Levine’s tale flows from personal observation. As an internationally renowned medical practitioner, he was invited by the UN to tour the slums of Mumbai to witness first-hand the rampant disease and illicit trafficking that mark the metropolis’ Cages Street. The street derives its name from the cage-like structures that are kept outside each house on the street and which are used to “display” underage girls to prospective clients.
Fifteen-year-old Batuk is one such girl, sold to sexual slavery by her father when she was nine. Writing her experiences as an underage prostitute in a diary, she comes to pen what will become “the blue notebook”. The trope of having an uneducated person narrate their own experience has recently been used, to successful effect, in Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger. Levine explains this convincingly by having Batuk nursed out of tuberculosis by a caretaker who encouraged her to learn to read and write.
The novel is an often uncomfortable read, describe as it does, in spare prose, the broken dreams and the physical and mental defiling of Batuk. Levine does not preach and writes his story from Batuk’s clear-eyed perspective. There is a clear hierarchy when it comes to prostitutes, Batuk explains at one point, with girls like her from the Cages Street being at the bottom.
Yet, there are glimmers of hope that Batuk locates in her writing, a refuge from the harsh reality of her world. Filling up her notebook after servicing a customer, she says: “He may have taken my light and extinguished it, but now within me can hide an army of whispering syllables, rhythms, and sounds. All you may see is a black cavity that fills a tiny girl, but trust me, the words are there, alive and fine.”
The book scores as a prostitute’s personal testimony, but Levine goes overboard in mixing up Batuk’s story with the side plot of a carnage at a five-star hotel where she was present. While this may have been done to finish the story on a suitably climactic scale, the novel risks falling into pulp territory. No neat endings in this story as Batuk, lying in hospital and a prime suspect in the carnage, finishes off with: “There is only a little ink left.” Perhaps that is how all blue notebooks end.