Review: Two Books



Review: Two Books

By : Ranjana Kaul
Riddle Of the Seventh Stone

Riddle Of the Seventh Stone is an engaging book with unlikely protagonists drawn from the world of vermin and insects, a world which humans generally tend to ignore or treat with disgust and repulsion. The book straddles these two antithetical yet interdependent worlds with ease through its unlikely heroes, the rat Rishabh and the bossy spider Shashee (spelt with a double ‘e’ for astrological reasons!) who find themselves catapulted unwillingly into the world of humans.

Rishabh and Shashee live in the dark, obscure corners of kindly fuddled old Venkat’s musty shop which is full of mysterious herbs and medicines. The existence of the shop4, which is like a peaceful refuge amidst the hustle-bustle of modern day Bangalore is threatened by the unscrupulous ‘shiftyeyed…slimeball’ known simply as the Shark. He preys on old insecure property owners, loans them money and gradually forces them out of their small shops and homes so that he can sell the land to big-time property developers.

The rat and the spider, who find themselves magically transformed into humans, try to protect the simple, kind-hearted Venkat. The story goes through some interesting twists and turns as they, together with Venkat’s orphaned grandchildren Deepak and Leela and a whole army of vermin and rodents, take on the scar-faced Shark and defeat him soundly. There is also the added excitement of a treasure hunt as Rishabh, Shashee and their friends try to unravel historical clues which literally lead them to a pot of gold.

Sahu manages to bring alive the two parallel worlds of humans and the creepy crawlies. When the vermin gather in the Vidhan Soudha for a meeting they take over the entire venerable building:

In the dead of the night, the vermin had the place all to themselves. The cockroaches trooped out upon the rows of benches to cheer. The mosquitoes hummed a musical chorus from under the seats. The lizards on the panelled walls ticked a lively beat to celebrate this historic event.

Evidently the building which is the seat of power for humans during the day belongs to other species during the night.

It is the author’s ability to bring each character to life and make him or her an individual which sets this book apart. Sahu populates the narrative with characters who have their own distinct personalities and mannerisms. There is the wise and brave old bandicoot who counsels Rishabh, Balu, the kindly constable and Ajji, Deepak and Leela’s strict yet generous grandmother but the most engaging characters are Rishabh and Shashee. Rishabh, the rat, is a kindly soul who finds himself dangling incongruously between the two worlds, one in which he has to keep himself clean and eat human food and the other where he reverts to his true nature and swoons at the smell of rotting garbage and refuse. He is determined to save Venkat and achieves his goal despite having to battle with his own inadequacies. He learns to overcome his shyness and stop being the ‘tongue-tied rat’ who is unable to speak up when the need arises. Shashee, on the other hand, is a spider with attitude. Supremely confident and secure in her admiration of her own handiwork, the cobwebs she spins in dark corners, she is an exhibitionist who always has to be the centre of attention. It is this unlikely cast of characters which brings the story alive and makes it an interesting read.

Sahu intersperses the story with numerous references to history and makes the past an unobtrusive though significant part of the narrative. The plot is simple yet contemporary with a subtext of protecting the old against the depredations of unscrupulous modernity. Though there are several parallel strands interwoven through the narrative they do not intrude on each other or cause any confusion and the book holds our interest till the end.

Anu Kumar’s book Atisa and the Time Machine is a very different kind of story which deals with the exciting world of time travel and brings history alive by taking us back in time. The novel blends history with adventure making one wish history books for the young were as engrossing! Atisa’s colourful patchwork balloon-cum-time machine provides an unusual vehicle for time travel. His adventures take the reader from Bamiyan and the ancient silk route to ancient Nalanda and Mathura as he tries to help the famous Chinese traveller, Hiuen Tsang, on his journey through India and protect him from the unscrupulous forces which are trying to create obstacles and endanger his very life.

There is a bit of confusion initially about the time line though the author soon provides a clue about the direction in which Atisa’s adventures will progress. The reader is informed that:

...there is a period of a few days that remain unaccounted for in Hiuen Tsang’s life. There is no doubt that he overcame all obstacles in his path, and did reach India, but there were those who were determined to stop him at all costs. Who were these people? And why were they so very determined to stop Hiuen Tsang? What happened to Hiuen Tsang in this period where little was known about his whereabouts? The mystery remains unsolved.

This is the beginning of a tumultuous journey into the past which provides answers to these queries and a basic, if cursory, knowledge of a specific period in the historical past as seen through the eyes of the young protagonist.

Atisa sweeps through the skies in his balloon coming to Hiuen Tsang’s rescue at strategic moments. He also keeps an eye on events as he gradually comes closer to discover the identity of the villain who is trying to put obstacles in the young monk’s path. The colourful balloon with its sound detector and weather forecasting lantern makes an interesting time machine and the story moves along at a fairly rapid pace. However, some references within the narrative are not very clear and can be confusing for a young reader who is unfamiliar with history or with the earlier book in the series,  Atisa and the Seven Wonders. Nevertheless, the basic concept of the book is very interesting and can provide limitless opportunities to introduce young readers to various historical periods and personages. 

Ranjana Kaul teaches English at the College of Vocational Studies. She is also a translator and has translated numerous books and short stories.