We like ambition in people. In India, children at a very young age are often asked by doting relatives what they want to become when they grow up: a doctor, an engineer, a lawyer, a scientist, a pilot, or a business executive. Indian parents take great pride in showing off the precociousness of their offsprings when they are able to set an ambition for themselves and rattle it out with an impressive perspicacity in front of their relatives at weddings or dinner parties.
Recently, at a business lunch, a young Indian lady proudly said how her eight year old son knew exactly what he wanted to do in life. Between the lifting of forks and stirring of spoons, a contrast was drawn to the older generation of Indians who wasted almost half a lifetime in figuring out what they wanted to do with their lives and where they wanted to go (in Naipaul’s words, the clever ones went to the US and UK “to make cookies and shovel snow off the pavement in winter—and educate their children”). This attitudinal change, between the older generation and the new crop of Indians, is taken as a sign of India’s progress towards modernity.
The ambition of a person defines him. If it is quixotic, it becomes a source of entertainment for his friends and relatives. While they would cheer on Don Quixote in the pursuit of the nearly impossible ambition, they would snigger in the sleeves, waiting for the moment when Quixote puts his feet on a banana peel. When Quixote reaches within the striking distance of achieving success, their cheering would turn into a skeptical form of disapproval: ‘Is the goal worth all the trouble? Why is he even doing this?’ and so on. Once he enters the portal of success and steps into the hall of fame, the success would be conspiratorially begrudged and daggers of jealousy would come out in the open. That is more or less the trajectory of a person with an literary goal in India unless you happen to have gone to Oxford or Stanford, or at least, to Delhi’s St. Stephen’s College.
When I first came to know Monideepa Sahu through Francis Ford Coppola’ forum for writers, Zoetrope, she was a former banker looking for a future in writing. We soon became friends and exchanged emails (we still do), supporting each other in our literary journeys. Unlike me, Monideepa had gone to Delhi University’s Lady Shri Ram College and had studied literature. She displayed a good grasp of literature and had a sharp eye for nuanced writing. I always valued her feedback and suggestions and earned a friend in the process.
Over the years, Monideepa grew as a writer and had success with some stories published in journals outside India. More success followed with her stories getting into anthologies in India and Malaysia. When her novel was picked up by Zubaan, out of an open pitch competition at Kala Ghoda Festival in Mumbai, I was as genuinely excited as her. In the following months, I got to read some chapters of the novel and when the illustrations for the book were ready, she sent them to me for my feedback. When the book came out, I was sent a copy. Yet, out of her natural grace and goodness, Monideepa never asked me to review her book (I rarely review books for others). I took it upon myself to write a review of her novel voluntarily.
What I said about ambition and jealousy springing forth out of success with one’s ambition does not apply in Monideepa’s case. She deserves all the success that she has got and deserves more. Given the odds in her life, which I have been somewhat privy to, her achievement is praiseworthy. In this whole journey, from writerly frustration to success, I have never felt even a tiny tinge of jealousy or nurtured a speck of ill-will toward her. I am sure she will achieve more success with many books that she plans to write.
I don’t have much experience in reading or reviewing literature for children in English (except for the classics that I read in school, from Panchtantra to Aesope’s fables and Arabian Nights and so on). I didn’t know how to start this review (I hate false starts) so I thought a note on our literary friendship would be an apt beginning.
Also, the topic of ambition and ill-will seems pertinent in the discussion of her first novel, Riddle of the Seventh Stone. Rishabh the rat, the novel’s protagonist, magically metamorphoses into a human form and enters the realm of Indian childhood. In this new world, he has a similarly transformed spider companion Shashee, and human friends, Deepak and Leela and their grandparents. While Rishabh grapples with tough geometry lessons in school, he grows up to like the new world and solve its problems; he is also given the ambition to become a doctor. The character of an Indian child without acquiring an ambition would be like a fable without a moral lesson—a universally important element of literature for children or young adults.
The ill-will part, the menace in the story, comes from a property developer, the Shark, who, just like one of the thieves in Home Alone, has glinting titanium teeth. Monideepa sets up the conflict early on in the story. The Shark wants to takeover the shop of Deepak and Leela’s grandfather, Venkat, and turn it into a shopping mall. What follows, in terms of a plot, is a thriller-like account of how Rishabh thwarts the plans of the bad guy, and at the end of the tale, emerges as a winner. He discovers a treasure but his real prize is more than that, which comes with a moral lesson for all the characters in the novel.
Apart from its fascinating storyline and moral lessons (important achievements never come easily to anyone; We mustn’t allow sorrow and disappointment to darken our world, and so on), what drew me into the novel is Monideepa’s language. The narrator’s voice is adult-like, with a sharp eye for detail, and a playful display of a facility for describing tastes and senses (a gang of crickets playing Mozart’s symphonies, stale rotis stiffer than shoe uppers; dustbins overflowing with gourmet delights, and so on).
Monideepa evokes the city of Bangalore and its history and geography with a deceptive ease. But what I loved most in the novel is her use of metaphors and similes in the story which often comes from the point of a view of a vermin (a voice sweet as a carrot halwa, a girl’s eyes has been described as a pair of lovely burnt frying pans). She also shows interesting parallels between the human and the vermin world by using imaginative devices such as V-Mail (for Vermin Mail) and WWW (Wonderful Wide Web). What fun!
Monideepa’s first venture into the world of vermins and humans is a delightful read. If I as an adult couldn’t put down the novel, I am sure children and young adults would find it a most fascinating read.
Riddle of the Seventh Stone, by Monideepa Sahu, Delhi: Young Zubaan, 2010. The book can be ordered online from Flipkart, Indiaplaza, and Crossword within India.