Of the many profound truths that pepper A Disobedient Girl , perhaps the most contextually illuminating is attributed to a minor character somewhere in the middle of the book. “People leave home for many reasons, Duwa (daughter),” an old lady says. “They leave because they love the wrong people, or they leave because the right people don’t love them.”
Love in its many forms and interpretations—benevolent and malignant, sororal and maternal, instinctive and presumed—is the motif of Sri Lankan-origin writer Ru Freeman’s first book, without doubt one of the most compelling novels you’ll read this year. A Disobedient Girl is such an accomplished work that it is hard to believe it’s a first novel: At the same time, its wisdom and temperance say much for a delayed debut.
A Disobedient Girl: Penguin/Viking, 374 pages, Rs550.
A delayed debut, ironically, is the prime motivator for Freeman’s two protagonists: Latha, a young girl, chafes at the bit in a well-off Colombo household where she is at once a playmate to a girl her own age and a servant. Miles away, Biso, a woman yet to turn 30, decides to escape a brutal marriage with her three children, and break out into her own. Alternating chapters focus on their separate lives, while delicately hinting at a shared heritage and a common need for a place they know they deserve in a larger world.
To get to their goals, each undertakes a journey: one literal and metaphorical, from the coast to the uplands; and the other through adolescence and youth to maturity. Their stories of surpassing barriers of class, gender and accidents of birth play out against an understated backdrop of a Sri Lanka in turmoil, echoing the island nation’s own loss of innocence to moral, societal and political violence.
Stripped to the bare bones, A Disobedient Girl would perhaps seem to be the latest in a long line of coming-of-age fiction to emerge from a politically turbulent Asia in recent years—consider Preeta Samarasan’s Evening is the Whole Day (2008), set in Malaysia, or Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner (2003)—but Freeman raises the bar for the genre (if indeed a region’s urge to tell its stories can be termed so) by her mastery over her characters and her craft.
In Latha and Biso, Freeman has created two women who can stand shoulder to shoulder with the best of fiction’s feminist protagonists. Feisty, confident, enterprising, independent and completely unafraid to love, they demand life on their own terms and never shy away from paying the price. Biso, a fisherman’s wife, falls in love with a revolutionary and sees no reason why she should hide the fact for fear of gossip. Latha, in her mid-teens, seduces an upper-class boy as vengeance against her employer’s refusal to allow her to buy a pair of new sandals.
Backdrop: The book is set against the ethnic strife in Sri Lanka. AFP
In the tangled mesh of their lives, each seeks a reciprocal passion and the men are inevitably found wanting. Biso sublimates her love in her three children, Latha in her peer-friend-employer Thara and her two girls and multiple lovers. As Latha wonders late in the book, “Were there strong men in the world? If there were, she had not met them. No, all she had met had been men who ruled small worlds from their perches upon the backs of strong women.”
In some ways, it’s an indication of how self-aware Freeman is as a writer: Her male characters are unsubstantial wraiths, denied the roundedness of even the many minor women, such as Biso’s sage old aunt, whose reasoning for leaving home is as good a summation of the novel as any. The two narrative strands, temporally apart, can seem problematic at the outset (though they later prove to be integral to the structure). There are also a couple of other plot loopholes that rather leave one wondering—and I also wish they had thought of a title that didn’t channel Sidney Sheldon!
But none of it matters. So beguiling are Freeman’s people, so empathetic her voice, that the reader is swept along the twin strands to a finale that is as uplifting as it is organic.
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