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National Book Award Winner. An ALA Best Book for Young Adults. A School Library Journal Best Book of the Year.
Like many girls her age in India, thirteen-year-old Koly is getting married. When she discovers that the husband her parents have chosen for her is a sickly boy with wicked parents, Koly wishes that she could flee. But on her wedding day, her fate is sealed. Then Koly's life takes an unexpected turn. Finding herself in a city of widows begging for food, this rare you woman sets out to forge her own future.
"Koly, you are thirteen and growing every day," Maa said to me. "It's time for you to have a husband." I knew why. There were days when my maa took only a bit of rice for herself so that the rest of us—my baap, my brothers, and I—might have more. "It's one of my days to fast," she would say, as if it were a holy thing, but I knew it was because there was not enough food to go around. The day I left home, there would be a little more for everyone else. I had known the day was coming, but the regret I saw in Maa's eyes made me tremble.
My baap, like all fathers with a daughter to marry off, had to find a dowry for me. "It will be no easy task," he said with a sigh. Baap was a scribe. He sat all day in his marketplace stall hoping to make a few rupees by writing letters for those who did not know how to write their own. His customers had little money. Often from the goodness of his heart Baap would write the letter for only a rupee or two. When I was a small girl, he would sometimes let me stand beside him. I watched as the spoken words were written down to become like caged birds, caught forever by my clever baap.
When they learned Maa and Baap were looking for a husband for me, my two brothers began to tease me. My older brother, Gopal, said, "Koly, when you have a husband, you will have to do as he tells you. You won't sit and daydream as you do now."
My younger brother, Ram, whom I always beat at card games, said, "When you play cards with your husband, you'll have to lose every time."
My brothers went to the boys' school in our village. Though there was a school for girls, I did not go there. I had begged to go, promising I would get up early and stay up late to do my work, but Maa said school was a waste for girls. "It will be of no use to you after you are married. The money for books and school fees is better put toward your dowry, so that we may find you a suitable husband."
When I stole looks into my brothers' books, I saw secrets in the characters I could not puzzle out. When I begged them to teach me the secrets, they laughed at me. Gopal complained, "I have to sit in a hot schoolroom all day and have my knuckles rapped if I look out the window. You are the lucky one."
Ram said, "When a girl learns to read, her hair falls out, her eyes cross, and no man will look at her."
Still, I turned over the pages of my brothers' books. When Maa sent me into the village for some errand, I lingered under the windows of the school to listen to the students saying their lessons aloud. But the lessons were not like measles. I did not catch them.
My maa had no use for books. When she was not taking care of the house, she spent her time embroidering. Like her maa before her, and her maa, and as far back as anyone could remember, the women in our family embroidered. All their thoughts and dreams went into their work. Maa embroidered the borders for saris sold in our marketplace. One sari might take many weeks, for a sari stretched all the way across the room. Because it took so long, each sari became a part of our lives. As soon as I could work with a needle, I was allowed to stitch simple designs. As I grew older, Maa gave me peacocks and ducks to embroider. When the border was finished, Maa took the sari to the marketplace. Then there would be rupees to spare in the house.
Now Maa sat with a length of red muslin for my wedding sari on her lap. Because he valued her work, the shopkeeper had sold the sari to Maa for a good price. She was embroidering a border of lotus flowers, a proper border for a wedding sari, because the lotus pod's many seeds are scattered to the wind, suggesting wealth and plenty.
Relatives and friends began to search for a bridegroom. A part of me hoped they would be successful and that someone wanted me. A part of me hoped that no one in the world would want me enough to take me away from my home and my maa and baap and brothers. I knew that after my marriage, I would have to make my home with the family of my husband. For my dowry I began to embroider a quilt, making all my worries stitches, and all the things I would have to leave behind pictures to take with me.
I embroidered my maa in her green sari and my baap on the bicycle that took him to the marketplace every morning. My brothers played at soccer with a ball they had fashioned from old rags. I added the feathery leaves of the tamarind tree that stood in the middle of our courtyard and our cow under its shade. I put in the sun that beat down on the courtyard and the clouds that gathered before the rains. I put myself at the courtyard well, where I was sent many times each day to get water. I stitched the marketplace stalls heaped with turmeric and cinnamon and cumin and mustard. I embroidered vegetable stalls with purple eggplants and green melons. I made the barber cutting hair, the dentist pulling teeth, the man who cleaned ears, and the man with the basket of cobras. Because I was kept busy at all my other tasks, the stitching took many weeks.
While I stitched, I wondered what my husband would be like. Stories were told of girls having to marry old men, but I did not think Maa and Baap would let that happen to me. In my daydreams I hoped for someone who was handsome and who would be kind to me.
My older brother said, "We're too poor to buy you a decent husband."
My younger brother said, "There is sure to be something wrong with anyone who agrees to marry you."Homeless Bird. Copyright © by Gloria Whelan. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Excerpted from Homeless Bird by Gloria Whelan
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