THE BLUE NOTEBOOK by James A. Levine

Book Quote:

“This is the philosophy of the prostitute; I am who I am only at this moment in time; my past does not hang from my shoulders and my future is indefinable and so cannot be a concern. I am nothing else and there is nothing else. As I look at myself in the mirror, it dawns on me that the tree was correct – all is created for me alone. I close my eyes tight and hear the tree laughing.”

Book Review:

Reviewed by Jana L. Perskie (JUL 7, 2009)

The Blue Notebook is a beautify written novel about the grimmest of subjects – child prostitution. Were it not for author James A. Levine’s exquisite prose and his remarkable protagonist, nine year-old Batuk Ramasdeen, a poem of a girl, this story might be too sad to read. However, Batuk, a precocious, ever optimistic little girl, wins the reader’s heart from page one and makes The Blue Notebook very hard to put down. At 210 pages, I read it in two sittings.

Batuk lives in a small village near Bhopal, India. During a bout of tuberculosis, at age seven, Batuk is interned in the missionary medical center, and it is here that she learns to read and write in Hindi. The nurses, observing her intelligence and acute curiosity, are happy to teach her, but not as thrilled as Batuk is to learn. She begins to write in a journal, the blue notebook, from that time forward.

When she recovers enough to return home, she is surprised to learn that she is going on a trip to Mumbai with her beloved father. She has never been on a bus before and is extremely excited. Batuk is not told that her family has fallen on hard times, and that she, at nine years-old, is going to be sold into prostitution. Batuk is an exceptionally lovely looking girl, so her father will receive a good deal of money for her – at least by his standards. On arrival in Mumbai, Master Ghil, takes charge of the child. Her father takes his money and leaves for home, without bidding his daughter farewell. Bewildered, Batuk allows herself to be bathed, perfumed and painted – with kohl darkening her eyes, and lipstick and rouge brightening her face and accentuating her features. I can only imagine that she looked like she was decked-out for Halloween. A doctor examines her, inside and out, to make sure she is a virgin and carries no disease – an altogether humiliating procedure. Batuk is then dressed in a beautiful sari and taken to a room filled with wealthy men. She is auctioned off to the highest bidder – beautiful virgins bring in much money.

Although seriously traumatized, stunned and disoriented, she survives her rough “initiation,” and is sent to a special “Orphanage,” where she is taught, with brutality, her new “trade.” This orphanage is policed by “Yazaks,” men and women who “have divested themselves of humanity.” Yazaks “view their charges solely in terms of the income they provide.” Punishment for disobeying their orders is savagely met out. It is at the Orphanage that Batuk meets her best friend, Puneet, an eight year old boy whose beauty is flawless. Boys are especially prized as prostitutes, and are trained to be girl-boys. Just before they reach adolescence, they are castrated so they are able to continue their profession as boys. Adolescent males do not make a good deal of money for their owners.

Eventually, Batuk and Puneet are given to Mamaki Briila, whom the children call “Hippopotamus” behind her back, because of her obesity. In Mamaki’s “house,” on the Common Street, each child is given a cell-like concrete room, called “nests.” There Batuk is expected to turn at least 10 tricks per day, a process she euphemistically calls “baking sweet cakes.” She is a survivor and is able to “will her soul away from her body” in order to maintain her sanity. “Her soul jumps onto the spinning upper air that covers the top of the earth and there is unconfined.” Sometimes, while her soul is out of her body, she believes that her nest is a “womb of gold,” where she is illuminated in white light. “From my face emanate rivers of brilliance that seek out all the specks of darkness, and that is how I light my nest. My nest is glowing in my light, for there is no other light.”

In her light, which glows so brilliantly, she makes up fantastic tales about a silver-eyed leopard and a poor boy who fells a giant with a single gold coin.

Her journal and daily writing allow her to create poems, document her life and her surroundings, and provide her with some happiness. Her pencil and journal are her most prized and only possessions. Fearful that Mamaki, or one of her “johns,” will discover the journal, she is careful to keep it hidden.

Although Batuk comes to realize that she is public property, she still remains a child in many ways. She loves to color with crayons, and to chatter away with Puneet and the other 4 girls who make-up Mamaki’s crew – but only when Mamaki is not around to listen, or the children will be punished for talking.

She strives to excel at “baking sweet cakes,” so she will receive praise from her oppressors, and maybe a bit more to eat. She is beaten often, for no reason except for the needs of some clients to dominate. All of her earnings go to pay off her purchase price; she gets nothing. Her experiences are devastating, but her spirit remains unconquered. Her acceptance of her world is nothing short of remarkable.

The storyline alternates in time from the period when Batuk is seven to nine years-old. She writes of the riverbank back in her village, “with Granpa, the feasts, the feuds with Mother, and the fights with my brother Avijit.” And she documents her life in Mumbai – from ages nine to fifteen. Batuk writes in the first person, about her experiences with clarity and detail. However, she rarely expresses her emotions.

At the age of fifteen, she is taken from Mamaki’s establishment and brought to a posh hotel in Mumbai. Here she is expected to serve as a party girl for a most demanding client. This event will change Batuk’s life forever.

Of course, I found The Blue Notebook difficult to read at times. However, James A. Levine’s prose is so, lyrical, and Batuk’s spirit is so alive – even in the most dire of circumstances she is determined to find some beauty – some happiness. Her imagination is her salvation.

I am looking forward to the author’s next book. It is obvious that he is an extraordinarily talented writer. James Levine is also a doctor and professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic, and is a world renowned scientist and researcher. He is donating all the U.S. royalties to the International Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 117 readers
PUBLISHER: Spiegel & Grau (July 7, 2009)
REVIEWER: Jana L. Perskie
AUTHOR WEBSITE: James Levine, M.D.
EXTRAS: Excerpt and publisher word on this book
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: This movie comes to mind:

And this book:

and this one, because it too has an unusual voice:


July 7, 2009 В· Judi Clark В· No Comments
Tags: , , ,  В· Posted in: 2009 Favorites, Class - Race - Gender, Debut Novel, India-Pakistan, Literary, Reading Guide, Unique Narrative, World Lit

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.