There’s not much that upsets young Valli. Even though her days are spent picking coal and fighting with her cousins, life in the coal town of Jharia, India, is the only life she knows. The only sight that fills her with terror are the monsters who live on the other side of the train tracks — the lepers. Valli and the other children throw stones at them. No matter how hard her life is, she tells herself, at least she will never be one of them.
Then she discovers that she is not living with family after all, that her “aunt” was a stranger who was paid money to take Valli off her own family’s hands. She decides to leave Jharia … and so begins a series of adventures that takes her to Kolkata, the city of the gods.
It’s not so bad. Valli finds that she really doesn’t need much to live. She can “borrow” the things she needs and then pass them on to people who need them more than she does. It helps that though her bare feet become raw wounds as she makes her way around the city, she somehow feels no pain. But when she happens to meet a doctor on the ghats by the river, Valli learns that she has leprosy. Despite being given a chance to receive medical care, she cannot bear the thought that she is one of those monsters she has always feared, and she flees, to an uncertain life on the street.