Today I am delighted to join the tour for Small Deaths by Rijula Das. I’ll be sharing my thoughts on the book so need to say a big thank you to FMcM Associates and publisher Amazon Crossing for the invite and advance copy. Here’s what it’s all about:
About the Book
A staggering debut novel of murder, loyalty, love, and survival at all costs, set in the teeming underbelly of Calcutta’s most infamous neighborhood.
In Calcutta’s notorious red-light district, Lalee aspires to a better life. Her unfailingly loyal client Tilu Shau has dreams too. A heady romantic and marginal novelist, Tilu is in love with the indifferent Lalee and wants to liberate her from her street life with marriage. But when a fellow sex worker and young mother is brutally murdered, the solicitous madam of the Blue Lotus invites Lalee to take the woman’s place “upstairs” as a high-end escort. The offer comes with the promise of a more lucrative life but quickly spirals into violence, corruption, and unfathomable secrets that threaten to upset the fragile stability of Lalee’s very existence. As Tilu is drawn deeper into his rescue mission, he and Lalee embark on life-altering journeys to escape a savage fate.
As much a page-turner as it is poignant, Small Deaths is a brilliantly drawn modern noir that exposes the reality of society’s preyed-upon outcasts, their fierce resilience, and the dangerous impediments that stand in the way of their dignity, love, and survival.
Small Deaths is a very challenging book that takes readers to a darker heart of Kolkata (Calcutta), a side of the city that is seldom portrayed in literature. Whilst I know that poverty exists on a very wide scale within India, I have never really thought about the women who are forced into a position of having to sell themselves in order to survive.
This is seldom a life choice, many having been sold into the ‘trade’ by family, or being drawn into the life having been left with no other options. In this book we are drawn into the life of one such woman, Lalee, sold by her family at a very young age and who know faces a very uncertain future having been given a chance at what is being sold at a more ‘exclusive’ set of clientele, but in truth is anything but. We also meet, Tilu, an erotic novelist who aspires to writing something better and being able to take Lalee away from her current life.
The book is hard to read at times, that stark truth of what is happening laid out for all to see. Whilst we are not necessarily present for the most depraved moments, what happens is far from ambiguous and the implications of what is being read, topics of what is clearly child abuse, trafficking and worse, forming a key part of the narrative, even if not explicitly. There is also the murder of one of the sex workers, one of the catalysts for what is to follow, and an examination of some of the people who work in associations that are meant to be helping the women away from the life.
The futility of this latter action are spelled out on the page. The fact that for many this is the only life they know, and the other women around them the only family they know. Whilst we may all expect them to want more, the reality is that most cannot have that which gives the story a kind of tragic, almost melancholy edge. There are moments of hope in amongst the tragedy, but they are fleeting, the author not seeking to either glamourise their situation of over simplify their plight. The truth is start – for many there will be no happy ending and death is perhaps their only release, although hopefully not as brutal as some of that depicted in the book.
A harsh, candid and yet compelling story of survival and defiance, that kept my attention to the last page. If you want to understand the other side of one of India’s largest cities, and to see a real story of resilience and one woman’s unbreakable spirit, this may well be the book for you.
About the Author
Rijula Das is an author and Bengali-to-English translator. She received her PhD in creative writing and prose-fiction from Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, where she taught writing. Rijula received a 2019 Michael King Writers Centre Residency in Auckland, New Zealand, and the 2016 Dastaan Award for her short story “Notes from a Passing.” Her short story “The Grave of the Heart Eater” was long-listed for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize in 2019. Rijula’s short fiction and translations have appeared in Papercuts, Newsroom, New Zealand, and the Hindu. Small Deaths, her first novel, was long-listed for the JCB Prize for Literature and won the Tata Literature Live! First Book Award in 2021. It is currently being adapted for television. She lives and works in Wellington, New Zealand.
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