Orphan Girl by Indika Guruge has an arresting title and front cover. I assumed that the author was a non-western writer and looked forward to an account of life in orphanages and how children accommodated and changed as they grew up to an age when they would leave the orphanage. How would their experiences affect their post-orphanage life? How would they remember their experiences? This is not that book. This is a story of terrible tragedy, bravery, and an almost unbelievable tale of tolerance for pain and abuse. In the tradition of historical fiction, facts are presented which are indisputable. Fiction is created by the author as logical dialogue and character feelings are expressed that could not possibly be known by the author. Some dialogue might be backed up by interviews of friends, teachers, and substitute parents. Other dialogue must be created through author empathy. The author does an excellent job drawing the reader along a path leading to a terrible ending. I should have known better when I read the subtitle: “The story of an abandoned child’s tragic fate as a migrant worker in Saudi Arabia. Inspired by a true story, In memory of Rizana Nafeek.” (loc 3-5).
Chapter one is a letter to Ramya from her birth parents telling her why they left her on the steps of an orphanage. Ramya has read the letter many times and dreams the event. She can see two people leaving a baby on the orphanage steps but cannot see the faces of her parents. Waking up to realize it is her eighteenth birthday, she joins some friends in a forbidden nighttime excursion outside the boundaries of the orphanage. She and her friends are caught, and we see the first instances of severe physical beatings that are the consequences of misbehavior.
Readers will see that life is not always bad in the Sri Lankan orphanage. There are visits from well-wishing donors, some of whom are looking for a child to adopt. There are gifts for all from the donors and special events, such as carnival-like parties that take place when donors show up. Ramya got lucky; a family wanted to adopt her. They couldn’t have children of their own and they liked Ramya’s demure, shy behavior. It seemed to be love at first sight between Jeevan and Shanika, an upper-middle-class family from Gampaha, and Ramya. After a short adoption processing period Ramya moved to a new home with luxuries she could barely believe; her own room and bathroom, clothes she did not have to share, and loving treatment from stepparents. Her only regret was leaving her life-long friends from the orphanage.
Things changed when the stepparents found a possible budding romantic relationship between Ramya and Hirushan, the family driver. There was another change when Shanika gave birth to a boy. The biological son received a lot more attention and Ramya changed status to become more of a maid. Shanika liked the idea of a housemaid and nursemaid. Ramya’s life changed. Her life changed much more drastically when Jeevan’s business began to fail. Looking for extra money, he found an agency that would employ Ramya in Saudi Arabia for a few months, all income to go to Jeevan and Shanika. Ramya accepted Jeevan’s assurance that the trip to Saudi Arabia was more of a tour and vacation with some part-time work added. Ramya would return to Sri Lanka soon.
Ramya set off for her trip to Saudi Arabia. It was her first time on an airplane. Every experience was new to her. Met by agents in Saudi Arabia, her passport was taken to be saved and given back on her return trip. Ramya was housed in co-ed crowded dormitories to wait for a work assignment. She received an assignment as a maid to a wealthy Saudi family. Instructions were given to her in Arabic, a language for which she had no knowledge. It was several days before she found anyone who could communicate with her at a survival language level. People always spoke harshly to her. Her terror was about to begin.
The reader is now at 75% of the novel. The author has done a great job creating empathy for the life of Ramya up to this point. After this, the novel is dark and rivals horror fiction. But evidence of its reality will be presented.
Grammarians may not be happy. There are grammar and phrasing errors that will stop the grammar-sensitive reader but there is no need for that. Mistakes are minor and even give an air of authenticity to a story set in the developing world. One of the reasons I chose to read this novel was the appearance of the words “Saudi Arabia.” I worked for one year in Riyadh and nothing in this account surprises me, it just saddens me that this type of thing goes on. Read international press accounts; this type of evil is still with us.