Sunday, June 28, 2015

5 to 1 by Holly Bodger

5 to 1 is a dystopian novel set in future India. The story is set in the country of Koyanagar which was created fifty-four years ago. At that time India was overpopulated, its land polluted and its people starving and impoverished.  When a new prime minister was elected he set in place restrictions on family size with accompanying fines to those who did not limit the size of their families to one child. However Indian culture is such that if couples could have only one child, that child would have to be male since males were the ones to inherit land, carry the family name and initiate at funeral rites. Using ultrasounds, parents determined the sex of their unborn baby and aborted the child if it was a girl. Others simply abandoned baby girls in parks or killed them in buckets of water. Thirty years later the country's boy to girl ratio was skewed 6 to 1. Unable to find wives, girls were sold, stolen or raped. This in turn led to more violence.

The women of Koyanagar, tired of the violence, met with the prime minister who remained unaffected by their concerns. They decided to isolate Koyanagar from the rest of the country. The men of Koyanagar built a wall around the city, abolished the one-child laws, protected the lives of girls and got banned the technology that made it possible to determine the sex of unborn babies. On December 31, 2041, the gates of Koyanagar were sealed shut and boys were set upon the walls to guard them.

To prevent bidding wars for marriage, the new government started the Tests which would allow every girl to get the best possible husband while giving every boy a chance at marriage. The Tests run over three days and encompass many different aspects. The public is able to attend the Tests but for those who cannot, they are broadcast over radio. The winner gets a wife and future that is secure, especially if he gives his wife a daughter. The losers are sent to an assignment center where their families can bribe officials to "find" a good job for them. They will never marry or know what it is like to be a husband or a father. Poor boys can expect much worse -they are assigned to guard the walls enclosing Koyanagar.

The novel opens with Sudasa about to partake in the Tests. There are over three thousand boys eligible for the Tests and for a chance to marry one of the two hundred girls who are seventeen. She is one of eight girls who are undergoing the Test over the next three days. There are twenty five Tests in all over the year. Each girl will be married at seventeen to a boy who is but a number until his marriage. At her Test in the theatre, Sudasa, seated in a gold trimmed box between her Mummy and Nani, must choose between five young men. Behind her sits her older sister, Surina, who was married two years ago and her friend, Asha, who underwent the Test two weeks ago.

For Sudasa's Test there are five boys; one in a blue kurta, contestants two and three who are in orange and yellow, contestant four who is in a green kurta and finally contestant five in a red kurta who has raven hair. Her Nani points out the boy in the blue kurta as the one who will give her girls but Sudasa quickly recognizes him as her cousin.
"That's when I know;
             when I'm sure.
He's not like
               my cousin.
He is
               my cousin."
Sudasa knows that this is not coincidence as there are too many boys for the small number of girls for her cousin to have been placed randomly in her Test. Sudasa wants to run away but she knows that this is impossible, that she will never be able to escape over the wall. Sudasa now realizes this is why her Nani tried to include her cousin in all the activities she undertook; sitar lessons, riding, pottery, poetry and painting. She believes that her marriage to her cousin would settle a long standing debt between her Nani and Mota Masi who helped get her Nani and her mother off the street when her grandfather died from alcohol. Mota Masi introduced Mummy to her father, a wealthy man. So Nani is trying to work around the Tests and rig them so that Mota Masi's grandson will marry Sudasa.

For Contestant Five, the other main character in the novel, we learn that he has no intention of winning the Test and marrying Sudasa. Five must follow Appa's plan so he can Amma who left when he was five and just before the gates of Koyanagar were closed. Five knows that the President of Koyanagar is not being completely honest with the people because not everyone got rid of their baby girls. Appa's family hid their girls when the officials came to check on the family size and the rich merely paid the fines for extra children. The President tells these lies because she wants the people to believe they have no choice but to obey.

The first Test consists of twenty questions which the contestants must press a buzzer to answer.  In the middle of the questions, Sudasa's cousin accuses Five of helping Contestant Four who is very young. But Five insists there is no rule against this which is confirmed. Her cousin continues to answer the questions correctly much to Sudasa's horror. To prove he cannot win all the answers, she lies on the last question so his answer is wrong. Sudasa gives one rock representing third place to Five, two rocks representing second place to the fourth boy and five rocks to her cousin for first place.

Sudasa begins to realize that she is not in charge in the Test and that the Tests are not fair. She tells her Nani that she knows what she is trying to do, however Nani threatens her by reminding her about what happened to Surina. Like Sudasa, Five also recognizes that the Test is not fair, despite the fact that they are supposed to prevent the rich from having an advantage and to provide an equal playing field for all. Five believes that the girl gave him the rock because she had to and that she is makes like she is following the rules because she's made her decision about who she will marry. Five has not followed his Appa's plan which was to stay silent during the first round.But he couldn't stand the arrogant First Contestant and he acknowledges to himself that the girl seemed uncomfortable with the Test.

