Raj’s first book amazes. At 20 years old, she writes a memoir of uncommon grace and wisdom.
Born into an “untouchable” family in the South India village of Thattaguppe, the author suspects she may have eluded Vidhiy-Amma, “mother fate,” when she was chosen to go to a special school. Her younger sister and brother stayed behind with her parents, whose relationship existed within restrictive roles: her mother seemed devoid of hope and authority; her father, struggling to provide, responded to marital conflict with violence. For Raj, studying at Shanti Bhavan (or “Abode of Peace”) meant learning how to swim and speak English, how to enjoy good food and to avoid an early marriage. “I was very happy and free here—in a world where hardship, poverty, violence, and hunger didn’t exist,” she writes. But these luxuries came at a cost: losing fluency in Kannada, her mother tongue, and a limited connection with family. She felt she was living in two worlds, “each alien to the other.” Disconnection was most poignant in the case of her sister Kavya, whose unexpected death at 14 remains a mystery. A casualty of sexual violence and perhaps suicide precipitated by it, Kavya represents an alternative fate the author may have met. A falling out with Kavya opens the book; a haunting dedication to the lost sister completes it. The pacing moves with a sure step as the narrative uncovers complex layers of cultural challenges. Though Raj’s depiction of her school is so praiseful that it approaches propaganda, Shanti Bhavan’s power over a child—who remained there until adulthood—is indeed a credible expression of love. As her mother cleaned houses in Singapore and her father scared off wild elephants in the sugar cane fields near the village, the author planned for college and a career. She was given the chance to transcend her family history and perhaps her own karma, knowledge of which she has “long coveted.” If sarayam, the bootlegged liquor made from sugar cane, dictates village economy and life, it will not dictate hers.
A deft, intimate portrayal of a young woman’s growth through