Before I talk a little bit about what inspired Roma's character, I want to thank you all so much for continuing to support TDotD! Also... I received a few questions related to Roma and Levi from ARC readers and I have answered those concerning Roma at the end of this post.
Spoiler Warning: If you're planning on reading the book, I recommend skipping this post to avoid spoilers.
Trigger Warning: I mention rape, abuse, and self-harm.
When I outlined Roma's character in the earliest stages of the novel, I knew I wanted her to be a marginalised voice. After some research on ancient practices related to women, I stumbled upon the devadasi system. Deva means god and dasi means servant. A servant of God.
The challenge for me with Roma was to write from the perspective of a sacred prostitute and a rape survivor. While I was quite familiar with emotional abuse, I didn't have any personal experience with prostitution or sexual abuse. Was I afraid to fail the women that Roma would embody? Yes. Terrified. I was also passionate about representing them.
In the book, I have interwoven the devadasi system in India with the deities of the pre-Islamic Arabian pantheon. I have always been fascinated by the Jahiliyyah period. A time known as a phase of ignorance (and darkness) in ancient Arabia when women's position in particular was awful. Issues such as female infanticide, forced marriages, and public punishments of widows who refused to be inherited by their sons? All a reality in this society. What's most disturbing is that some of these practices (and many others) still exist.
Roma is a child prostitute. She is auctioned when she's thirteen and abused by her patron for almost a year and a half until she mutilates her own face to escape her sexual service to him. This self-mutilation is both a violent expression of her pain and a defiance against her caste. She knows it will be perceived as an inauspicious, sinful act which she must repent for before she can serve again.
I didn't want Roma to be the sort of YA Fantasy protagonist who embarks on a noble mission to save the world, or helms a revolution. Instead, I wanted her to represent what reality is like for hundreds and thousands of women, particularly those of us from desi culture. Most of the time, we have to face the judgement of our society—of even our own family members—to change our lives for the better. Most of the time, we're alone in this battle. Roma's resilience is the foundation of her character and it's what Levi, for instance, is attracted to. Her will to survive. No matter the cost.
So, I decided that Roma's revolution would be personal. It begins in her mind and manifests in her choices when she chooses freedom. She is also alone in this battle. Of course she has a much, much larger part to play in this story than anyone else, and what she chooses to do once she realises what that role is will be interesting to see.
But the questions I wanted to ask with Roma's character were... What if sometimes you can only save yourself? What if sometimes you should only save yourself?
Q: Why does Roma call her body a shell?
Roma can't stand to be touched. She associates touching with losing all power, all claim over her body. It's one of the reasons she refers to her body as a shell. Physical contact is a human need. To be robbed of it can be painful to the person who doesn't like to be touched as well as to the people who care about that person and want to express their love through touch. It was important for me to convey Roma's emotional trauma in a more physical manifestation. For instance, apart from avoiding touch, she also avoids her own reflection since she doesn't love herself.
Q: How old is Roma?
Q: Does Roma actually believe in the gods?
Roma has been raised to believe that she believes in the gods. She feels a disconnection to her faith. I wanted to convey what it's like being raised to believe in something and to follow it without a reasoning behind it, or any relationship to it other than fear of punishment. What it's like being told what to feel or think, all within boundaries defined by other people. Roma doesn't truly know what she believes. That's still a part of her journey.
Thank you for reading! Below, you'll find links to articles about sacred prostitution, as well as some of my favourite Kathak videos, which is the classical dance form I drew inspiration from for Roma's performances in the book. Just thought it might be an interesting trivia to share, hah.
Sources on Sacred Prostitution in India:
Favourite Kathak-related Performances: