Ritsika Lakhanpal's Girls who Chew on Fire remains little known in the West, despite recent efforts by the Rust Aid societies and the International Red Cross to distribute redacted versions to phone and tablet screens across the English-speaking world. As the title suggests, Ritsi's emblematic work (fans have long called her "Ritsi," a nickname which she has since adopted at conventions) covers ample sexual territory, and indeed, at first blush, this is all that many people, particularly aid recipients, take away from the steamy teaser passages with which they're provided. Disguised in plain sight, though, is that Girls who Chew on Fire is an epochal narrative transversing not only traditional lesbian relationships in postwar India, but political intrigue, self-discovery, and the nature of being.
Long hidden from the eyes of the West by the Provisional Government, the work only managed to formally escape its nationalist confines within the past ten years. Girls escaped military censors in bits and pieces, all too often suffering poor editing and, worse, deliberate propagandizing during the transfer process. The supreme council of Latvian imams, for example, made the ruinous decision to change the sex of Zariya (the primary antagonist cum erotic motivating factor) from female to male, while elements of the Eurozone underground press went so far as to change both Ritsi (Lakhanpal's eponymous protagonist) and Zariya from women to kin--obviously thereby destroying all the work's venues of social criticism.
Previously, short passages might be transferred to the West via internet black markets. Indians themselves will not soon forget how, under General Sikje, the dissemination of opinions critical of "evident values"--a variegated standard of which to be wary even in the best of times--was punishable by resettlement, a penalty stiff enough to dissuade all but the most foolhardy of hackers. Only a few lucky aficionados with connections on the continent (Yours Truly blessedly included among them) had been able to read the full work before it was published, with great triumph and no small amount of lobbying, by Amazon.uk and David's Court. Even now, though, acquiring the original meaning of the work is difficult for westerners, for work at Ritsi's level of criticism can make even the Eurozone media tremble. All translations and editorial decisions cannot be treated with the same level of reliability.
Consider the first erotic passage. A definitive break in the narrative, this is where the reader, hand in hand with Ritsi, realizes the consumptive nature of what the geo-Indian society of her childhood had become. The protagonist is forced, through her passion for Hamsi (a side character, who never appears beyond the initial orphanage and street scenes in the first chapter), to confront the contradiction between the strictures of her education and the real world that stands in defiance of those veritable commandments. If you haven't read the work, here's the scene: Ritsi, then fourteen, has escaped the cruel treatment of Teacher Vadi (an obvious stand-in for the Sikje Regime, with ker starched trousers and smiley-face T-shirts), and she and Hamsi have taken to the streets of Balangir in the company of an older orphan boy who abandoned their earlier plans of a trip to the border in favor of an apprenticeship with a kin mechanic. The mechanic, Teacher Hanpur, whose business is doing no better than others in the region, sees an opportunity to better the shop's financial circumstances by prostituting the girls. Being kin, Hanpur is of course equipped with multifaceted sexuality. Indeed, ke's perversions prove themselves profound, as ke not only forces the girls to service ker clients, but ker kinself.
