Homeless Bird follows the tumultuous life of adolescent girl Koly, a figure of both youth and innocence shaped by troubling and intense realities that fall upon her shoulders amid traditional Indian rituals and customs. With its setting in India, Homeless Bird centers on Koly’s trials, travails, troubles, and triumphs in her culture. However, many of the themes and issues that Koly must endure within her world are those which many young people of Koly’s age in the United States must face every day.
Death is a theme that runs through much of Homeless Bird; Hari – Koly’s husband by arranged marriage – dies of tuberculosis shortly into their young life together. Sassur, Koly’s father-in-law who teaches her how to read and write, also dies after being laid-off from the school at which he worked as an educator. As it is for Koly, death does unfortunately often force itself into the lives of young people; grandparents, aunts, uncles, and even parents and siblings is a harsh and life-altering reality for teenagers. How these teenagers come through the grieving process can bring young people to cherish their lives and those in it or, sadly, shut out emotions, feelings, and enjoyment in life.
Chores, tasks, and jobs become a major aspect of life for adolescents as they enter their teenage years. Koly’s mother-in-law, Sass, is highly demanding. She discourages Koly from enjoying any type of recreation, scarcely gives her a moment’s rest, and is highly critical of how Koly carries out the tasks she is ordered to do. While many adolescents in the United States do not face such scrutiny in the chores and tasks they do, it is true that many teenagers find work an obstacle in life that gets in the way of their freedom, recreation, and time with friends. While many young people scoff at the importance of work, there are those who do not. Thankfully, by adulthood, most everyone comes to realize the importance of a strong work ethic. In fact, Koly finds a job that becomes profitable and truly fulfilling for her – working as a quilt maker for Mr. Das.
Teenagers hate leaving behind things that are familiar, and that is something that Koly also must face throughout much of her story. She finds herself thrust into a foreign life when she marries Hari and must move into his family’s home, never to see her own mother, father, brothers, house, or old life ever again. Eventually, Koly seems to find a sense of home in that of Hari’s. However, her life is uprooted once again once Sassur dies and Sass sells the home to move away. Sass abandons Koly in a place of refuge for young widows and is never seen again.
Young people’s lives are filled with both role models and negative influences. Koly, unfortunately, happens upon the wrong crowd in her journey. Mala, one of Koly’s coworkers, invites her to a party. It is there that Koly finds Kajal, an edgy artist who clearly desires to have sexual relations with the innocent Koly and persuades the young girl into sipping a drink tinged with hemp. Thankfully, Koly leaves these bad influences behind for a promising future that quickly sweeps in thereafter and picks the young woman out of any personal gutter she had found herself in.
Perhaps the most important issue that young people face as they grow into adulthood is that of love and romance. Young love, crushes, and the promise of blissful lives with one’s other half fill the minds and hearts of teenagers. In her new and strange land that Koly finds herself in toward the end of the story is a young rickshaw operator named Raji. Both Raji and Koly are smitten with each other and Raji promises for Koly a secure, bright, and fruitful future. Unlike her arranged marriage and stilted relationship with Hari, Koly’s romance with Raji is fulfilled by a fateful meeting and brims with true happiness and love.
My reading of “Homeless Bird.” Whelan, G. HarperCollins Publishers, 2000.