Release date: November 9, 2010
BWI description: Leaving his village in rural India to find a better education, mathematically gifted, twelve-year-old Akash ends up at the New Delhi train station, where he relies on Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of knowledge, to guide him as he negotiates life on the street, resists the temptations of easy money, and learns whom he can trust.
Since I was in first grade, and a husband and wife who’d lived in India came and showed my classmates some of the things they’d brought back, I’ve had a fascination for India. I still remember the bright silks, the tinkling bells, the shiny jewels that decorated the clothing. The ivory tusks, carved elephants, and peacock feathers. I love the color of Indian people's skin, the sound of their voice, and the red dot on womens' foreheads.
Since my first introduction to India, I’ve had the opportunity to get to know a few, though very few, people from India. I don’t live where there is enormous cultural diversity, but there was the wonderful friend in grad school. There was the former children’s librarian, now a national literacy consultant, who was half Indian, and whose husband was full Indian. Recently, after my doctor of 25 years retired, a new doctor, from India, came into the practice. Of course, I chose him. When some friends were making regular trips to India for their faith, I was always tempted to tag along. Someday, I may yet visit India.
Over the years, I’ve read many popular novels set there. Just a few weeks ago, during my massive house decluttering, I came across Olivia and Jai, and The Veil of Illusion, both by Rebecca Ryman. They were books I dearly loved, and remain in my personal library. And who doesn’t love E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India? The movie, Gandhi? More recently, Slumdog Millionaire? Rudyard Kipling’s books never go out of print, and what about the Raj Quartet? In contemporary children’s books, Mitali Perkins and Gloria Whalen have written books set in India. Whalen's Homeless Bird won the National Book Award for Young People's Literature.
When I learned that Monika Schroeder, who lives in New Delhi, had set her second book in India, I knew I would want to read it. The package came from India, and in addition to the ARC, Monika sent me a handmade card with a picture of the Goddess, Saraswati, on the front. The envelope’s flap was most unusual, with a thin slat of wood woven through it for decoration.
Most striking to me, though, was that it’d traveled halfway around the world to get to a little house surrounded by rolling wheat fields, and yet it was still so permeated with a damp, musty odor that I reeled a little when I opened it. One of the smells of India.
All I can imagine is that it must’ve been monsoon season when she sent it, and it got very wet and hadn’t dried on its journey. But I loved the odor, and would pick up the card and smell it every time I walked by the pine china cabinet in the kitchen, where I had set it on display. The odor is now gone.
So, about the book. If you love India, and if you loved Slumdog Millionaire, you will love it. The plot is different, obviously, but the characters in both are similar. Akash, the protagonist, is very bright, but also a very poor young man. A math prodigy, he wants to earn a scholarship to go to an elite school, but his family cannot help him. In fact, they’re about to be thrown out on the street because they can’t pay the rent. Akash prays to the goddess Saraswati for guidance and help, but it seems to him that Saraswati has turned his back on him.
Trying to earn money to feed his family and pay its debts, Akash labors for a time in a quarry. But when he discovers, through his facility with math, that he is being swindled, and that the debt is increasing each day, rather than decreasing, he leaves the quarry and falls in with a group of homeless boys.
At this point, Akash begins to make some truly wrong choices, and almost brings disaster upon himself. But there is a moment of truth where he learns some important lessons, among them the virtue of honesty, and not to look for the fastest, easiest way out of a bad situation, but rather to work hard in an appropriate, ethical way.
After that, the goddess Saraswati looks more favorably toward Akash, and brings him in contact with people he needs to know, in order to do honest work for the money he needs to hire a tutor, to take an exam, and to win a scholarship to the elite school that will take him in a better direction.
One of the things that I marvel about when I read a Monika Schroeder book is her ability to describe a setting, characters, and a character’s emotions with beautiful precision. She can say in 10 words what might take a different writer 100 words to say. That is very powerful, and perfect for her audience (middle grade, ages 10-14). This book is sure to be a hit with readers.