s sari so closely?
9. Discuss Savitha’s thoughts on bananas:“Yogurt rice with a banana was like life, simple, straightforward, with a beginning and an end, while the other—the banana split—was like death, complex, infused with a kind of mystery that was beyond Savitha’s comprehension, and every bite, like every death, dumbfounding.” Do you think her views on life and death make her more resilient and able to face adversity?
10. Savitha tells Poornima a story about a crow and an elephant, which Poornima thinks about often as she is searching for her friend. Savitha says,“Here’s what matters. Understand this, Poornima: that it’s better to be swallowed whole than in pieces. Only then can you win. No elephant can be too big. Only then no elephant can do you harm.” What do you think she means? Do you think Poornima and Savitha are swallowed whole by their experiences? Why or why not?
11. Savitha and Poornima both have complicated relationships with Mohan. Why do you think they are both drawn to him? Do you find him sympathetic?
12. Poornima finds a collection of poetry in Mohan’s coat, and reads the most dog-eared page, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” When she discusses the poem with Mohan, he claims“it’s about the struggle to find courage” and that his favorite lines are “And indeed there will be time/To wonder, ‘Do I dare,’ and, ‘Do I dare?’/Time to turn back and descend the stair.” Mohan tells Poornima they are both like Prufrock, but Poornima disagrees: “No, she thought, you’re wrong. You’re wrong. He’s nothing like me.” Why do you think they have such different reactions to the poem? How is courage portrayed in this novel?
13. Discuss the two stories Savitha hears from the men with whom she hitchhikes: the multi-generational story that ends in the propane gas explosion, and the story about the daughter who is half black and half white. Why do you think the men decided to share those particular stories with Savitha, especially knowing that she can’t understand English? What do they add to the novel as a whole?
14. Girls Burn Brighter addresses some of the most difficult issues facing women and girls today: rape, domestic violence, prostitution, sex trafficking, and abuse. Did Poornima’sand Savitha’s stories change the way you think about these issues? Did you find the novel’s ultimate message to be at all optimistic or hopeful? Why or why not?15.The novel’s final scene is left ambiguous: we don’t actually see if Poornima and Savitha reunite. How did you feel about the ending? What do you imagine happening to Poornima and Savitha next? Do you think there is the possibility of a new life for them in America?
Poornima never once noticed the door of the temple.
Neither did Savitha. But the temple watched them closely, perched as it was on the mountain that towered over Indravalli. The village itself was near the banks of the Krishna River, a hundred or so kilometers inland from the Bay of Bengal. Though it was situated in a level valley, the hamlet was shadowed by one of the largest mountains in Andhra Pradesh, called Indravalli Konda, with the temple halfway up its eastern face. It was painted a brilliant white and looked to Savitha like a big boll of cotton. To Poornima, the temple looked like the full moon, perpetually embraced by the sky and the branches of the surrounding trees.
Poornima was ten years old when she stood outside her family’s hut, staring at the temple; she turned to her father, who was seated on the hemp-rope cot behind her, and asked, “Why did you and Amma name me after the full moon?” Her mother was sitting at the loom, working, so Poornima didn’t want to bother her with the question. But she might’ve—she might’ve thought nothing at all of bothering her, of clinging to her neck, of breathing in every last trace of her scent—had she known her mother would be dead in another five years. But her father didn’t even look up when she asked him. He just went on rolling his tobacco. Maybe he hadn’t heard. So Poornima began again. “Nanna, why did you—”
“Is dinner ready?”
“How many times do I have to tell you to have it ready when I come in?”
“Was it because I was born on a full moon night?”
He shrugged. “I don’t think so.”
Poornima then imagined the face of a baby, and she said, “Was my face round like the moon?”
He sighed. He finally said, “Your mother had a dream, a few days after you were born. A sadhu came to her in the dream, and he said if we named you Poornima, we’d have a boy next.”
Poornima looked at him as he lit his tobacco, and then she went back inside the hut. She never again asked about her name. On full moon nights, she tried her hardest to not even look up. It’s just a stone, she decided, a big gray stone in the sky. But it was hard to forget, wasn’t it? That conversation. It would pop up out of nowhere at times, seemingly out of nothing. While she tasted for salt in a pot of sambar, for instance, or while she served her father tea. The sadhu had been right, of course: she had three little brothers. So what was there to be sad about? Nothing, nothing at all. She even felt pride at times, and said to herself, I was their hope and I came true. Imagine not coming true. Imagine not having hope.
