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The Girl In The Broken Mirror by Savita Kalhan is a book I’d recommend to anyone over 16, a book that shines a light on the rape culture that dehumanises a rape survivor.
“The sunlight blazed obscenely through her windows, blinding, dazzling. It stretched out its long, warm fingers towards her,…” So begins the prologue of this remarkable Young Adult book by Savita Kalhan, that deals with the aftermath of the rape of a teenage British girl of Indian origin, a second generation immigrant.
No spoilers here – as we start the prologue, we already know that a horrifying rape has happened, and we’re introduced to the protagonist Jay through her immediate feelings and actions, and very words used in this narrative sets the tone of the book – the sunlight blazing obscenely into the room through the window, even though it wasn’t welcome, even though Jay does not want it to intrude into the cocoon she wants to go into, can’t feel beyond the darkness that the rape has filled her with.
So, meet Jay, a.k.a Jayalakshmi Sharma, who lives with her mother Neela in a small flat above a grocery store, working evenings there after school to help her mother make ends meet. It was a difficult, yet a happy life – Neela and Jay were as close as mother daughter can be, even friends. Jay had a good friend at school in Matt, and unnamed, nebulous feelings were making their presence felt between the two.
Born in the lap of luxury to parents who were immigrants from India, Jay grew up without the usual restrictive trappings that come with other Indians in their situation – her father believed in bringing her up with all the freedom of thought and action that growing up in the UK can afford an ordinary child. Until he committed suicide, having lost everything in business.
A liberal childhood made what followed even more difficult for Jay. Forced to move from the small but happy flat the two were at, her mother takes the decision to move in with some rich relatives on her husband’s side, where Jay’s Aunty Vimala makes sure mother daughter were just glorified unpaid workers in the home, even putting them in rooms on two different floors of their mini-mansion, as far from each other as possible. Aunty Vimala also believed in different standards of behaviour for boys and girls, and in her mind, Jay was supposed to be a docile, hardworking Indian girl, who had stricter curfews and none of the privileges any boy would have, even if it was her nerdy and quiet younger son Ashok, who was quite a disappointment for her. And of course her macho older son who was away at university was the sun and the moon as far as she was concerned.
So what happens next? How does everything go so downhill for them from that point onward? How do mother and daughter communicate? How do Aunty Vimala’s strictures boomerang and make Ashok an unlikely ally? And what about Matt? How does Jay really deal with a life that has imploded around her? Does she find a way through the darkness?
Savita Kalhan, a hitherto unknown author for me, has written a heartbreaking, yet uplifting tale that rings very true to the emotions that Jay is plunged into post the rape. The dull blankness that she descends into, the way her brain copes with the brokenness of body and mind, the depths of blackness that seems as if there’s no end to it, the complete dissociation, the inability to even speak the word ‘rape’ to acknowledge what happened to her, the days spent feeling like a ‘thing’ rather than a human being, the harrowing guilt and a feeling of unworthiness… In many ways, the book reminded me of the iconic book by Laurie Halse Anderson, Speak, which in my opinion, should be recommended reading for all young adults over 16.
The Girl In The Broken Mirror puts a spotlight on how rape culture can dehumanise the victim, especially in the context of Jay’s Indian roots. This is a society where men feel a sense of entitlement, and women sometimes bolster that by their favouring of the male child, especially as this male child gives her a standing in society that a girl child cannot. This is a society where the rape of a girl is tied up to the idea of ‘honour’, and she is considered to be somehow tainted. And no matter how liberal her upbringing, this trickles down into her psyche, as is seen in the frenzied cleaning of her body that Jay tries to do, still feeling unclean, the fear she experiences in even having to speak the word that tells others what happened to her, and the feeling of being unworthy of softer and better feelings from others.
When I got a request to review this book, and looked it up online before receiving the review copy, I was intrigued by the fact that the protagonist was a teenager of Indian origin grown up in the UK – and a little doubtful about how authentic the voice of the protagonist would be, straddling the fence of two cultures. Savita Kalhan has it pat – this has been very skilfully brought out in the conversations Jay has with her British friends Matt and Chloe, and in the way Chloe just doesn’t ‘get’ what Jay tries to tell her. And not just this bit, Jay’s inner voice is true to the teenager she is.
This review won’t be complete without a mention of three things.
One, the brilliant depiction of a very close mother daughter relationship that has its many ups and downs, a relationship that is also very fragile even if deep enough to heal itself given some tender loving care.
Two, the cover image – of a girl trying to hold herself close, barricading the world around her, under a street lamp that acts as a spotlight, a spotlight she doesn’t want, yet a light that might show her the way.
And three, the inscription in the beginning, which is an apt quote from Amrita Pritam:
“There are many stories
Which are not on paper,
They’re written in the bodies and minds of women.”
So true – women carry within themselves so many stories that need to be told, on paper, so that others can realise what they do to women by their unthinking, and often deliberately entitled actions.
My only issue with the book was that there should be a mention of rape somewhere in the blurb, or a trigger alert, as we establish the fact of rape right at the beginning, and young adults taking up the book should be aware of what they are picking up.
Sensitizing young people (and their parents) is the need of the hour. I’d recommend this book to anyone in a heartbeat. Anyone above 16. As the author says in an interview with The Asian Writer, “I hope all young people will pick up the book – whether they are girls or boys, because it is as relevant to both sexes. In this #metoo and #timesup climate, it’s of paramount importance for both girls and boys to be aware of the boundaries, of the rights and wrongs of their actions, of the consequences, the repercussions, and the emotional and physical trauma of the act of sexual assault/abuse and rape.”
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Top image via Savita Kalhan and book cover via Amazon
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