“In some parts of India, staying alive is perhaps more traumatic than being dead.”
— Hunger’s Daughters, pg. 132
Ostensibly, Hunger’s Daughters is about India’s girl child. Her life, her sorrows, her abandonment and abuse. Her labour. On a re-read, Hunger’s Daughters is an indictment of urban politics, or the Hindu caste system. Or, both of those are wrong; Hunger’s Daughters is about female solidarity, across caste, class and linguistic lines. And of course, it is all of the above.
We start the story with Susanthi Bodra, who is forced to earn her living because her father is dead and her mother is ill. This illness hangs over Sushanthi’s narrative like a toxic miasma, unnamed and incurable. From Susanthi’s forested home in Orissa, we travel with the novel’s omniscient but elusive narrator, Nainika Chandra, wistfully across the South and North-East of India, yearning for an absent lover. If Susanthi mourns her childhood and her parents, Nainika seems entirely consumed with her unnamed lover and their child. This pre-occupation adds to a dream-like, almost surreal narrative tone that colours everything we see.
Susanthi is not the only girl child who must fend for herself. In Manipur, we meet Nominta Debury; in Jharkhand, barely an adult, we meet Asha Paharia. One way or another these girls and young women must fend for themselves; must brave forests and dark paths alone for basic sustenance, hygiene and comfort.
For every girl, a mother. We follow Minnal from Tamil Nadu, a lesser Goddess who is looking for her oldest son. We meet Gowravva from Karnataka, searching for her daughter Nelli, who was sold to the sex trade decades ago. Every one is searching for something; everyone is searching for the same thing.
Over time we see these seemingly unconnected stories tell us the same thing over and over again — all these girls and women are distinct; all these girls and women are the same. The patriarchy, the State, the caste system, all conspire together to put India’s daughters in danger; force them to face an uncaring world alone. Only the fortunes of class and caste allow them to escape — and those lucky women face a choice: to work with the oppressors, or against them.
Helplessness is not the only option — none of these women, none of these girls, give in to despair. The reader is invited into this non-linear, soft-focused narrative to celebrate the resilience and collaboration between women and men who seek to empower women, to create paths that women can choose for themselves. Whether they access these paths through their spirituality, their love or their loyalty to community, we repeatedly see women working together against patriarchal and jingoistic powers and refuse to stay in the margins.
The patriarchy gets short shrift here — villainous men shown as pathetic caricatures prey to their lusts or to political shenanigans. At least the women, still seen in broad strokes, are shown in close-ups, living in their bodies, embodying their desires and ambitions.
All these lives mirror each other, repeating actions and situations and intersecting in surprising (and sometimes unbelievable) moments. In some ways, Hunger’s Daughters is drawing up a new pan-Indian mythology, centering the stories urban India dismisses too quickly, or packs into one tidy corner of dismay. The repeated motifs, actions and situations force the reader to remember these women and children; force us to face their stories and the reasons for their oppression. We may not look away; we must read through the margins and acknowledge them.
Much has been made of Govindarajan’s style throughout the novel. Nainika Chandra is an omniscient narrator who does not reveal everything at once. In her dreamscape of love and longing we see events unfold as they intersect, and not necessarily in a chronological fashion. Narrative is revealed through poetry, and sweeping asides that — if you do not agree with the underlying philosophy — sometimes throw you out of the story and break the flow. Sometimes, this poetic prose yields astonishing beauty, but every so often the narrative style overreaches itself and lands in absurdity.
Narrative style is as much a matter of taste as of art — several other reviewers have admired Govindarajan’s prose and for them it is the highlight of the novel. The poetic prose (however seldom it falls into the absurd) feels to me like a barrier between the reader and the story. Govindarajan is a seasoned journalist, and perhaps some of that distance has filtered into the storytelling here. But if the prose style is to your taste, then Hunger’s Daughters is an emotional, tender read, worth your time and attention. As the novel weaves its fractal tapestry to a mythic, brilliant conclusion, the reader is rewarded for her endurance with a thrilling and satisfying finish, both emotionally and structurally. Re-reads are entirely rewarding, furnishing the reader with new connections and revelations that went unnoticed before. Hunger’s Daughters might not have a narrative style to everyone’s taste, but it tells a compelling story we will not easily forget.
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