The Conch Bearer

by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
265 pages,
ISBN: 0689872429

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Kids' Lit
by M. Wayne Cunningham

When 12-year-old Anand nearly bursts a blood vessel wishing for his miserable life to change, he gets far more than he hoped for. And thanks to the storytelling skills of India-born, Texas-based author and creative writing teacher Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, 8- to 12-year-olds worldwide now have a first-rate, page-turning tale of magic, mystery and mayhem that ranges from the humble street bazaars of Kolkata to the majestic mountains of the Himalayas.
Anand, as Divakaruni so deftly depicts, has good reason to want his life changed. His father left the city two years before for a better paying job in Dubai. But only a couple of months later he stopped sending money home. Then, Anand's sister, Meera, became ill and could no longer speak. With no money coming in, and a sick sister to look after, Anand and his mother had to sell their house and move to a tin shack in the slums of Kolkata where Anand must work for a pittance for a miserly tea-stall owner in the Bowjabar Market.
Like other kids his age around the world, Anand staunchly believes in the magic, life-changing powers of wish-making. And his beliefs prove to be justified when his wish for change brings him in contact with an elderly beggar, a sage in disguise, with eyes "shimmery brown like the eyes of a tiger," and a voice "deep and gravelly, as though it came from the bottom of the river." From the old man, Abhaydatta, a leader in the ancient Brotherhood of Healers, Anand learns that for his wish to come true he must leave his family, and become the temporary Conch Bearer for the Brotherhood. He would have to travel with Abhaydatta to deliver the magical shell-an Aladdin's lamp of sorts that can speak to him if it wishes-to its rightful resting place in the hidden Silver Valley of the Himalayas from where it was stolen by an evil rogue Healer, Surabhanee, before being recovered by Abhaydatta in a fierce battle.
As their quest begins, India is evoked with the use of words like "petrol" and "lorry", with references to the Pathankot Express, and to foods like white radishes and rice, sheem beans fried with chillies, alu pakoras, and rasogollahs, as well as to spices like cumin, cardamom and cloves. And later we're introduced to the mythology of Gamesha, the elephant-headed god.
Amid the ruckus and aromas of the streets where Anand is seeking the elusive Abhaydatta, he encounters a young street sweeper, Nisha, who claims she "plays hopscotch with danger every day" and wants to join him on the journey because, "I'll probably save your life several times along the way"- an excellent forecast indeed. And while Anand glumly agrees to her company, she tags along "as happy as a buffalo in a pond full of dirt."
For Anand and Nisha it's a marvelously exciting journey that children will surely enjoy and relate to in their imaginations. The two must come to trust each other and Abhaydatta as their pseudo-grandfather, Dadaji, who keeps disappearing in order to teach them to survive on their own, before he finally morphs into a mongoose. They must lock horns with Surabhanee as he shift-shapes into an old man, then a howling wind and finally a giant red snake (and isn't a mongoose the snake's most feared enemy?). Leaving nothing to chance in his attempts to recapture the Conch, Surabhanee enlists birds and apes to accost the kids, and feigns Anand's mother's voice to trick him. He even invades Nisha's mind and body to fool and frighten Anand. And there are gripping moments when the teenagers battle against impossible odds-a Styx-like river with a tidal wave meant to drown them, and a mountain pass that rains rocks on their heads and breaks Nisha's leg.
Even when they arrive at the entrance to Silver Valley and its presumed safety with the Brotherhood, they must face further tests. Anand must answer a mind-numbing riddle about which of the three virtues-honesty, loyalty or compassion-is best. After answering successfully and returning the Conch to the Brothers, he must make the most difficult decision of all. With a year away from his family already, should he stay forever in the Valley. He would be the official Conch Bearer for the Brotherhood of Healers, and he'd be with Nisha, the first female "Brother" and "Abhayadatta" ever. Or should Anand return to his Kolkata home to which his father has returned, and where his sister has recovered and their lives have been restored to normal? His decision is best left to the readers to discover as they discover the masterful storytelling of Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, and the magic of imagination that can enthral anyone anywhere in the world.

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