When I set out to write The Color of Our Sky, a novel about a friendship between two girls, I did not realize that many of my childhood memories would imbue this novel with its own color. The two main protagonists of my novel—Tara, who has a relatively privileged upbringing like many girls in India’s cities and Mukta, a poor village girl who is trying to escape her fate—form a bond which would be extremely rare in today’s caste and class based society in India.
I was born and raised in Mumbai, India —the city I fondly remember as Bombay before its name change. There is a sense of belonging to this city, the feel of which permeates this novel. I grew up listening to my maternal grandfather tell me of the village that he came from before he moved to Bombay in search of better opportunities. Like Tara, I was left wondering about the village that my grandfather talked about so much; all I had ever known was the city of Bombay, “where there were buildings after buildings, and when there were no buildings, there were construction sites.” In my teens, I had a chance to visit my grandfather’s village near Mangalore, where I met some incredibly kindhearted villagers. I remember a woman—a stranger, really—who welcomed me into their home because I looked tired and hungry. I sat on a stool with a bowl of jackfruit listening to her stories What also stuck with me during that trip was there were girls in villages that did not receive an education and were easily married off in their teens to strangers. Superstitions were rife and people fiercely held on to obscure traditions for fear of offending a god or a goddess.
Mukta’s character germinated in my own experience of meeting the daughter of a maid servant who worked for my family in Mumbai, India where I was born and brought up. We used to call her Shaku. When I first met Shaku, she was a ten-year-old girl with striking brown eyes and shoulder length hair. Most days, I would find her sitting in the corner of our living room unwilling to make eye contact with anybody. I was about the same age as her. I remember being intrigued by this quiet and shy girl. My mother is a school teacher and at the time, would teach some children in our home. As a kid, I was always enthralled by the proposition to teach someone. Like most Indian families, I was brought up to have a very high regard for education. I thought teaching her to read and write could solve all her problems. We persuaded our maidservant to let me teach her daughter the English alphabets. Shaku seemed elated. We’d sit on the balcony under the morning sun and scribble on a small slate with chalk. She learnt the alphabets well and in a few months she was able to read — if not very fluently.
Shaku was married at thirteen. In the days to come, she rarely showed up and when she did, she would show up with a bruised forehead or a cut lip. She had married a drunk many years older to her. In years to come, she followed in her mother’s footsteps and became a maidservant for many families in our apartment building. And then one day, she just disappeared. My mother said she must have gone back to her village, someone else said she must have run away from her drunk husband and another whispered that she was sold. Rumors were rife but no one really knew.
I realized Shaku was just one example of how quickly such children in Mumbai disappear—some are put to the task of begging on the streets of Mumbai, some spend their life in forced labor, some are sold to brothels to live their lives in servitude. With no one to look out for them, they are more easily lured into the human slave trade.
My novel is an intersection of these two voices: Mukta and Tara
Mukta, as a character, at her very core reminds me of Shaku—the girl who disappeared from my life— but there are many differences. Mukta is in a world of darkness probably far deeper and emotionally excruciating than a life I would ever imagine for Shaku. Mukta took me to a place in my own heart that I never thought existed. For me, the Tara who comes back seeking redemption represents hope for a better tomorrow, for girls like Mukta.
I introduce the Devadasi Tradition because there are so many girls like Mukta who are sacrificed at the altar of Devadasi traditions that still torment some villages in India even though there is a law against it. Human traffickers find it convenient to exploit such traditions on the sly. Some of the female characters in this novel try to convey the helplessness I have heard time and again in women’s voices when they weren’t allowed to make a choice because of tradition, and their gender, but mostly, I strive to echo the yearning for freedom by many such children who are bound in servitude globally. So I leave you with my characters. I hope I have done them and their world some justice.