The Book Chief’s Favourite MG Lit from India

I was enchanted by the idea of the MG Book Village — a community of people from around the world who love middle grade books! What could be better?

In the last few months (even as the Village was getting built), I have got such wonderful recommendations from the Villagers — books I would otherwise have never known. So it is now my time to contribute a few recommendations. To add to the global feel of the village, I am sharing some of my favourite Indian MG books.

MAYIL WILL NOT BE QUIET, by Niveditha Subramaniam and Sowmya Rajendran
mayil.jpg

This book is told in the form of diary entries of Mayil Ganesan or Mayilwriter as she calls herself. 12-year old Mayil is an aspiring writer who lives with her grandpa, parents and younger brother Thamarai in Chennai (the erstwhile Madras). The ‘diary’ is peppered with fun doodles and describes all the hallmarks of adolescence — old ‘best’ friends moving to new friends, crushes, inferior self-image, discussions about periods (aka chums!), curiosity about sex, and dawning realisation about adult problems like losing a job or suffering domestic abuse. Mayil thinks she is not pretty, and thinks that she is OK with it-  till a boy in school mocks her about how the boy she is ostensibly crushing on likes her friend Jyothy because “Jyothy is dumb, but she is pretty. You are not dumb, but you’d be much better looking without a face.” Then come the tears and self doubt . . . but not before she punches the boy in the face! But Mayil regains her balance and perspective after a frank (and amazingly sensible and sensitive) conversation with her Amma (mother). So much so, a few months later, when the same boy tells her he “likes” her, she replies with equanimity that she likes him just like she likes her other friends, and they actually become friends.

In Mayil’s journey of self-discovery, the supporting cast is fabulous, particularly her Amma and Thatha. Amma is sensible, frank, strict when required yet can be friends with her kids; while Thatha is young at heart and gently funny. I LOVED smart, sensible, and at times sassy Mayil, and I loved the book because it never ever sounds like it is written by two adults trying to write like an almost-teen.

OUR NANA WAS A NUTCASE, by Ranjit Lal
 nana

This is the delightful story of a madcap family consisting of four siblings living with their Nana (grandpa) in the picturesque hill station of Mahaparbatpur. The kids’ parents are globe-trotting, jet-setting diplomats who leave the kids to be raised by their grandpa. Nana is a retired Army surgeon and nicknames his grandkids as General Gosling (17-year old Avantika), Major Duckling (14-year old Harshita) and Privates Dumpling and Dingaling (seven-year old twins Niharika and Nihal). Everything to do with the kids’ education is done wth military precision and thoroughness — but made into an entertaining adventure by Nana’s madcap sense of fun and his deep love for his grandchildren.

All is fun and laughter till Nana starts showing unmistakable signs of being ill — he loses his balance, finds it difficult to walk, forgets things and at times, even fails to recognise his grandkids. How can the kids look after him and foil their parents’ ominous plans- of putting Nana in a ‘home,’ and sending the kids to boarding school?

I loved loved LOVED the characters in this book- Ranjit Lal has etched them with such love, one can’t help loving them. But while all of them are absolutely real and delightful, the best of the lot is of course, Nana. Everyone who reads this book will want to have a grandfather like him!

ASHWATHY AND THE BOOT OF GOD, by Sowmya Rajendran
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Ashwathy is a 14-year old atheist living in a small town called Kuttipuram in Kerala. She is bright, curious, brave and proactive; fond of crime and mystery and always on the lookout for a case to solve. So its no wonder that God (who is female and lives in a photo inside an old discarded boot!) chooses her to solve a recent case of murder that has been incorrectly classified as ‘suicide’ by the local police. Apparently, God was on vacation “to visit my cousin in another universe” so she missed what really happened the night of the murder.

Ashwathy recruits her best friends Geeta and Malavika, and her pedantic plump classmate Radhakrishnan (RK) (who has a crush on her) to help her solve the case.  The four teens snoop around Kuttipuram, interrogating suspects and cross-checking facts till they crack the case . . . helped in places by God herself, of course!

