In her heart of hearts, Latha knows that she was not mean to be a servant. She was born for finer things, like the rose-smelling bars of Lux soap she steals when no one is looking. But the hard truth is that Latha’s life is tied to the Vithanages, the family she has been working for since she was five years old. A Disobedient Girl follows Latha over the course of thirty years as she serves Thara Vithanage—a girl her own age who is given every luxury and opportunity Latha yearns to have for herself. As her story progresses, we are also introduced to Biso, a young mother from a respectable family in Southern Sri Lanka who has decided to leave her abusive husband. In chapters interwoven with Latha’s, we travel with Biso and her three children on their journey, the end of which brings a surprising twist of events that connects her life with Latha’s in an unexpected and heartbreaking way.
Questions and Topics for Discussion
One of the first English words Latha learns is “try.” How does she embrace “trying” as part of her identity? How does this make her different from or similar to other women in the novel?
Flowers play an important role in the Buddhist prayers and rituals described in the novel. Discuss the philosophical argument that Latha and Thara have on pages 7-8. With whom do you most agree, and why? What does this argument tell you about the two girls? Latha has a particular love of roses. What does this flower represent to her?
Throughout their travels, Biso takes time to examine and analyze her children. How does she explain their personalities and behaviors? She wonders, “Do all children come into being in the same fashion? Already marked with their future, a history-to-be prewritten by their predilections?” What do you think? What does Biso seem to believe about fate and her role in her children’s lives?
The stories of Biso and Latha move against a backdrop of political unrest, which peeks through only minutely. What clues does the author give you about the political climate of the country? How are these events affecting and changing Sri Lanka? In what ways does the new, modern world unfolding challenge the old traditions?
On page 69, Latha muses, “That’s what it did to you, being a woman, not a girl, it made you understand things that weren’t said.” What does Latha understand in that moment? What other examples can you find of unspoken understanding in the novel? What else distinguishes a girl from a woman in Latha’s world? What about in Biso’s?
The characters in the novel are not extremely wealthy, but the women do possess some jewelry. Earrings in particular serve as important symbols for these women. Examine the significance of earrings to each character: Mrs. Vithanage, Thara, Latha, Leela, and Biso. In the novel, what other accessories or items of clothing have special significance?
Why does Latha begin and continue her relationship with Daniel even though she has misgivings about him? What does she mean when she says he is “like Ajith, only foreign”? (p. 213) Discuss the relationships she has with Ajith, Daniel, and Gehan. What do these men and her relationships with them mean to Latha? How do these connections compare to those of Biso and her husband and Siri, the two men in her life?
Though the chapters describing Latha’s and Biso’s lives take place decades apart, the author ties them together in many subtle—and not so subtle—ways. Go back through the story and identify how the author connects the stories of these two women throughout the novel, even before you understand that Latha is Biso’s youngest daughter.
As girls of the same age who were introduced in early childhood, Latha and Thara share an unusual relationship that is constantly changing in tone. On page 235, after Latha’s abortion, Thara cares for her, washing and comforting her. Latha sees this as proof that Thara must love her. Do you think this is true? Can there be real love in such an unequal relationship?
The relationships between mothers and their children are at the forefront of this tragic tale. Compare and contrast these relationships. Do the joys and responsibilities of motherhood seem universal across class and culture? Are there circumstances in which the rules change, or become less clear? Do you sympathize, for example, with the distance Thara feels between herself and “Gehan’s daughters,” or with Biso’s decisions? Why or why not?
This novel is the story of several women: Latha, Biso, and Thara primarily, but also many minor characters such as Leela. What does the novel tell you about the traditional roles of women in Sri Lankan culture and the ways in which these roles are changing? What is expected of women in their roles as daughters, sisters, wives, and mothers? How do you feel about these expectations?
While many of the women in A Disobedient Girl suffer tragedy, there is happiness in the novel, too. In what ways does each woman find happiness? Compare and contrast these sources of joy with the ways in which modern Western women find happiness. Do you think the challenges these women face are universal? Why or why not?
Latha tells Mr. Vithanage, “I have no use for the past.” (p 368) Do you think her life might have been different if he had shared the truth of her past with her earlier in life? Why or why not? How do you think things might have turned out differently for Latha? Does knowing Biso’s story influence how you feel about Latha’s, or do they feel like separate stories to you, as they do to Latha when she finally hears it?
Enhance Your Book Club Experience
Biso and her children travel across the island of Sri Lanka, from their home by the sea to the hill country, where she hopes to find her aunt’s house. Print out or copy a map of Sri Lanka and mark out the journeys of Biso and her children and, later, a grown Latha. See if you can also find other important locations mentioned in the novel.
Though it doesn’t take a central role in the novel, the political unrest in Sri Lanka intersects with and affects the evolution of the characters’ lives. Research the political history of Sri Lanka covering the same period of the novel—from about the 1960s to the 1990s—to get a better sense of the world these characters live in. Learn more about the JVP, the Sri Lankan People’s Liberation Front, by visiting their website at www.jvpsrilanka.com.
The preparation and serving of certain foods and drinks plays a central, if subtle, role in the Sri Lankan households portrayed in these stories. Get into the mood by preparing some for yourself—better yet, make your next book club meeting a Sri Lankan buffet! Enjoy a pitcher of fresh lime juice the way Latha makes it: fresh squeezed juice with lots of pulp and just a pinch of salt. Find a recipe book or check out the many online recipe collections to learn how to make traditional foods such as hoppers, curries, pol sambol, and more. You can start here: www.asianonlinerecipes.com/online_recipes/srilanka/srilanka.phpasiarecipe.com/srilanka.html
Though not explicitly described, the characters in A Disobedient Girl are in some ways servants to their caste system, which dictates the proper relationships people of certain classes may have with one another. To appreciate the dynamics between the characters more fully, research the Sri Lankan caste system. These websites will get you started: