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Excerpt from An Unrestored Woman by Shobha Rao, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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An Unrestored Woman

by Shobha Rao

An Unrestored Woman by Shobha Rao X
An Unrestored Woman by Shobha Rao
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2016, 256 pages
    Mar 2017, 256 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Naomi Benaron
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Print Excerpt

She met Renu on the first night. She was Neela's age, maybe a year or two older. Her wide eyes were lustrous and pretty even under her shorn head. She was as thin as a reed and Neela realized they'd been assigned to the same cot due to lack of space. Renu took one look at Neela and burst out laughing. "Do you know you have the silliest bump on the top of your head?" she asked. Neela shook her head. "Haven't you looked in a mirror since your head was shaved?" Neela shook her head again. "It looks like a hillock in my old village," Renu said. "The one our temple is built on." She pulled a handkerchief from her bag, knotted it into a wide dome, and balanced it on Neela's head. "There," she said. "Now you have the temple too."

They were inseparable after that. They ate together, did chores together, gossiped together. They played among the tents and fetched water from the nearby well in the mornings. Sometimes they slept holding hands. Renu told her about her husband. He'd been a farmer. They'd had three acres and a pair of goats. The Muslim mob had burned everything, including her husband. Renu said this with tears in her eyes and Neela knew she should feel sad for her but she didn't. She did feel awful that her husband had died but she was also glad that he had; how else would they have met?

* * *

During their fifth night in the camp Renu and Neela lay on their cot talking in whispers. Since the camp had no electricity or kerosene they slept soon after their dinner of one thin roti and a small spoonful of potato curry. Most of the other women were already asleep. Renu had snuck in an extra roti for Neela, and she nibbled it while Renu talked about their lives.

"What will we do?" she asked.

"We could cook," Neela said, taking a bite of the roti. "And clean. My sisters do that for rich families in Amritsar."

"But we're just villagers." Renu breathed. "Who'll hire us?"

"I'll take care of you," Neela said, thinking of the gold mangal sutra she'd handed over to Lalla.

There was silence. Renu sighed. "It wasn't the actual, you know, chum chum that was nice. It was how he held me afterward."

Neela stopped chewing.

Renu looked at her in the dark. "Didn't yours?"


"Put the roti away. I'll show you." Neela stuffed the remaining piece into her mouth. "Lie on your side," Renu said, turning onto her back and slipping her arm under Neela's while guiding her toward her shoulder until Neela's head came to rest against her neck. "Like this," she said.

Neela closed her eyes. The warmth of Renu's neck, the scent of her body, left Neela aching. Hollow. It was a feeling she could not describe. Though she could describe what it was not: it was not lonely, it was not sad. It was keenly felt but it caused no pain. It was not the skin of a banana. Nor the leaves of the dusty banyan tree. It was not hunger, not anymore.

* * *

On Neela's ninth day at the camp Babu came to fetch her. She was ushered into the tent by one of the camp administrators. "Your husband is here," the woman announced.

"That's impossible," Neela said. "He's dead."

The woman nodded toward the far end of the tent. And there he was, exactly as Neela remembered him: dry and depleted as if he'd been left out in the sun too long. She blinked and blinked and then she felt faint. It couldn't be. All the blood drained from her body. She heard a distant bell. She realized it was coming from within the camp, announcing lunch. She thought of all those women dressed in white saris, bald, smiling, filing into the mess tent. She was not among them. Her mouth filled with the bitterness of the liquid in the dark brown bottle. "But I thought—"

"I was never on that train," he said. "A whole week in a cell without a window. Stripping a man just to see if he's a Muslim. Lying, telling me my mother is dead. Those bastards, they're no better than animals."

Excerpted from An Unrestored Woman by Shobha Rao. Copyright © 2016 by Shobha Rao. Excerpted by permission of Flatiron Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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