Rasana Atreya’s debut novel, Tell a Thousand Lies, is a hard hitting tale that focuses on the curse of being born a woman in India. Pullamma, the protagonist, is doubly cursed as she neither has the much sought after fair skin nor the handsome dowry that could have helped in procuring a good match for her. After all, as the saying goes, to arrange a good marriage for a girl, you have to tell a thousand lies. Pullamma grows up resigned to living a life of spinsterhood and being a support to her grandmother while her older sister, Malli, and fraternal twin, Lata – both fairer and prettier than her – would inevitably snag suitable husbands. But she’s destined for a life that she’d had never imagined. Her fate is sealed when she is declared goddess with miraculous powers by a wily, power-hungry politician. Whatever little hope she had of realizing her dream of getting married and leading a happily married life is crushed as people throng at her doorstep to seek her blessings. Now, who will dare to marry a goddess? Traditionally, in India, you’re either reviled because you’re a woman or deified as a goddess. And the author cleverly builds this into her theme by portraying that even as a “goddess”, Pullamma cannot escape exploitation.
Pullamma’s story is intertwined with that of her twin sister Lata who dreams of studying and becoming a doctor. Poverty and age-old beliefs—that an overeducated girl will be unable to find a suitable boy—snatch away her dreams and she is thrust into a situation where the two sisters are pitted against each other.
The story grabs you from the get go, throwing a twist every few chapters to a finale that is a tad melodramatic. Rasana Atreya’s story is so plot-driven that by the time you hit the middle of the book the twists and turns get a little too overwhelming. The major flaw in this twisty tale is the overtly melodramatic relationship between the two sisters which harks back to the clichéd storylines of Hindi movies of the 1980s. Also, the first-person narrative that the author uses while effective in rooting the reader to the protagonist’s plight leaves one with the feeling that the other characters are dictated more by the plot rather than their own peculiar goals, motivations and flaws. Having said that, Rasana’s pacy story keeps you hooked…as you turn the pages to the denouement that is inevitable and yet leaves you with a certain sense of dissatisfaction.
The author punctuates the tragic events with little flashes of humour. She creates a picture of rural India where superstitions, illiteracy and corruption is a potent mix that no woman can escape, particularly if she has had the misfortune of being born with a dark skin colour.
Rasana Atreya has made an impressive debut as an author and I look forward to reading more books written by her.
(Note to readers: I was given a free Kindle copy for review purposes).