* * *
At fifteen, Poornima came of marriageable age, and she stopped going to the convent school. She began to sit at the spinning wheel, the charkha, in her free time to help the household. Each spool of thread she completed—the thread sometimes red, sometimes blue, sometimes silver—earned her two rupees, and this seemed like a fortune to her. And in some ways, it was: when she’d begun menstruating at the age of thirteen, she was gifted the most expensive piece of clothing she’d ever worn, a silk langa costing a hundred rupees. I can earn that in less than two months, she thought breathlessly. Besides: that she, a girl, could earn anything, anything at all, lent her such a deep and abiding feeling of importance—of worth—that she sat at the charkha every chance she got. She woke early in the morning to spin, then spun after the breakfast dishes were washed, after lunch was prepared and served, and then again after dinner. Their hut had no electricity, so her spinning was a race against the sun. Full moon nights were also bright enough to continue, but they only came around once a month. So on most nights, once the sun went down, she’d put her charkha away, look impatiently at the crescent moon or the half-moon or the gibbous moon, and complain, “Why can’t you always be full?”
But sunlight and moonlight weren’t Poornima’s only considerations. The other one, the main one, was that her mother was ill. Cancer, as far as the doctor at the American hospital in Tenali could tell. Medicine was expensive, and the doctor put her on a diet of fruits and nuts—also expensive. Her father, who made the homespun cotton saris that their region of Guntur district was famous for, could barely keep his wife and five children fed on government-rationed rice and lentils, let alone the luxury of fruits and nuts. But Poornima didn’t mind. She relished—no, not just relished, but delighted, actually savored—the food she was able to buy for her mother every day: two bananas, a tiny apple, and a handful of cashews. By savoring, it was not that she actually ate any of the fruit or nuts. Never did she take even a single bite, though her mother did, once, coax her into accepting a cashew, which, when her mother turned away for an instant, Poornima placed back on the pile. No, by savoring, what Poornima did was watch her mother slowly eating the banana, even chewing such a soft thing exhausting her, but Poornima watched her with such conviction, such hope, that she thought she could actually see her mother getting stronger. As if strength were a seed. And all she had to do was add her two rupees’ worth of food and watch it grow.
It got so that Poornima almost made as much as her father. Here is what she did: she’d get loops of raw thread, undivided and in thick bundles, and by using the charkha, her job was to spin the thread so that it separated, and as it did, wound around a metal canister. She once looked at the thread wound around the canister and thought it looked just like a tiny wooden barrel, nearly the size of her littlest brother’s head. This thread would then eventually end up on the loom where her father made the saris. It was treated further before it got to the loom, but Poornima always thought she could spot the lengths of thread that she had spun. The canisters that she had wound it around. Anyone would’ve laughed if she’d told them this—they all look the same, they’d have said—but that wasn’t true. Her hands had felt the canister, known the places it was dented, the contours of its body, the patterns of its rust. She had held them, and it seemed to her that anything a person has held is a thing they never really let go. Like the small wind-up clock her teacher had given her when she’d left school. It had a round blue face, four little legs, and two bells that chimed every hour. When her teacher, an old and embittered Catholic nun, had given it to her, she’d said, “I suppose they’ll get you married now. With a child a year for the next ten. Hold this. Hold on to this. You won’t know what I mean now, but you might one day.” Then she’d wound up the clock and let it chime. “That sound,” she’d said. “Remember: that sound is yours. No one else’s but yours.” Poornima had no idea what the old nun was talking about, but she thought the chiming of the clock was the most exquisite sound she’d ever heard.
She began carrying the clock everywhere. She put it next to her charkha while she worked. She placed it beside her plate when she ate. She put it by her mat when she slept. Until one day, just like that, the clock stopped chiming, and her father exclaimed, “Finally. I thought that thing would never stop.”
A few months after the clock stopped chiming Poornima’s mother died. Poornima had just turned sixteen—she was the eldest of the five children—and watching her mother die was like watching a fine blue morning turn to gray. What she missed most about her mother was her voice. It was soft and mellifluous and warm against the rat-chewed walls of the small hut. It pleased Poornima that such a lovely voice should reach for her, that it should cut through the long hours, when all those hours really amounted to were two bananas, an apple, and a handful of cashews. Her mother’s was a voice that could make even those few things seem like the ransom of kings. And now Poornima had lost both her mother and the clock.
With her mother dead, Poornima slowed her charkha; she put it away sometimes even in the middle of the day, and she would stare at the walls of the hut and think, I’ll forget her voice. Maybe that’s what that old nun had meant, that you forget a sound you don’t hear every day. I don’t think I will now, but I will. And then I’ll have lost everything. Once she thought this, she knew she had to remember more than a voice, she had to remember a moment, and this is the one that came to her: In the course of her mother’s illness, she had been well enough one morning to comb Poornima’s hair. It had been bright and sunny outside and the brush strokes had been so gentle and light that Poornima had felt as if the person holding the comb were not a person at all but a small bird perched on its handle. After three or four strokes her mother had stopped suddenly. She’d rested her hand on her daughter’s head for a moment, and Poornima turned to find her mother’s eyes filled with tears. Her mother had looked back at her and with a sadness that had seemed old and endless, she’d said, “Poornima, I’m too tired. I’m so tired.”
How long after that had she died?