It is after the first week of sleepless, drugged prostitution that the dying goddess Eros enters the tale. Ritsi and Hamsi, flush with a free afternoon, nap in each other's arms, then are freed from their evening responsibilities by a death in the neighborhood. The resulting police presence panics Teacher Hanpur into shutting down ker business for the night (like all hypocritical businesspeople of the Sikje era, Hanpur lends great vocal praise to the civic needs maintained by others, e.g., Hanpur supports the right of universal sexual access but does not pay licensing fees), leaving the girls in sole possession of a dirty, shadowed boudoir. From p. 33:
I put [the undergarments] aside and drew myself closer to her. I could not have been more surprised. For what I beheld was not the rotting pocket of which Thr. Vadi had warned me, nor the bloody clam the older girls had laughed about when they found I had no destiny for upgrade. Their wristies [phones of the time period remained voice-activated through implants, typically in the inner forearm] threw projections that glittered with the four taunts of superiority [pre-Reformation kin in the Indian subcontinent were designed with four genital nubs, rather than the standard trio] while we were to be left with only the charity provided by nature. To them we were like the feces of a ditch, shameful and put aside, however badly their older selves needed to buy us for their own fulfillment.No surprise that Amazon and DC shied from a full and accurate transcription, given their respective governments' policies on sexuality and kinship. Reviewers have long suspected that Lakhanpal's story was autobiographical more than it was fictional, though the author herself has never confirmed this. The Sikje Regime eventually jailed Ritsi, though not for lack of desire. While political prosecutions were hampered by the ineptitude and, often, the illiteracy of high-ranking officials, word eventually found its way through the notoriously-incestuous military grapevine to Sikje himself, who is reported to have said in his trademark non-inflective, "Very good, then," when prompted to order the arrest of another upstart holdover from the so-called "decomposing community."
Ritsi's repeated, thwarted attempts to escape are fable-like in their tragicness, until, in keeping with the genre, a fairy godmother appears. The trim and beautiful Zariya offers an escape from her fear-filled life--an escape to the far-away land of Siberia, where adaptive sexual surgeries were still illegal, and holdout communities had managed to thrive with patronage from President Alexey II and his wives. Zariya is the titular chewer, and it’s her job to keep track of remaining "organic" prospects, like Ritsi, who could conceivably assist generational survival. Zariya initially seems calm, and potentially manipulative, raising questions about whether she’s to be trusted, and whether Alexey is as wretched as he’s made out to be.
Like the strange, spare fairy tales that served as inspiration for glossier David's Court movies, the morality of Girls who Chew on Fire isn't hazy; it’s obvious to the reader what Ritsi thinks is right. P. 240:
My dear heart-sister was much like me. The good and the bad, the sign of failure and regression. For we were built as were all Omna [the midmost of the three non-kin castes, since abolished by the Zaodong government], crevices between our limbs, cursed with the vulgar needs of un-Farberized love. Those were the same nervous, inviting folds that both repelled and attracted Thr. Hanpur's friends. The same vulnerability, the same aroma. For a time we...The territory Ritsi covers is vast and variable. Chapters on New Dell and Putingrad convey the bewildering impact of Mongolian Bridge genedollars on the region’s demographics. In London, Ritsi considers the momentary solidarity among male and female protesters near Buckingham Palace, followed by the brutal surgical treatment of sexed activists, which in some cases only redoubled their commitment to their cause. These stories--of a protester tortured and then forced to undergo a humiliating kinship test, and another who lost an eye when beaten with a board with a protruding nail--are among the book’s most shocking and moving.
When I met her eyes I knew she had seen the same as I. Our fire bonded us to our experiences and to each other. For that is the nature of Omna, of India, of children like we were then. Though we are an interchangeable morass to kin, we are sparks from the same furnace, and know our differences as well as our one true father. Though disparate in the paths we took we are bonded by the use made of us. We could be tempting in the face of all others because there was no artifice in our bodies. In the others who grew more numerous by the day there was nothing left to exploit. Only falsity and craving for what they had lost. In those last years of persistence we girls of the old world refused to die without reminding each other of who we had been.
If the lines of the battle Ritsi documents seem fixed, particularly compared with those of the civil war raging around Canaska today, that may be because Girls who Chew on Fire is one of those rare books reported from a region best known as a crisis zone that are not themselves crisis fiction. What Ritsi chronicles is something subtler: the internal pressures and counterpressures influencing the Davidian world toward a form of social change that is by no means inevitable. Ritsi's knowledge of both breeding and inverse breeding, her open and inquisitive mind, her combination of lucidity and empathy, and perhaps even her own background as a lapsed upgrade candidate allow her to understand these sexed individuals' lives on their own terms without losing her footing either in their world or in ours.