Published: 07th January 2019
Hunger's Daughters: This compelling book by Bengaluru-based writer Nirmala Govindarajan is a must-read
This is the Bengaluru-based writer third book and inspired by her experiences of documenting rural life of young girls forced into labour and in some cases, also the flesh trade due to poverty
Nirmala Govindarajan has been writing all her life. It was what paved the path for her to become a journalist. She has since taken her journalism experiences, added some magic realism to it and brought out a book called Hunger's Daughters. The book is based on her experiences of documenting the lives of young girls from remote regions in the country who are forced into labour — and in some cases, also into flesh trade.
During her stint as a journalist covering art and culture for a daily in Bangalore, Govindarajan volunteered to document remote regions in Jharkhand and Orissa, often very close to Naxal strongholds. The book fictionalises the lives of many of the young girls Govindarajan has met during her time in these regions to meld into a narrative of poverty and power, with an underlying story of love.
Avid Writer: Nirmala Govindarajan was born and brought up in the city of Bengaluru, her mother was a noted Kannada writer
Hunger's Daughters also has older women characters who have been through similar struggles in their lives, who strive to make life better for the young. The author has also added a few striking male characters in the book, fashioned after popular figures in Bangalore, who she says have impacted her life positively. "The book first confronts the lives of little girls in some of India’s poorest forest hamlets, highlights the feminine force, and then moves into magic realism to set the tone for an ending that is in tandem with my belief of striving for an equitable society," she explained. This English novel also has characters conversing in Kannada, Tamil, Bengali and German to bring out the rawness of the characters.
In her epilogue, Govindarajan writes that on one of her documentation trips, she overheard a group of men at a nearby table, when she was seated in a restaurant, talking about getting their own family members into the flesh trade. "They were talking of trading little girls from this region, some as young as three. And their own relatives were involved in the exchange, thanks to the never-ending cycle of poverty in a region where mining, legal or illegal, devastates the land, and its people," she writes.
That night, Govindarajan says that she went back to her room and prayed that the girls would be saved. She did not have the heart to leave the girls the next day — but had no choice. When asked if that was when she decided to write a book or if it was another such incident, she says that it was the entire experience that led her to the moment. She credits her introduction to the social sector to her guru, Peter Colaco, a documentary filmmaker under whom she interned in her early days, and went on to work with. After a few years of working in the space, she moved on to work on the art and culture beat for leading newspapers.
"I worked for almost eight years in the art and culture section. It was during this time that my dear friend, Catherine Raja, requested me to document the work her NGO was involved in. So I took a week off and went into the most interior parts of Orissa. On the first day that I got there, there was a daughter whose mother had suddenly disappeared, and she was now alone. After that, all the experiences I had there, lead me into my future as a writer, and impacted my career choice, too,” she explained.
Drawing Inspiration: Govindarajan wrote her book sitting at one of the tables at Koshy's in Bengaluru taking inspiration from some of the people around her too
Govindarajan’s first trip to Orissa, lead her to document a project called Earn While You Learn that encouraged young children to pursue studies while also working. She says she was able to relate it to her own life. "At the age of 13, my father's career wasn't going too well, so I was encouraged by my parents to start earning while I learnt. So, I was able to identify with the young breadwinners in this region. But, of course, these girls come from extremely poor backgrounds," she said. The writer says that she doesn't just write from the perspective of a journalist but also from that of an activist.
Her vast experiences would lead one to think that it must have taken a while to put all those varied situations into words. Ironically, Govindarajan only took a month-and-a-half to write her book. "I let my soul take over my mind," she writes in her epilogue. "One winter’s day, I sat by the French window at Bangalore's popular (resto-cafe) Koshy's, and started writing. The narrative just kept flowing, and over the next 40 days, I wrote the novel at one go. I do that with my articles too," she laughs. "My editor would always be worried because even if my deadline was at 8, I would be loafing around till 7, talking to everyone, figuring the starting line of the story in my head. At 7.30, I would start to write! But my editors never really worried that much about it because they knew I would file my story at the appointed time, and it wouldn’t need editing," she adds.
Even though it took her a while to find the right publisher, Govindarajan finally managed to find the perfect one for her book, "I knew what I wanted to present to the audience, I had that very clear in my head and so I found Om Books to be the right choice when it came to publishing Hunger's Daughters,” she said.
So far, the book has received rave reviews. What are her plans now? "I do hope to set aside some funds from the sale of Hunger’s Daughters towards the betterment of girl children in the poorest pockets of Orissa,” she said.