Sunday Salon – Review of “The Blue Notebook” by James A. Levine

The Sunday

Imagine watching “Slumdog Millionaire,” but having the plot stay with the “orphanage” in which children are raped, deformed, prostituted, and used in every evil way to make pleasure and profit for sick, greedy people. Then you would have the basic outline to this novel about exploited children in Mumbai, India.


The book focuses on the girl Batuk, who is sold by her father into the sex trade at age nine. No detail is omitted as Batuk’s story is told; she in fact is the author of it. During a stay at a sanitarium for TB when younger, she learned to read and write, and now, she strives to keep her sanity by recording her experiences and impressions in a blue notebook.

On the streets of Mumbai, she occupies a “nest,” a small space hardly bigger than the bed on which she services customers. She is given her meals there too – more when she brings in more money – and so passes the time “making sweet cake” with ten or more “bakers” a day. For a while, she has the friendship of one of the boy prostitutes to give her solace, Puneet, but after he is castrated at the onset of puberty, he becomes sullen and uncommunicative.

Shortly thereafter, Batuk is taken away to service a private party. It is at this party that she meets her fate. Earlier she had explained, “Fate is not a chance event but one that is inevitable; we are simply blind to its nature and time.”

Batuk manages to fly outside her body and find sustenance in the words she has learned to turn into poetry and stories. Through fantasy, she gains redemption, and we gain an understanding that transcends the neutralizing impact of documentary reporting.

This is a difficult book to read. I kept at it because I knew it was only a fictionalized account of a problem that actually exists. The U.S. National Institutes of Health advise that child prostitution is more common in India than anywhere else in the world. Rescue organizations say that of the estimated 900,000 sex workers in India, 30% are believed to be children. Indian newspapers report that as instances of HIV and AIDS reach alarming proportions, demand for younger, pre-puberty girls has hit an all-time high. Girls as little as seven and eight-years-old are being forced into prostitution. These children also fetch the highest price.

A spokesperson from Save The Children – India claims that “[t]his trade cannot survive without patrons in the Mumbai police. This is the main reason why the police are incapable of handling child prostitution.” And indeed, this problem is also featured in The Blue Notebook.

Published by Spiegel & Grau, 2009


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6 Responses to Sunday Salon – Review of “The Blue Notebook” by James A. Levine

  1. susan says:

    Great review. Will add this to my list. I read a YA about a girl sold into the sex trade, Sold. The book is a verse novel and the form beautifully renders Lakshmi ‘s story. I just finished a second YA novel, Secret Keeper by Mitali Perkins set in the 1970s and it examines the roles and limitations for women in the upper caste.

    While YA is not the literary novel, there are fine writers in this genre and they give voice and perspective of young people in often a startling way.

  2. bermudaonion says:

    I know this book will be difficult to read, but I think books like this are important. They always make me count my blessings too.

  3. Margot says:

    I see why this would be so difficult to read. I’m grateful to the people who write these books so the rest of the world sees and understands the problem and then does something about it. And then we need readers and reviewers to talk about it. Thanks for a well done review on a difficult subject. I’m glad to hear the proceeds are going to help. It’s worth buying the book for that.

  4. Alyce says:

    I know that this one is going to be a difficult read. I’ve been kind of putting it off – waiting until I’m in the right frame of mind to handle it.

  5. Diane says:

    Blue Notebook is my pile; hope to get to it soon.

  6. Pingback: The Blue Notebook by James A. Levine « In the Shadow of Mt. TBR

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