I loved Ashwathy — her independence, her confidence and her go-getter attitude. And I thoroughly enjoyed Sowmya Rajendran’s idea of God. 🙂

HAROUN AND THE SEA OF STORIES, by Salman Rushdie

This is one of my all-time favourite books, one that I would choose if I was allowed to read just five books my whole life. It is a crazily wonderful mix of fantasy, fairytale, allegory, humour and activism. Rushdie has reached dazzling, dizzying heights of imagination that leave you breathless with the wonder of it all. How did he do it? asks your bewildered brain. How could he think up such a world?

The story is about a storyteller named Rashid who has the true Gift of the Gab — he can weave wonderful stories packed with action and humour and romance out of thin air. But he loses this gift when his wife, tired of his fanciful imaginings and lack of attention to the home, elopes with their neighbour. Haroun, Rashid’s son, discovers that Rashid was a longtime subscriber of the magic story water service from Kahani, Earth’s secret second moon, but now his subscription has been cancelled. So he flies to Kahani to restart Rashid’s subscription — on the back of a mechanical hoopoe bird called Butt, with a Water Genie called Iff. But once he reaches Gup City (the capital of Kahani, inhabited by talkative chatterboxes of all sizes, shapes and species, called Guppees) he discovers that the city is about to go to war with the deadly Khatam Shud. Power-hungry Khatam Shud (aka The End) is the enemy of speech and stories because in every story is a world that he cannot rule. Khatam Shud and his henchmen are creating and releasing poisonous anti-stories in the sea so that all stories in the world are destroyed.

Can the Guppees defeat Khatam Shud and end his reign of silence? Can the Sea of Stories be saved from the vile poison of hateful propaganda that Khatam Shud is spewing? Can Rashid’s gift of storytelling be restored? You have to read the book to know all this and more!

THE HIDDEN POOL, by Ruskin Bond
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This is Ruskin Bond’s first novel for children, published in 1966. Its a slim volume, and narrates the adventures of three teenage friends — Laurie, Anil and Kamal. Laurie is the son of a British engineer who is posted in India for a couple of years on a project. He makes friends with Anil, who lives with his parents in a small flat in the chaotic, colourful bazaar which is the heart of their small town in the Himalayan foothills. The third boy in their trio is Kamal, an orphan who was separated from his parents in the chaos of Partition (the division of India into India and Pakistan, a bloody time in the history of the subcontinent)

The three boys have a lot of fun together, be it snacking on chaat in the bazaar, going for long bicycle rides into the forest bordering their town or listening to ghost stories told by Anil’s mother. But the best times they have are at the hidden pool that Laurie discovers in the forest — they dive from the high rocks surrounding the pool, swim to their hearts’ content and wrestle each other on the muddy banks.

On one such day, when they are drying themselves after a swim, Kamal suggests going on a hike to the Pindari glacier, a 55-mile hike. Surprisingly, the boys’ parents let them go off alone, and what follows is the experience of a lifetime. The book describes the boys’ hike along scenic mountain trails, an almost-encounter with a bear, the scary stories narrated by the watchmen at the ‘dak’ bungalows where they camp at night, and their final ascent onto the icy glacier.

The simple, yet evocative descriptions make you want to drop everything and take off for the hills! And that is the magic of Ruskin Bond’s writing — it is simple and unpretentious, yet arouses a deep wanderlust. You can hear the rain dripping from the sal and deodar trees, see the mist curling down from the mountain tops, feel the cool breeze on your face and smell the sappy, jungly smell of the forest. I cannot think of a better writer who can make children fall in love with nature and make them want to protect it.

Urja Ketkar (aka The Book Chief ) loves reading and reviewing kids’ books, and runs a Readers Club for the kids in her neighbourhood. She is always on the lookout for the next great read! You can find her on Twitter at @SpeakToTheChief.

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