This is James A Levine’s first novel telling a deeply moving story of Batuk, a 15-year old girl from rural India who is sold into sexual slavery by her father when she is just nine-years old. It is a searing reminder of the resilience of the human spirit and a tribute to how writing can give meaning while helping one transcend even the most harrowing of circumstances.
Batuk’s father takes her to Mumbai and to one Master Gahil who thrusts a pregnant envelope into her father’s tense hand. Batuk sees a familiar expression dart across her father’s face and “as I observed the depth of my father’s weakness, our gazes touched and from him I felt the kiss of inner death. I was transfixed as I felt him draw me within him in terror.” All she remembers are his last words, “Batuk darling…my silver-eyed leopard,” as her last words to her father are “Daddy, take your Batuk – I beg of you.”
Batuk is born as a stubborn child who loves hearing stories from her father but when it comes to her mother, she loves pretending to be deranged and “it simply comes out of me,” she says. When she was a child, her mother would often harshly reprimand her “for the tiniest of sins”. Did she steal her brother’s milk, or not clean herself as told, or not return the cash borrowed from her sister? Batuk would simply love to just stare at her as she screamed and ranted. As Batuk says, “I would look up into her eyes, look beyond her eyeballs and stare into the emptiness that left Father lonely. My eye-locked silence enraged her even more. She would then turn up the scream volume, increase the speed of spit coming from her mouth, deepen her breathing, sweat a little bit more, and, before me, become more putrid. All because I saw her for what she was.”
Batuk is sold into sexual slavery by her father as she navigates the grim realities of the common street – a street of prostitution in Mumbai when children are kept in cages as they wait for customers. Batuk manages to put pen to paper and record her private thoughts and stories in a diary. It seems that Batuk is hard as nails, even when she becomes a child prostitute. She does not know how to caver or cavil.
The story is a searing reminder of a spirited girl who finds hope and beauty in the bleakest of situations.
(Hachette India, Orion House, 5 Upper Saint Martin’s Lane, London WC2H 9EA.)