The big draw for me going into this book was the setting. A Disobedient Girl is set in Sri Lanka, a country I have never read about, and know practically nothing about. And while A Disobedient Girl does not provide details as to the politics or history of Sri Lanka, it does offer a taste of the country, particularly in its treatment of the social castes and classes that dictate the lives of Sri Lankans.
The story alternates between two women, Latha and Biso. In Latha’s story, we see her grow from a child into middle age. Latha is a servant to the Vithanages, and also a companion to their daughter Thara. As the two girls grow up their lives take dramatic turns. Latha learns, sometimes brutally, how her social class limits her choices and opportunities. Thara, on the other hand, remains the indulged daughter of an upper class family. While selfish Thara may not be happy with her life, it is still a more privileged life than Latha could ever hope for.
Latha is unsure how she came to be a servant in the Vithanage’s home. She does not remember her childhood, only that Mr. Vithanage brought her to his home when she was a small child of five. And while it is clear to Mrs. Vithanage that Latha is nothing but a servant, Latha feels she deserves more and rebels in small ways:
Latha cringed. She hated it when Mrs. Vithanage used the derogatory conjugation of verbs on her, the vareng, palayang, geneng that was the lot of laborers. She stopped running and began to walk. If she was going to be insulted, she was going to deserve it. Let her wait.
Biso’s story is quite different, both in circumstances and the telling. As Biso and her three children escape her abusive husband, she reflects back on her life and the decisions she has made. However, while Latha’s story spans years, Biso’s tale plays out in just a few days. Initially, I was a bit confused about the time frames for each of the stories, as well as to how the two women were connected (or even if they were connected). But I soon forgot about that and just let the story play out. And in the end, everything becomes clear.
Neither Latha nor Biso has an ideal life, yet this book does not focus on their hardships. Rather, you see how the women are determined to make the most of their limited choices. They seize opportunities where they can and they are unapologetic in their decisions. Latha is determined to seize happiness wherever she can find it. And Biso is determined to do the best she can for her children. The book also illustrates the importance of small kindnesses and friendship. So while the setting might be unfamiliar, the messages certainly are not.