Earthquake Boy: A story of the Gujarat disaster
Book Review by Gracy Samjetsabam
Title: Earthquake Boy
Author: Leela Gour Broome
Publisher and date of publication: Speaking Tiger, 2019.
Earthquake Boy is the latest novel by Leela Gour Broome, a Western classical music and English Literature teacher. She is also an environmentalist. She has contributed to children’s literature by writing numerous short stories, series of pun cartoons, and cartoon strips for a children’s newspaper and magazine. Three of her other books include Flute in the Forest, Red Kite Adventure, and The Anaishola Chronicle. She conducts story-telling and reading sessions for school children and, language-and-literature-related events and workshops for young readers at literature festivals.
Broome’s Earthquake Boy is a historical fiction, a novel based on the Gujarat earthquake in 2001, with 26 January as the fateful day and Bhuj as its epi centre. UNICEF in its report on India (Gujarat) Earthquake 2001 estimated that more than 8,000 children were orphaned and more than 1,000 were left unaccompanied. Binna, a shortened form of the Hindi word Bey Naam, which translates to “the boy without a name” in the novel is the protagonist of Broome’s story and through Binna, she also tells the story of the many “Binnas” who were left desolate, homeless and with little hope from the quake.
Natural disasters come unwarned, often violent, furious, calamitous and woeful. Children fall in the vulnerable section of the community in times of natural disaster. Historical fiction on natural calamities for children such as this one, can help create awareness about the hardships that children go through in such times but to shed light on realities that one might have or not experienced, thus broadening the horizons and diversity of thought among the readers. Such stories while painting the harshness of life and disasters, also communicates the beauty of profundity in human spirit.
Using a first-person narrator to tell the story from the point of view of a child in the heart of the crisis, Broome manages to effectively tell a tale of the fate of a survivor by weaving it with hope and miracle amidst the tragedy. The story opens with the scene of a boy gaining consciousness to the sounds and sights of the ongoing rescue operation in the site affected by the tremor. The volunteers noticed and unearthed a 12-year-old boy miraculously alive from the rubble of the earthquake. He suffered a severe head injury and multiple other injuries. He was admitted, and attended to recuperate with love and care in a hospital in Ahmedabad. He recovers but amnesia sets in. He remembers nothing and is thrown into oblivion for which he was named Binna. In the story, Broome paradoxically introduces the loss of memory as a sort of a sad antidote to help Binna move ahead with his life, which otherwise would bring us too close to the harrowing realities of loss and injury to the minds of children affected by such devastating disasters.
Homeless, parentless and without a memory of who he was, Binna is all the more traumatised by the thought of being sent to an orphanage and runs away from the hospital to catch a train to Mumbai. He arrives in Mumbai, lives in and out of a rest room in Charni Road station, finds work in an Udupi restaurant near the station, comes across local goons and criminals, lives amidst beggars, thugs and thieves, sees life in the slums, and at the same time meets new people and friends. Binna epitomizes the lived experiences of children in the time of natural calamities and its impact on their physical, mental, and psychological framework. Through Binna’s experience the vulnerability of children in such circumstances and specially to the risk of becoming a victim of abuses, human trafficking, child labour, jolted education, stress and hardships are exposed.
With everything happening as if in a blow, Binna is saddened by the loss of identity, the blank past and the bleakness of his future but Broome brings in optimism even in the most pessimistic moments dwelling on human spirit and resilience. Binna’s survivor instinct drives him despite the most disheartening times. The beauty in the story is that Binna, despite the dire circumstances, is a child like any other. He likes to be loved, has dreams and desires, is fond of his caring doctor, loves the idea of birthday and celebrations, thinks of his friends as a gift, is kind, smart, and funny. The world falls apart for Binna but through his journey and life in the city, Broome beautifully brings in the idea of “home” and security, the beauty of choices in life and of accepting the choiceless slices of our lives through the human spirit.
Binna has trust in his intuitions, has strong will-power and unwavering hope. Broome brings into our attention the uneasy road to finding a way to home. She vividly describes the possibilities with no certainties and the time and patience required to lead one child home, which reflects the challenges that could possibly come up in relocating and rehabilitating children, who are victims of similar circumstances. Binna ceaselessly looks for a sign, a connect, and a spark in his weakened memory to guide him to who he was. His future and what happen to Binna is for you to discover.
The language of the novel is simple and straightforward. Broome uses sprinkles of Hindi along with the scents and sights of the city to bring in a sense of the character of the people and places in the story. Natural disasters are sudden and unprecedented and children fall in the most vulnerable categories of the victims of any of the disasters. Broome chooses to tell a story based on the 2001 Gujarat earthquake, one of the most devastating natural disasters in the modern history of India.
Geographically, the story may tell about India but what is told and experienced has a universal appeal and Binna’s story of hope and happiness amidst tragedy could be about any child caught in the journey of fate anywhere else in the world. The story has an equal share of disappointment and surprises. The book has come eighteen years after the disaster, but the chaos and confusion, the loss and damage are all raw and vivid — giving us a closer view of what befalls victims, especially children, in such adversities. Broome’s Earthquake Boy is a valuable addition to children’s literature and a reassuring narrative on conviction, hope and resilience amidst catastrophic ruins in life. The author brings in the values and joys of family, kinship and friendship and crafts a story on the message that we live in a fragile world but life is beautiful.
Gracy Samjetsabam teaches English literature and communication skills at the Manipal Institute of Technology, Manipal Academy of Higher Education, Manipal. She is also a freelance copy editor and copy writer. Settled in the western shores of the Arabian Sea, she loves Nature besides reading over a hot cup of tea. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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