Groundwood Books|August 22, 2011|Trade Paperback|ISBN: 978-1-55498-108-3
There’s not much that upsets young Valli. Even though her days are spent picking coal and fighting with her cousins, life in the coal town of Jharia, India, is the only life she knows. The only sight that fills her with terror are the monsters who live on the other side of the train tracks – the lepers. Valli and the other children throw stones at them. No matter how hard her life is, she tells herself, at least she will never be one of them. The she discovers that she is not living with family after all, that her “aunt” was a stranger who was paid money to take Valli off her own family’s hands. She decides to leave Jharia…and so begins a series of adventures that takes her to Kolkata, the city of the gods. It’s not so bad. Valli find that she really doesn’t need much to live. She can “borrow” the things she needs and then pass them on to people who need them more than she does. It helps that though her bare feet become raw wounds as she makes her way around the city, she somehow feels no pain. But when she happens to meet a doctor on the ghats by the river, Valli learns that she has leprosy. Despite being given a chance to receive medical care, she cannot bear the thought that she is one of those monsters she has always feared, and she flees, to an uncertain life on the street.
Valli lives in Jharia, India and spends her days picking up stray pieces of coal to cash in for money for food. Coal fires have been burning under the town for nearly one hundred years. Coal is in the air which comes up through cracks in the earth. If you’re a man, you work in the mines or the pits, hacking at the coal with pickaxes and shovels. If you’re a woman, you walk up the narrow steep trails with large heavy baskets of coal on your head. Children pick up any stray lumps they can find.
Valli has no friends other than her “cousins” and they throw rocks at the lepers who live across the railway tracks. They think they are monsters who will eat them up. One day Valli discovers that her “aunt” is not really related to her at all, but merely some woman paid to take Valli off her mother’s hands. Valli decides to leave Jharia.
She climbs into the back of a coal truck and buries herself beneath the black coal deciding to go wherever the truck takes her. During one of the two men’s stops, they discovered Valli in the back and took her to a woman they know who was known for taking in stray and abandoned children. Once the woman was able to wash the layers and layers of black coal off Valli’s body and out of her hair, she soon discovered that Valli had leprosy and kicked her back out onto the street.
Valli found herself in Kolkata, which is the capital city in West Bengal, India which used to be called Calcutta. She slept on sidewalks, in doorways, in cemetery’s, and other places she could find. She begged for money for food or tried to impress tourists with a few words in German and English that she had learned. This was usually enough to garner her a few rupees.
One day she meets Dr. Indra who takes Valli under her wing at her hospital. She cleans her up and explains to her that she has leprosy but Valli has no intentions on staying in any hospital with other lepers. After Dr. Indra bandages her raw and oozing feet, Valli returns to the streets where she meets up with some rather interesting adventures, eventually making her way back to Dr. Indra.
This was a beautifully written book that is written without the usual “fear” that we all feel when we even so much as hear the word “leprosy”. Deborah Ellis was able to explain, in layman’s terms exactly what the disease is, how one contracts it, and what the cure is.
Note: Leprosy is caused by a bacterium that destroys the nerves in the cooler parts of the body, especially in the hands, feet, skin, and eyes. It can begin to show itself as white or discoloured patches on the skin. If it remains untreated, it starts to take feeling out of hands and feet. People become unable to feel pain, and they can’t tell when they become injured. Their injuries lead to infection and permanent damage.
Leprosy is one of the oldest recorded diseases in human history. It is now curable with medications, surgery, and skin grafting. However, because of its ability to disfigure, it is a disease that has been much feared and misunderstood. In many communities, people with leprosy are still cast out of mainstream society because the community doesn’t understand that leprosy is hard to get and can be cured.
Kudos go out to Deborah for penning such a beautiful story and for donating all royalties from this book to: The Leprosy Mission of Canada at http://www.leprosy.ca