CM . . .
. Volume XVIII Number 9. . . .October 28, 2011
Toronto, ON: Dancing Cat Books, 2011.
192 pp., pbk., $12.95.
Grades 5-8 / Ages 10-13.
Review by Dorothea Wilson-Scorgie.
Reviewed from Advance Reading Copy.
Kunal had never seen so much money in his life. Grab them now, he told himself, you can count them later. He scooped up all the cash and stuffed it into his pocket, one eye trained on the kitchen door.
Kunal opened the drawer below and found another roll of notes. Someone up there was on his side today. This was a good haul; he was sure he had at least three thousand rupees and Sethji would never suspect him. He felt a pang as he realized the other waiters would bear the brunt of Sethji's wrath when he discovered he had been robbed, but dismissed it almost immediately. Other than Lalan, no one had ever cared about him so why should he care about them?
Kunal hurried out from behind the counter and was at the entrance when a thought arrested his steps. His mother's bangle. Did he dare get that, too? He knew he had been incredibly lucky so far. He should run and get out now. While he still had a chance. But he hesitated, unable to leave behind the only thing that belonged to his mother.
At that moment the door swung open and Sethji walked into the room…
Twelve-year-old Kunal is headstrong and hopeful, despite the fact that he had been orphaned as an infant. Under the "care" of Mr. and Mrs. Seth, Kunal is abusively put to work for gruelling hours as a waiter in his guardians' filthy dhaba (restaurant). But the story really begins when Kunal discovers that his mother still lives and is working in the financial district of Bombay. Kunal runs away and finds refuge with an old dabbawalla (a specialized deliveryman) named Vinayak. Learning that his life circumstance had resulted from an errant tiffin (lunch box) delivery, which had been carrying a note from his mother to his father, Kunal decides that joining the Dabbawalla Association and sending a letter of his own is the only way he will be able to find his birth mother.
Award-winning author, Mahtab Narsimhan, acutely describes the tastes and smells of Bombay; from the delicious Maska Pao (warm bread and butter) to the putrid stench of garbage on the crowded streets. The city, itself, serves not only as a setting, but also, with the significance of another character in the story. Writing in third person narration, Narsimhan unveils Kunal's quest for belonging. However, what is interesting, and never fully explained in the text, is the reason why Kunal is so intent on finding his mother alone, while he shows absolutely no interest in finding his father. Considering the fact that he has the names for both of his parents, and that he is a boy, I struggled to understand why he would not be inclined to search for his father as well.
The Dabbawalla Association of Bombay boasts a nearly perfect record of successfully delivering hundreds of tiffins each day. This statement is emphasized many times throughout the story and is a great source of pride for that community. For this reason alone, I question the entire premise of the plot. Kunal's problems arise from the initial loss of his father's tiffin, which, evidently, is never recovered. The last time we see the tiffin, it is lying on the train tracks outside Andheri station. The dabbawalla responsible for the tiffin saw it fall from train, so why did no one go back to retrieve it? Where did that tiffin go? For the rest of the book, I waited for some kind of explanation, but one never came. This left me with an unsettled feeling and created some doubt about the credibility of the plot. However, by suspending my belief (or rather, disbelief) during the initial event, I found the resulting plot to be an intriguing journey, one with a very unexpected and satisfying end.
Reading only a few pages into the story, it became quite evident that the vocabulary is very challenging, and I would suggest that this book is best suited for strong readers. Narsimhan's use of traditional Indian words is exceptional and definitely a part of what makes this book feel authentic. Given that, I offer a helpful hint to potential readers: take note of the glossary at the back of the book and keep your finger wedged into that back section as you read! I failed to notice the glossary until I finished the book, and only then did I realize how much easier it would have been to understand some elements of the story had I known the glossary was there to use as a reference.
Overall, Narsimhan recounts a marvellous, well-told story about what it means to belong. The child reader is whisked away to the bustling streets of Bombay, where he or she can get an unshielded glimpse into the life and struggles of an orphaned child. When all is lost (or even just one tiffin!), Narsimhan demonstrates how hope can survive!
Dorothea Wilson-Scorgie is currently a Teacher-On-Call in Victoria, BC, while also pursuing her MA degree in Children's Literature at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, BC.
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