My latest book, The Love of Divena, is fiction set in fact. On my first trip to India, I met a couple I’ll call Ajit and Jaya. Both came from the lowest rung of India’s social ladder—Dalits. Outcastes formerly known as Untouchable. Both had spent their entire lives working in a local landlord’s fields.
Ajit’s family belonged to the landowner because many years earlier, in a time of desperation, his grandfather borrowed a few rupees from the landowner’s grandfather, agreeing to work off the debt. The landowner’s grandfather credited Ajit’s family for their work, but he charged an outrageous amount to rent a small hut and buy a few handfuls of rice. Because only landlords could read and write, they made certain that for each generation, the family’s indebtedness grew and grew until it could never be paid off. Ajit was doomed from birth to spend his life working in the landlord’s fields. From dawn to sundown every day, under the blistering sun or in monsoon floods.
Both Ajit and Jaya were bonded laborers, entrapped in the most widespread form of slavery today. In India alone, 10 million people are enslaved for generations in the same way.
Jaya was thirteen years old when her father married her to Ajit. Every day she got up long before the sun, built a fire and cooked rice, then headed to the fields at dawn. She knew no other life. And whenever the landlord looked upon her with pleasure and told her to stay behind while the others went to the fields, she screamed inside, but she always stayed. She had no choice. He owned her.
But one day Ajit stepped between his wife and the landlord. “No, she will not stay behind with you,” he said. The landlord had Ajit beaten, but Ajit would not back down. The landlord refused them rice, but Ajit and Jaya said they would rather starve. When they managed to sneak away in the middle of the night, the furious landowner sent his thags to hunt them down and drag them back.
But God’s hand was on Ajit and Jaya. They stumbled into a village of freed bonded laborers who hid them. The landlord expected his men to beat a sobbing woman and her cowering husband into submission. Instead, his thags were met by more than 100 freed slaves armed with clubs and knives.
“A village of people like us?” Ajit asked in disbelief. “How can you survive?”
“We got a micro-loan to start a dairy,” one woman explained. “We all have jobs to do.”
The village women had done so well with the dairy that they started their own bank so that they could lend money to others who wanted to start businesses. Like Ajit and Jaya. Today the couple sells vegetables they grow on their own small plot of land. And they are fast paying back their loan.
“We are not slaves anymore,” Jaya told me. “And we never will be again!”
Actually, The Love of Divena is fact. It’s just framed in fiction.
“It is never too late to be what you might have been.”