A Disobedient Girl
By Ru Freeman
Reviewed by Kiran Manral
What do you do when you are thrown into a life situation that delegates you to be perenially subordinate? This powerful debut novel by Ru Freeman poses just that question. Set in Sri Lanka, through the era of the LTTE strife, the protagonist is Latha, who is the maid in a genteel Colombo household and the playmate to Thara. The parallel track is that of Biso, who is escaping an alcoholic husband, and has got onto a train to the north of Sri Lanka, to her maternal aunt's home, with her three children. Her husband has killed her lover, and her third child is the product of her illicit dalliance. Latha grows up in the shadow of Thara, who gets all the clothes, the shoes, the attention. The narrative is powerfully written, we see Latha yearn for the luxuries that Thara takes for granted, unable to understand why she must be deprived of what Thara takes as a right. Her anger at being denied a new pair of sandals drives her to seduce Thara's crush, and she consequently gets pregnant. In disgrace, she is sent off to a convent in the mountains where she bears her child who is taken away by the nuns and given up for adoption. And Biso, on the train to the north, in another time, is touched by the kindness of strangers, is kind to a pregnant girl also being sent off to a convent, encounters a bomb blast on the train she is travelling, and tragically is seperated from her two older children who become the prey of foreign paedophiles. Latha comes back from the convent, to manage the household for Thara, who is now married to Gehan, who was Latha's love before she set about seducing Ajith, Thara's crush. Latha gets into a casual relationship with a foreigner, ends up pregnant with Gehan's baby and is banished yet again, in disgrace, going back to the convent, which we now realise, is where she came from, and why her life had destined her to take on the subservient role, which was not in her genes.
At the end of the novel, the two narratives come together and you realise, what you had been suspecting in the course of the novel, is two, and that the lives of Biso and Latha are intertwined, in the cruel, exacting way karma has. Powerfully poignant, the author sketches the character of Latha exactingly, letting us see her in her flaws and her weaknesses, in her refusal to kowtow to the demand that she remain content with her lot, which leads her into further trouble. As an anthropological insight into Sri Lankan Sinhalese society, the novel is rich in detail, which is woven in unobstrusively into the narrative without hindering the flow of the story in anyway or necessitating a translation for the reader. An impressive must read debut.