Like most middle-class Indians, Amita Trasi grew up with the presence of a maid in the household. But it was her maid’s daughter, Shaku, who embedded herself in Trasi’s consciousness and who is the inspiration for Mukta, one of the primary characters in Trasi’s debut novel, The Color of Our Sky.
Trasi remembers that Shaku would quietly sit in a corner of the family living room as her mom worked. Trasi was eager to hang out with Shaku and teach her during weekends and vacations. “Unfortunately, she was married at a very young age to an older drunk and months later, she disappeared,” Trasi says. “I don’t think I’ve ever been able to get over the shock of how a child—any street child, for that matter—can disappear and there is no one out there looking for them.”
A similar fate meets Mukta in the novel. Born into a lower caste, she is prepared to become a devadasi, a servant of God. With roots in ancient times, devadasis were talented artists who practiced the dance Sadhir and dedicated their lives to the Hindu temples performing rituals. These days they’re also prime targets for sex trafficking.
In the novel, Mukta initially escapes her fate and is welcomed into the home of young Tara. The two strike a tentative friendship until tragedy strikes again and Mukta is kidnapped and becomes a victim of the very sex trafficking she was trying to avoid. Trasi says it was important for her to set the scourge of child trafficking as the centerpiece of the story. “These are the children of tomorrow who will emerge full of scars in a world that I’m afraid may not be ready to understand their deepest anguish or trauma,” she says. “They will turn out to be both victims and predators and keep the vicious cycle of human trafficking going.”
The Color of Our Sky visits Kamathipura, Mumbai’s oldest red-light district. “I think the most horrifying part of being in such a place is looking into the eyes of helpless women who have nowhere to go,” Trasi says. “It is astonishing that in today’s day and age, slavery still exists and is still an important subject we need to talk about.”
In the novel, Tara is plagued by guilt that she might have been responsible for Mukta’s kidnapping. While there might be a nugget of truth here, there are many additional layers to the story, highlighted by the class and caste differences between the two. “Throughout the book, they are never equal in any way, whether it is the opportunities that are offered to them or the lives they lead,” Trasi points out. In fact, Tara moves on as an adult to the United States (much like Trasi did, although similarities between her and Tara are only coincidental, Trasi says), while Mukta’s fate remains unknown until Tara takes it upon herself to find out what happened to her old friend.
Trasi is acutely aware of the differences between her and Shaku, something she wanted to echo in this story. “There are many girls like Mukta in India today who do not have the luxury to dream. They are either married off at a young age or herded like cattle from one brothel to another,” Trasi says. “Education is not something these girls’ parents can afford, and often to support the family and to avoid paying dowry to the girl’s husband, they are either sold or bartered in exchange for goods to help them survive. Girls who are brought up in extremely poor families learn very quickly that their dreams may never come true.”
“Mukta’s story,” Trasi adds, “is a reflection of this reality.”
Poornima Apte is a Boston-area freelance writer and editor with a passion for books.