Saturday, 5 November 2016

Riddle of the Seventh Stone

Author: Monideepa Sahu
Publisher: Young Zubaan

For my first review, I am going to pick a book written by a dear friend, Monideepa. We met only once, a memorable evening under the banyan tree at St. Joseph's College, Bangalore, but have been in touch ever since. Here's to you, Moni, and to warm friendships!

Riddle of the Seventh Stone is set not in the privileged environs of a boarding school, an upper class household or an exotic land far away as with some other children’s books, but in the narrow bylanes of Avenue Road, Bangalore's congested and downmarket shopping area, where crowds swarm the footpaths. 

The protagonists of this marvellously entertaining book are a spider named Shashee and a rat named Rishabh, who live in the home of Leela and Deepak, a pair of orphaned twelve-year old twins and their grandparents. Thanks to some herbal magic, in a Cinderella sort of way, the spider and the rat turn into humans every morning and back into their arthropod and rodent selves at nightfall. Except that they would rather not become human. As Shashee puts it, “I'm Shashee, the aristocratic spider and winner of a dung medal in the Vermin Olympics”. Shashee and Rishabh use their twin lives to help the twins’ grandparents and their neighbours who are being threatened by a loan shark turned builder.

This first novel by Monideepa Sahu is an amazingly subversive novel. Alison Lurie writes that the sacred texts of childhood are actually quite subversive, for they give importance to all those things that adults are most likely to disapprove of. They celebrate day dreaming, cock a snook at adult institutions, mock adult pretensions, and do not moralize about those virtues and qualities most adults think every child should ideally possess. In this book, Sahu’s protagonist, Rishab struggles with Physics and Maths, and thinks he’s “nothing but a dumb failure”. Shashee is smart but loves to show off and taunt Rishab (“Slow-poke, pea-brain”).  Sahu however refuses to moralize, or judge her characters, and make them turn a new leaf. The vermin not only learn to speak up for themselves, they also learn to shape the world according to their needs. They organize rallies, have a parliament of rodents, and create and use vermin-mail.

In a Bengaluru that is being constantly “developed” and made into a shiny metropolis, Riddle of the Seventh Stone describes lovingly parts of old Bangalore with their little shops lit by a single light, and narrow roads dotted with ruminating cows, lined with hawkers selling everything from safety pins to second hand electric mixers. As a rat, Rishab scurries in gutters and into holes, drawn by the “heady aroma” of “heavenly garbage overflowing with vegetable peels and rotting scraps”.

Do they find the treasure? To whom does it belong? What happens to the loan shark? And what happens to Venkat Thatha and Ajji in whose home Shashee and Rishab live? Read this well-written, beautifully plotted book to find out.

 Picture Courtesy: Young Zubaan, HuffingtonPost (Paul Fernandes)

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