Homeless Bird by Gloria Whelan
Homeless Bird is the story of a young Indian village girl who overcomes adversity and extreme hardship to ultimately live a full and happy life on her own terms.
I first heard about this book when a parent expressed his concern about the (in)appropriateness of its selection as required text for 5th graders in a public school in the United States. The book was chosen, he was told, to educate the students about India.
So I set out reading the book with a view to gauging its appropriateness. In doing so, I tried to keep an open mind and not be influenced by the online discussions that had followed. I also asked my son, Jaan, a fifth grader, to read it and express his thoughts. I thank him and his friend, Ryan, for taking the time to read the book and discuss it with me.
But first, a brief backdrop to the story. Thirteen year old Koly lives in a village with her parents and brothers. She longs to attend school but her parents believe that a girl must not waste her time learning. Her family is dirt poor, and so she must spend her days helping with chores. She is soon married to Hari, a young lad of sixteen. Koly’s family sells almost everything they own to get money for the dowry, including their primary means of sustenance, their cow, and a pair of solid silver earrings.
Koly spends days on end embroidering a quilt, also as part of her dowry. She sews a vivid pattern of her life in the village – her Maa in a green sari, her baap riding his bicycle to the marketplace, her brothers playing soccer. She even embroiders the cow under the shade of the tamarind tree in the middle of their courtyard.
Koly sees her husband for the first time on the day of her wedding. Sensing that something is terribly wrong, Koly hides the silver earrings behind a loose brick in the wall, and claims that she has lost them. Later that night, she discovers that her husband is terminally ill. Sass (mother-in-law), Sassur (father-in-law), Hari and Koly soon embark on a long, arduous journey on a train bound for the holy city of Varanasi by the River Ganges. Sass is hopeful that Hari will heal when bathed in the sacred water of the river. Hari is dunked into Maa Ganges but his fever takes a turn for the worse and he dies that night.
In her sadness over her son’s death, Sass grows more bitter by the day and makes Koly work incessantly, finding fault with everything she does. The two things that keep Koly going and are lessons from her Sassur and her friendship with her Chandra. Koly sneaks into Sassur’s room every evening when Sass is chatting with the neighborhood women. But this modicum of happiness too is short-lived: a year later, Chandra gets married and leaves home, and not longafter, Sassur passes away suddenly one evening.
It is these turn of events that drive the rest of the story in which we see a real change in Koly as she slowly develops into an economically independent, strong woman who finds passion through her work, and also in her romantic life. How she arrives at this stage after being abandoned penniless and homeless in a strange city, makes for some of the best parts of the book.
The overarching message of the book is a good one. It stresses that an important path to overcoming hardships and obstacles is through acquiring knowledge, and in the process, discovering what one excels in, and enjoys doing, and nurturing that talent. Koly never gives up. She finds a way out even in the midst of despair. She is never mean-spirited or vengeful although she is wronged. She does not jump at the first proposal of marriage despite the fact that she is a widow living under strict rules in a shelter for the homeless. She is level-headed and thinks things through. These are important ideas the book might impart to an impressionable child in his or her formative years.
The sentences are simply constructed and there are no digressions in a linear...