Modern India is a conundrum of multitudinous dimensions. Any attempt at chronicling – in fiction or non-fiction – its transition is not without its own set of challenges. Amita Trasi’s debut novel The Colour of Our Sky, which grapples with issues like caste and class, sets out to explore the multiple facets of modern India through the story of a friendship between two young girls, Mukta and Tara. The author fashions a narrative arc based on a pot-pourri of its problems – caste system, social inequality, child trafficking, and sex slavery, among others.

The Colour of Our Sky was originally self-published in the US, where Trasi is based, in 2015. William Morrow (HarperCollins, NY) acquired it soon afterwards. Its appearance in India, along with Turkish, Czech, Italian, Norwegian, Spanish, Portuguese, and Hebrew translations, follows its success internationally.

A double narrative

The novel, which flits between the alternating narratives of the two protagonists, careens through a village in Maharashtra and the cities of Mumbai, Kolkata and Los Angeles. Chance brings Tara and Mukta, the two narrators, together, and they become friends. However, a cruel twist also separates them while they are still young.

Trasi begins the novel with Tara’s narrative in 2004. After losing her father in Los Angeles, Tara has come to Bombay 11 years later to look for Mukta, who was kidnapped from Tara’s house. Bombay is where she was born and brought up before she left the country with her father. The city and her home are replete with memories bitter and sweet. This is where Tara lost her beloved mother in a bomb blast, and later, her best friend Mukta.

Mukta’s narrative begins in a village in Ganipur, somewhere in Maharashtra, in 1986. Barely eight years old, she lives with her devadasi mother and grandmother on the outskirts of the village meant for the lower caste. Her mother, in accordance with tradition, is married to the goddess Yellamma to devote her body and life to the upper-caste men.

However, she wants to protect her daughter Mukta from this exploitation and promises to take her to her father, a zamindar’s son. But he does not accept Mukta as his daughter. This comes as a shock to her mother, who falls sick. The stream of men who used to visit her dries up and her livelihood as a devadasi becomes a cause of concern. To escape this crisis, Mukta’s grandmother tricks Mukta into marrying Yellamma too, and ultimately sells her to a brothel owner in Mumbai.

After the dedication ceremony in the temple, the brothel owner and her grandmother take Mukta to a middle-aged rich man who rapes her. When she returns, she sees her mother involved in a conflict with villagers, who lynch her. Mukta is taken to Mumbai by a social worker. He lives with his wife and a young daughter named Tara. Mukta becomes their house helper and gradually develops a long-lasting friendship with Tara.

However, the caste and class divide is deep-rooted and Tara remains conscious of her superiority over Mukta.

After she is kidnapped, Mukta is forced to live a life of darkness at brothels in Kamathipura (Mumbai) and Sonagachi (Kolkata) in the hope that Tara will discover her one day. Mukta’s trials and tribulations as a sex worker continue to take a toll on her. She meets many men and even falls in love, but her life keeps deteriorating. Her journey mirrors the dark lives of sex workers who continue to fight a hard battle for survival.

Meanwhile, after Tara’s visit to her father’s village, Ganipur, which is also where Mukta used to live with her mother, dark family secrets tumble out.

True to life

In the author’s note, Trasi writes that she has based Mukta on the life of her household helper’s ten-year-old daughter, Shakuntala, who was shy and had striking features. She also writes that there are villages at the border of Maharashtra and Karnataka that follow the tradition of the devadasi system, pushing girls into temple prostitution and flesh trade.

The Colour of Our Sky is the story of one such young woman. While it touches upon love, loss, betrayal, guilt and redemption, its preoccupation seems to be with the atrocities on women in the garb of tradition, sanctioned by religion.

Women forced into prostitution in India, and anywhere in the world, are often talked about in derogatory terms. They are usually dehumanised, subjected to denigration, exclusion and ridicule. One of the aims of this novel is to humanise the story of those who are exploited because of the circumstances of their birth and forced to spend their lives in the dark dungeons of depravity and abuse.

The novel explores how some of the rigid traditions of society continue to hold sway in modern times. It also looks at the class divide and the prejudice towards the underprivileged. Through the stories of Tara and Mukta, it delves into violence and crime against women – honour killing, eve-teasing, molestation, rape, child abuse, paedophilia, infanticide, girl-child trafficking, ill-treatment of household helpers, and inhuman treatment of women sex workers.

The story also highlights the life of sex workers in brothels. After being betrayed by their fathers and lovers, they are sold and pushed into the flesh trade, triggering a chain of slavery and exploitation. The picture that Trasi paints is quite bleak. And there is no real hint of redemption in this long saga.

The Colour of Our Sky, Amita Trasi, HarperCollins India.