The second Test is a physical one involving a game of football or soccer. Sudasa's cousin shows up with cleats, shin pads and striped socks indicating he knew what the game was going to be. However the game is not a friendly one as Sudasa's cousin scores numerous goals and injures another contestant. Five steps in and easily outplays Sudasa's cousin, causing him to show his true character in a display of poor sportsmanship. He also flattens Sudasa's cousin leading him to accuse Five of tripping him. This causes a great commotion between Sudasa and her Nani when Sudasa jumps up to encourage Five. At the end of the second Test Sudasa gives the Third Contestant a single rock, two rocks to Contestant Four who broke his leg in the game. But when Sudasa tries to give Five her five rocks, he tells her to play the game according to plan and she awards the five first place rocks to her cousin.

As the Testing comes down to the final event, Sudasa learns the truth about Koyanagar from her sister, Surina. She also comes to realize that although her Test is rigged she may have other options than choosing her cousin. Is she brave enough to consider a different future for herself or must she live up to her name of Sudasa meaning "to obey"?


5 to 1 is a story as unique as its beautiful cover of a bridal Mehndi design showing the bride and groom on a pair of hands. 5 to 1 is set in future India in the year 2054. Indian society has been so distorted by skewed boy:girl ratios, that the resulting unrest has caused a part of the country to secede and form its own nation called Koyanagar. In Koyanagar, women rule and girls are the preferred sex. They implement a series of Tests that a group of men must undergo for each marriageable girl. On the surface the Tests seem fair but as the two major characters of the novel, seventeen year olds, Sudasa and Kiran Pillai soon discover they are not. In the process of undergoing these tests, the two characters learn the truth about their new nation and in particular Sudasa uncovers a few family secrets.

The story revolves around the issue of gendercide - the deliberate killing of girls in India, leading to an imbalance in the number of boys to girls. Of course the skewed sex ratio of boys to girls is very much the reality in present-day India. The most recent information from the 2011 Indian census shows that the sex ratios are worsening in the vast majority of the thirty-five states that make up India. The ratios are worst in Punjab, Haryana and Delhi. According to 2015 data, there are 114 boys to every 100 girls in the state of Haryana. The normal ratio is 105 boys to every 100 girls. The proliferation of cheap and easy to access ultrasound clinics, despite the procedure for determining the sex of the unborn baby being illegal, is a major problem. Analysis of the worsening sex ratio trend shows that there are two factors at play; a strong cultural bias and a weaker economic one. Interestingly enough, the most skewed sex ratios are among wealthy Indians where sexist attitudes towards daughters and a preference for sons are strong. Already the skewed sex ratios are having an impact on society in India. The "missing girls" of this generation have now become the "missing brides" leading many young men unable find wives, a phenomena known as "marriage squeeze". Women are kidnapped, bought or traded from other areas of India and other countries. As the number of unmarried men rises and the queue of men looking for brides swells, so has crime and violence. The scenario that forms the backstory in 5 to 1 is not unrealistic by any means. Bodger has merely inflated the sex ratio but the social conditions she describes are already occurring not only in India but also in China and to a lesser degree in Pakistan as well.

Bodger tells her story through the narratives of Sudasa and Kiran. Sudasa's narrative is written in free verse, while Kiran's is in prose. As the narratives switch back and forth, they are identified not only by a difference in form but also by the Mehndi henna drawings at the side of the page. Both characters come from completely different parts of society. Sudasa is rich and privileged, her Nani a leader in the new country, while Kiran is a poor boy with dark skin from a fishing village. They both make assumptions about one another that are gradually broken down over the course of the testing. When Sudasa first sees Five she writes him off as one of the many poor boys in the Hun Market. But she begins to secretly cheer for Five as he helps another contestant and then flattens her arrogant cousin whose poor sportsmanship shows his true character. Sudasa realizes that Kiran feels exactly like she does - that he is trapped in a life

Kiran views Sudasa as the "honorable girl" who he believes is "up there with her family, examining us boys as if we're mangoes laid out on a brass platter." "These girls don't care how we look. They're here to choose the best slave. Might as well get a dog. Something that knows how to heel and obey." He even refers to her as a "spoiled girl in a velvet box". After the first Test, Kiran acknowledges that the girl is different from what he expected. "...her hair was in a plain braid down her back and she didn't prance like she was a queen of the place....She just didn't seem comfortable." When Kiran tackles Sudasa's cousin, he is puzzled by her angry reaction. He doesn't know if she is angry at him or at her cousin but she does not seem to be agreeing with her grandmother. Although Kiran believes that Sudasa "has accepted that this life in Koyanagar is the only option." when he talks to her after the cooking test he begins to

