Valli’s life is one of utter misery – picture Harry Potter as a girl in India with a “family” that hates her but is so poor that they must live together in a space about the size of that cupboard under the stairs. Smellier, too, since the youngest children are often unable to make the long trek to the community toilet. There is so little food that Valli sometimes wishes she were a goat so she could just eat garbage, and she’d also almost rather be on the moon than in her desolate village…but why bother, since the inescapable gray dust of Jharia’s coal pits makes the two landscapes virtually indistinguishable.
It’s not until Valli learns that her “family” is, in fact, not even related to her – the best day of her life as she calls it – and she leaves town on the back of a coal track that she experiences any sort of kindness. When the men driving the truck discover their little stowaway, they bring her tea and dosas, which she is especially grateful for because it is food I hadn’t worked for, food bought special for me, not left over from the children who were not my cousins. Although these men turn out to be not wholly altruistic, this encounter both fills Valli’s stomach and ignites a hunger in her to really experience life.
Through what she sees as adventures (but we recognize as trials and tribulations), Valli learns simple but valuable truths. Some of her life-isms contain few words but great meaning, such as: A bit of fun could turn into meanness if you weren’t careful.
Some were longer and greater still:
Nobody owns anything. We give back our bodies at the end of our lives. We own our thoughts, but everything else is just borrowed. We use it for a while, then pass it on.
We borrow the sun that shines on us today from the people on the other side of the world while they borrow the moon from us. Then we give it back. We can’t keep the sun, no matter how afraid we are of the dark.
We borrow our food. What we eat becomes fertilizer that goes back into the earth and gets turned back into food.
Everything is borrowed.
In this story, Ellis offers us not just food but feast for thought, borrowed from a fictional girl by millions of real readers who will hopefully pay it forward. :)