NAPLES — Dr. James Levine admits he did not intend to write “The Blue Notebook.”
But ultimately, it wasn’t so easy to forget the young girl he met on what Mumbai locals refer to as “the street of cages,” a congested city thoroughfare dedicated solely to prostitution.
The child was an immovable force, Levine explains, a bolt of iron with huge, brown eyes, an “enormous person compressed into a tiny package.” He only met her for a moment, but eventually her powerful presence followed him home to the United States and began waking him up at night. It wasn’t until after “The Blue Notebook” was written and published in 2009 that her ghostly appearances stopped.
Still, Levine counts himself lucky to have ever met – or been haunted – by her at all.
“The forging of that strength absolutely bowled me over,” he said. “It was literally one of the great honors one has as a person.”
Southwest Floridians can hear more about Levine’s experiences in India and the girl who inspired Batuk, the protagonist of “The Blue Notebook,” at 10 a.m. on Saturday, Jan. 8, at the Philharmonic Center for the Arts in Naples. He appears as part of the performing arts center’s Critic’s Choice lifelong learning lecture series, and will share the stage with Elaine Newton, the series host. He will also sign books today, from 2 to 4 p.m. today, Jan. 7, at Barnes & Noble Booksellers, Waterside Shops.
Dr. Levine’s encounter with the girl who inspired Batuk was in early 2002, when he traveled to India as part of a two-week trip to look at nutritional issues in children living in slums. Dr. Levine’s focus is nutrition and obesity, and he is a Professor of Medicine at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, as well as a Dean’s Distinguished Professor of Medicine at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio.
His visit to India did not have an auspicious beginning: He arrived from Africa’s Ivory Coast, where he was working on another project, and was hopelessly jet-lagged. That, Dr. Levine said, perhaps explains his bad decision when he left the Delhi airport and allowed himself be led astray by a child offering to help him find a taxi.
His error in judgment led to him being kidnapped.
“For the next three days, I was in this sort of concrete room,” Dr. Levine recalled.
Dr. Levine describes himself as being a basically optimistic person; even during the actual kidnapping act, he wondered if the black car he was being hustled into might possibly be just an ill-mannered limo service. He gives the three days of his kidnapping an equally upbeat review: He was served chai and food every day, and somewhere he could hear a cricket game playing on television. Finally, after his release, he was taken to his hotel, where he was shown to the presidential suite.
Although it was a kidnapping, there was “no real danger in the incarceration,” Dr. Levine explained. That made it a great contrast to the conditions endured by the girl who inspired Batuk, whom he met several days later in Mumbai’s so-called “street of cages.”
Dr. Levine describes the street as being lined with small storefronts; each one of the storefronts has a gate across it, and a curtain to draw for privacy. In each store is a prostitute, often one who is depressingly young. Their sexual slavery is a normal activity on the street, one that doesn’t even raise an eyebrow.
“There are people walking to work, women and men, taxis. And it just so happens that what is for sale is skin,” he said. “In a way, what you’re seeing is banal.”
Still, Dr. Levine found it hard to overlook the girl who inspired Batuk, in part because she was writing in a notebook. He asked to see it, and she obliged. Although he did not understand the words, he recognized them as an Indian dialect that’s frequently associated with the country’s intellectual class. The discovery prompted Dr. Levine to wonder about truth of a popular tenet of anti-poverty efforts.
“The mantra is that education is the answer,” he said. “How can it be that a young lady who can read and write is enslaved in prostitution if education is the answer?”
After “The Blue Notebook” was completed, Dr. Levine decided to devote all proceeds from domestic sales of the book to help exploited children. He also returned to Mumbai, and tried to find the girl who inspired Batuk. But just as she had disappeared from his dreams, she had also vanished from the street of cages.
For anyone hoping for a happy ending, Dr. Levine doesn’t try to soften the reality.
“I don’t want to sugarcoat a real situation. The fact that we couldn’t find her doesn’t mean she escaped,” he said. “The likelihood is that she was trafficked south and her fate was not positive, I’m afraid.”
If you go:
What: Critic’s Choice lecture with Dr. James Levine, author of “The Blue Notebook,” a fictionalized account of child prostitution in India at 10 a.m., Saturday, Jan. 8; book signing today 2-4 p.m.
Where: Lecture at the Philharmonic Center for the Arts, 5833 Pelican Bay Boulevard, Naples; book signing at Barnes & Noble Booksellers, Waterside Shops
Tickets: Lecture, $32 at www.thephil.org or 597-1900; book signing, free