In Homeless Bird, Gloria Whelan introduces a moving story centered around the life of a young girl in India named Koly, who struggles with poverty, mental abuse and unfavourable circumstances. This novel conveys insights into the traditions, words and customs used by the Hindustani people of India; and the injustices faced by girls in an often sexist environment. The protagonist lives in a rural part of India with her parents and two brothers. When Koly turned 13, it was time for her to get married, which is a common practice for girls her age. This is set almost two decades ago when these traditions were more of a custom. Her union takes an unexpected turn when she learns that her husband is very ill, and does not have much time left to live. The family she was married into only wanted her for her dowry. Forced to live under a new roof, with an insufferable mother-in-law and a depressed father-in-law, she fears of bringing shame and disappointment to her family, and is trapped in a never-ending cycle of heartache and mental abuse. She is later abandoned by her mother-in-law in the city of Vrindavan, known as the city of widows.
The author introduces a rickshaw pedaler named Raji. He is all-too familiar with the faces of woman who have been abandoned. Rescuing Koly from a life of poverty, he takes her to a house where other widows like herself are sheltered and cared for. Koly makes a friend named Tanu, and finally has someone in her life to hold onto and confide in. She has also found a means of supporting herself. With the help of Maa Kamala, the woman in charge of the widow’s house, she ends up working with Tanu in a nearby market making garlands. Later with the help of a wealthy benefactress, Koly is given a rare opportunity to rekindle an old passion of hers. She begins a new job with creative freedoms, embroidering saris. Saved from her dull lifestyle, happiness begins to find its way back into Koly’s heart.
Whelan illuminates the circumstances and struggles of a young girl in a predominantly male-dominated society. This reminded me of the stories my great-grandmother had once told me. She grew up in an era where females were treated with very little respect and were expected to obey their husbands without defiance. Like Koly, she had to navigate through a sometimes harsh and unjust culturally-controlled environment. Being a widow without any financial support, status, or family, she must overcome many obstacles in her new life.
The story is built around a somewhat cliche storyline in which the protagonist finds her road to happiness, like many of the similar plots found in Western fairy tales. I personally love that about this book, it is never dull and it always leaves you with a sense of fulfillment. Thanks to Whelan’s plotting, Koly soon finds herself on a boat of romance. Precious moments between Raji and Koly are shared throughout the book, leading up to an important day in Koly’s life. One day as they both lie on the banks of the Yamuna River, Raji asks Koly for her hand in marriage. Raji wants her to come with him to his home village, where they can both live on his family’s farm and build a life together. This is one of the parts in the book which will leave readers satisfied. Koly is given the chance to follow her desires, which isn’t something she thought was possible. Although she loves her job as an embroiderer and her newfound life in Vrindavan. She chooses to follow her heart as any main protagonist would in this happily-ever-after story.
The author creates a very well-rounded and admirable character, which for me is a hard thing to find; I’ve always found that something about a character is missing throughout a novel. In the Homeless Bird, I never found myself dissatisfied, and Koly’s character always felt complete. The triumphant protagonist, grows from this naive little girl, into a strong, independent woman painting her own future.
Whelan has constructed a beautiful, culturally enlightening story, holding true to a message of perseverance, self worth and an ever ending pursuit of happiness. I recommend this book to anyone seeking an illuminating and uplifting tale of determination and triumph.