Batuk is a fifteen-year-old girl living in a brothel on Common Street in Mumbai, India. The bright points in her life are her best friend, Puneet, a male prostitute living a few “nests” down from her in the same brothel, and a notebook which she keeps hidden away in a slit in her thin mattress. Her vivid imagination and knack for storytelling lead her to paint a world of cheerful descriptions of the ragged and decrepit room that she describes as an elaborately painted and decorated nest or cage and the sexual acts that she is forced to endure is misleadingly called making sweet cakes. Over the course of the novel Batuk tells the story of how she was sold by her father into prostitution as a nine-year-old to pay off unspecified family debts.
The proprietor of the brothel, Mamaki Briilla, drops a pencil and instead of returning it Batuk steals and hides it so that she can recount her early life, and the last day that she saw the family and the father she still misses after six years. Batuk is an emerging beauty and after one of her “customers” noticing this suggest her for a position outside the brothel walls, but is she better off facing a new situation or staying with the horror that she already knows?
James Levine does an amazing job getting us into the head of Batuk. Though she has grown up with a family and has had to face the betrayal of those closest to her she tries to make the best of it and always see the beauty in the life despite her horrific circumstances. Batuk weaves a world of beauty and exquisite stories out of the every day tragedy that is her life. She creates a world that you want to believe in for her sake though it makes the crushing reality that she faces that much more difficult and painful to witness. The subject matter is dark and movingly in contrast to the light and engaging way that Batuk presents her narrative. It’s short at a mere 200 pages but stunningly rendered. There’s really not much to be said other than, “Read this book.”