A strong theme in the novel is that involving choice, the freedom to choose who to marry and how to live one's life. Both Sudasa and Kiran feel trapped. For Sudasa, marriage is being forced on her at seventeen and although the Test is supposed to give her a choice, it is an illusion because her Tests have been rigged by her grandmother to force her to choose her cousin who is obviously not a good prospect. We see this feeling of being trapped at the very beginning of her narrative.
before any of this can happen,
I have to put on my sari.
Have to open my door.
Have to accept Nani's advice.
Have to pretend Mummy gives some, too.
Have to get in the our carriage.
Have to ride through the crowds.
Have to sit in the theatre.
Have to wait for my turn.
Have to follow the rules.
Have to smile like I agree.
Have to
Have to
Have to
Have to
            Choose him."

Bodger uses plenty of repetition to reinforce the theme of being trapped and forced towards a certain choice. Sudasa
"must wear a gold sari. 
must march down the aisle. 
must marry at seventeen....
must wed a stranger."

When Sudasa comes to the realization that Nani has rigged her tests she balks.
I won't allow it."

And insists she's in control.
       give the rocks.
       pick the winners.
       am in charge."
Kiran too feels trapped. At the Test he states, "For now, my only choice is to change into the red kurta the guards tossed at my fee and then sit in the chair they left for me." He knows that if he fails, he has no choice but to be sent to guard the wall around Koyanagar. "In these tests, they lose as well. Lose freedom. Lose choice. Lose life." However, unlike Sudasa, Kiran has a plan to escape. He tells her,
"Well, I don't want death.
I want life.
I want a job.
                    I choose.
A home
                    I choose.
A wife
                    I choose.
And not in Koyanagar."
A major twist in the novel is the discovery of what is really happening in Koyanagar. Sudasa and the people of Koyanagar are told that the old country of India is populated with savages.
"They see Koyanagar
as the land of peace and plenty. The land
that found the secret to happiness
and then locked it within its own safe.
Their leader wasn't smart like Nani
and her friends. He didn't
change their laws.
learn to value their girls.
And now?
They have none left."

However, Sudasa soon understands that creating the state of Koyanagar hasn't changed anything except that now the babies being aborted are boys. In a shocking exchange with her older sister, Surina, Sudasa learns the truth about Koyanagar. Surina tells her that her Test too was rigged but Mummy asked her not to cheat. Surina complied but this meant that instead of getting the boy she loved, she married a poor boy who makes boy babies. Now pregnant Surina tells Sudasa that she WILL not have a boy. At first not quite understanding her meaning, Sudasa realizes what Surina is telling her - that she will go for an ultrasound to determine the sex of her baby. Sudasa tells her that this is illegal and impossible in Koyanagar, but her sister states that nothing is impossible if you have money and Nani has money. And she intimates to Sudasa that this is not the first time this has happened neither for herself or in Koyanagar.

"This is the real reason
the ratio will soon
be down to
three to one."

"It's still happening
to the unwanted.
The only difference is
they're no longer girls."

"Instead of fixing things,
               of making changes,
               of making improvements,
all they've done
has been to break them
in reverse."

This discovery has a profound effect on Sudasa, turning her against Nani and leading her to begin making her own choices in spite of Nani's threats. Koyanagar is not what she thought it was and it is not solving the problems from the past. Sudasa would be sacrificing her happiness for a cause that is wrong. This also leads her to consider the another possibility her friend Asha has chosen. Asha also reveals to Sudasa the truth about the walls of Koyanagar and the boys who are sent there, thus opening her to the choice Kiran offers her after the third Test.

Bodger has created two exceptional characters who grow throughout the story and whose courage in making their own lives is something all young people eventually face.

5 to 1 is a beautifully written novel by Canadian author Holly Bodger, who is a long time resident of Ottawa, Ontario. 5 to 1 is her debut novel and a wonderful start for a promising Canadian writer. Readers are highly encouraged to check out her amazing website, which has many links that will provide much detailed background information for this novel including The Laws of Koyanagar, information on the Girl Problem of India and China, as well as a teachers guide which discusses themes and offers readers the chance to explore the novel in a much deeper way.

For those readers who are interested in exploring the issue of gendercide in more depth, there are excellent online articles including Implications of India's Skewed Sex Ratio by R. Deonandan and The Marriage Squeeze in India and China: Bare branches, redundant males from The Economist.

Other websites of interest include:

The Invisible Girl Project

Gendercide Awareness Project

The Fifty Million Missing Campaign

Book Details:

5 to 1 Holly Bodger
New York: Knopf, Borzoi Books    2015
244 pp.

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