Homeless Bird Summary

Gloria Whelan

Homeless Bird

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Homeless Bird Summary

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Homeless Bird, a 2000 novel by Gloria Whelan, was a New York Times bestseller and won a National Book Award. The novel focuses on Koly, a young teenager growing up in India. Koly struggles with her desire to do something with her life, while her familyexpects her to marry young. She lacks control in her life, something most teens can relate to, although not always on such a scale. Koly is a strong protagonist, as she never falters, even in the most depressing of situations.

Koly is thirteen years old and lives with her parents, Maa and Baap, in India. Her father is a scribe, often writing letters for people, even those who cannot afford his services. Her mother is a talented embroiderer and has taught Koly her trade. Unfortunately, her parents, although good people, have decided on an arranged marriage for Koly. Koly has been expecting a marriage, as it is a part of her culture. But she is sad to leave her family and nervous about what her husband will be like. Her parents scrape together a dowry, and Koly embroiders a blanket with scenes from home so she will never forget.

Koly’s husband-to-be is sixteen-year-old Hari. When the day of the wedding arrives, Koly’s parents take her to Hari’s home. Hari is not what was promised. He is thirteen, not sixteen, and he seems to be sickly. Hari’s parents, the Mehtas, promise them that Hari just has the flu. Koly’s parents contemplate backing out of the marriage, but Baap believes it will be bad luck for them not to proceed. So Koly marries Hari.

Koly has difficulty adjusting at the Mehta home. Her mother-in-law, referred to in the novel as her sass, is not nice to Koly. But Koly gets along well with her sister-in-law, Chandra. Koly discovers that Hari is extremely ill; he has tuberculosis. The wedding was only so the Mehtas could get enough money to travel to the Ganges River, in the holy city of Varanasi. Koly’s sassur—father-in-law—believes bathing in the river will cure Hari. Doctors have advised against the journey, but they take it anyway, bringing Koly along.

When they arrive at the Gagnes River after a difficult journey, Hari bathes in the water and drinks it. The cure is unsuccessful, and Hari dies the following day. Koly worries about her life. She is now a widow, and in Indian culture, no one wants to marry a widow. She worries about how the Mehta family will treat her now that Koly has died.

Once they return home, Koly’s life is not much different. She still must do household chores and is often scolded by her sass. Her sassur teaches her to read, and Koly develops a love for poetry. Koly is meant to receive a widow’s pension now that she is one, but discovers her in-laws have been siphoning the money. They are using it to fund Chandra’s dowry. Chandra is soon married and Koly is saddened to have lost her only friend. Koly attempts to be well-behaved from then on, as now her situation with the Mehtas is even more uncertain.

Soon thereafter, her sassur dies. Now Koly and her sass are widows, with not much money to sustain them. Her sass receives a letter inviting her to live with her brother in Delhi. She wants to go, promising to bring Koly along if Koly funds the trip with her silver earrings. Koly agrees, believing she has no other choice.

The two take a train, which stops in the city of Vrindavan. They take a rickshaw to pray at a temple, and Koly’s sass gives her money to buy them lunch. When Koly returns, her sass is nowhere to be found. The rickshaw driver informs Koly that her sass left on a train. Koly is distressed. The rickshaw driver, named Raji, takes her to a house for widows, which is common in Vrindavan.

There, Koly begins making garlands and bracelets with another widow named Tanu. Koly’s talent for embroidery is discovered. She gets a job with Mr. Das, a tailor who appreciates her work. She makes Mr. Das a lot of money, as people will pay a lot of money for her work. Koly is able to support herself and is finally happy. She makes enough money that she and Tanu can move out of the house of widows.

In the meantime, Koly teaches Raji how to read, and they develop a rapport. He often speaks about his family’s farm and how he is saving up money to return there. Raji asks Koly if she would eventually like to come with him and be his wife. Koly is unsure, as she is finally independent and making money doing something she loves. Raji is hurt, but understanding.He returns to his farm by himself, but he writes Koly letters.

One day, Raji writes Koly a letter saying he has built a room for Koly to work on her embroidery on the farm. He asks her again to marry him and come to the farm. Koly knows she will not get an offer as a bride from anywhere else, especially because Raji has no family. Koly also is appreciative of the work Raji has done for her, especially his awareness that her work is important to her. She agrees to marry Raji.

The novel concludes with Koly making another quilt for her wedding and with Koly promising her boss she will continue her embroidery at her new home. Like a poem she read with her former sassur, she is like a homeless bird who has finally found a home.