Three, maybe four months later, Poornima guessed. They’d woken up one morning and her eyes had been open and empty and lifeless. Poornima hadn’t been able to cry, though. Not when she’d helped bathe and dress her mother’s body. Not when her father and brothers had carried her, jasmine-laden, through the streets of the village. Not even as the funeral pyre had burned down to a cold ash. Nor when she’d strung the last chrysanthemum on the garland that hung from the framed portrait of her mother. Only later, when she’d walked out into the season’s first cool autumn morning, had she cried. Or tried to cry. The tears, she recalled, had been paltry. At the time, she’d felt like a bad daughter for not crying, for not weeping, but no matter how sad she’d felt, how profound her sorrow, she’d only managed to squeeze out one or two tears. A vague reddening of the eyes. “Amma,” she’d said, looking up at the sky, “forgive me. It’s not that I don’t love you. Or miss you. I don’t understand; everyone else is crying. Buckets. But tears aren’t the only measure, are they?”
Still, what she had imagined came true: as the months wore on she forgot her mother’s voice. But what she did remember, the only thing that truly stayed with her, was that for a short time—while combing her hair—her mother had rested her hand on her. It was the slightest of gestures, and yet Poornima felt it, always: the weight of her mother’s hand. A weight so delicate and fine, it was like the spatter of raindrops after a hot summer’s day. A weight so small and tired, but with strength enough to muscle through her veins like blood.
In the end, she decided, it was the most beautiful weight.
* * *
Once a month, Poornima went to the temple on Indravalli Konda to offer prayers for her mother. She stood in the incense-choked anteroom and watched the priest, hoping the gods would speak to her, would tell her amma was with them, though what she truly yearned to reach was the deepa, more a small lantern, that was perched at the very summit of the mountain. Sometimes she’d stand outside their hut and look up, on a Sunday or a festival day, and it would glow, distant and yellow and blinking, like a star. “Who lights it?” she once asked her father.
“The deepa, on the summit.”
Her father, sitting outside the hut after dinner, his arms fatigued, his body hunched, glanced at Indravalli Konda and said, “Some priest, probably. Some kid.”
Poornima was quiet for a moment, and then she said, “I think Amma lights it.”
Her father looked at her. His look was dark, ravaged, as if he’d just walked out of a burning building. Then he asked for his tea. When she handed it to him, he said, “Another ten months.”
“Till her one-year ceremony.”
Now Poornima understood what he was saying. After a family death, it was inauspicious to have a celebration of any sort, let alone a wedding, for a full year. It had been two months since her mother’s death. In another ten—her father was saying—she would be married.
“I’ve already talked to Ramayya. There’s a farmer near here. A few acres of his own, and a good worker. Two buffalo, a cow, some goats. He doesn’t want to wait, though. He needs the money right now. And he’s worried you won’t take to being a farmer’s wife. I told Ramayya, I told him, Look at her. Just look at her. Strong as an ox, she is an ox. Forget the oxen, she could plow the fields.”
Poornima nodded and went back inside the hut. The only mirror they owned was a handheld mirror; she couldn’t even see her entire face unless she held it at arm’s length, but she held it up to her face, saw an eye, a nose, and then she moved it down to her neck and breasts and hips. An ox? She was overcome with a sudden sadness. Why, she couldn’t say. It didn’t matter why. It was childish to be sad for no reason at all. She only knew that had her mother been alive, she would’ve probably already been married. Maybe even pregnant, or with a baby. That was no cause for sadness either. She was concerned about this farmer, though. What if he did make her pull the plow? What if her mother-in-law was cruel? What if all she had were girls? Then she heard her amma speak. None of those things has even happened yet, she heard her say. And then she said, Everything is already written in the stars, Poornima. By the gods. We can’t alter a thing. So what does it matter? Why worry?
She was right, of course. But when she lay on her mat that night, Poornima thought about the farmer, she thought about the deepa on top of Indravalli Konda, she thought about beauty. If her skin had been lighter, her hair thicker, or if her eyes had been bigger, her father might’ve found a better match for her: someone who wanted a wife, not an ox. She’d once heard Ramayya saying, when he’d come to see her father, “Your Poornima’s a good worker, but you know these boys today, they want a modern girl. They want fashion.” Fashion? Then she thought about her mother; she thought about her last days, spent writhing in pain; she thought about the weight of her mother’s hand on her head; and then she thought about the two bananas, the apple, and the handful of cashews, and as if this were the moment her heart had been waiting for, it broke, and out poured so many tears that she thought they would never stop. She cried silently, hoping her sleeping father and brothers and sister wouldn’t hear, the mat she lay on soaked so thoroughly that she smelled the wet earth underneath, as if after a rainfall, and at the end of it, her body was so wracked with sobs, so drained of feeling, so exquisitely empty, that she actually smiled, and then fell into a deep and dreamless sleep.
Copyright © 2018 by Shobha Rao