I opened my beautifully bound copy gingerly, wanting to love the book, and a little afraid that perhaps I won't. I entered the protagonist's home hesitantly, rather like a person entering a train compartment for the first time--trying to spot the beedi stub, the chewing gum, the cockroach and the lizard, before she settles down and 'adjusts'. I don't know at what point I slipped completely into the world of Janaki, aka Rani. It must have been easy because I have met everyone in Rani's world before. The large house. The once-and-briefly-rich family in decline. The parents who are not a couple. The favourite daughter and her mildly resentful but dutiful courtiers. The oppressive-by-default sisters-in-law. I have met them all before.
I settled down into the world of the book but with a lingering distaste for almost all the characters. To my mind, this is one of the most striking aspects of this book: not one character is a wonderful, immediately lovable person. The protagonist is actually quite horrid, and when you consider her world of people, you can almost justify her vanity and nastiness. She really has it tough and you feel stray moments of sympathy or empathy of which her irrepressible nastiness immediately cures you. For instance, you want to feel sorry for the girl brought up to be a queen who suddenly moves from being the object of adoration and envy to pity, but she herself is so bitter, you think it best to leave things alone. You want to feel compassion for her when her sister-in-law feeds her husband's anger about her housekeeping skills, but she herself is so horrible to people that you think she can look after herself. When she rules Jamnagar, you want to exult, but her pleasure in it has such pettiness that you are turned off.
How does such a gentle, nice, lovely person as Vatsala write so vividly about such a person as Janaki? That's a mystery and an indication of her calibre as a writer.
Two things happen when you read a really good book. The first is that you disappear into the book, absorbed into and absorbing its world completely, always able to recall and re-enter it even when you have to function in the real world.
The second is not as comfortable: you start to ask yourself difficult questions. And for me, with 'Once there was a girl' some of those questions are: Why do I assume that when a woman writes a book the female characters must be nice people? Or even, that female characters, especially protagonists, must be nice sympathetic characters? What do I expect from a book written by a feminist? Or what is a woman writer's book? I don't even fully understand these questions, honestly.
I think, and offer this view very tentatively, as a point for more learned people to ponder: what makes this a very amazing book is that it lets you enter so completely into Janaki's world that nothing is hidden from you--her feelings, the muttering under her breath, the hurt she feels, the continuing bereavement that she is not living the life she was meant to... that you also feel with her, you see her world as she sees it, and that's no more perfect than she is. People are fond of telling people like the Prajnya team, people who speak about women's rights and violence, that women are women's greatest enemies. "Once there was a girl" lays bare before you the dingy, foul-smelling world that patriarchy, caste and class jointly create for most women--instructing their imaginations, channeling their hopes narrowly, leaving them unskilled and then limiting the possibilities for them to live truly fulfilling lives. You feel no love for Janaki but you can see where she comes from. There, but for the grace of god or just dumb luck, go any of us. That is really amazing, I think.
We make a big push for women's writing, women's self-expression, the documenting of women's lives and work--they are invisible, we say. Do we inadvertently efface the women we don't like, ignore the stories whose politics make us uncomfortable, ignore the fact that lives like Janaki's show both victimhood and agency in their expression? Aren't all stories and all lives important and worthy?
So, read this book, use it as a text, gift it to your friends, and like me, learn to enjoy the discomfort with which it should fill you.