Gangamma's Gharial

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REVIEW

Gangamma's Gharial

By : Arundhati Venkatesh  /  2017

Gangamma's Gharial

Gangammas Gharial.jpg
Gangamma's Gharial
Author:
Shalini Srinivasan
Illustrator:
Archana Sreenivasan
208 pages
English
Rs 199.00
ISBN: 978-0143334071
Penguin Books, 
2016
Tags : 
Contemporary,
Fiction,
Overall Rating : 
8
Story/Content : 
3
Illustration : 
4
Language : 
5
Design : 
4

Shalini Srinivasan set the bar high with her debut Vanamala and the Cephalopod, so it was with much anticipation that I picked up her next, Gangamma's Gharial. The cover by Archana Sreenivasan — done in shades of green and purple, featuring Gangamma with an endearing grin, and a girl with her arms crossed — succeeds in conveying the essence of the characters. The sketches within, also by Sreenivasan, capture the mood of the story well.

The book opens with a prologue from Jayanti’s point of view. Confusing, because it isn’t clear who she is, how she is related to Gangamma, the gharial, or the girl on the cover, and whether she is a sympathetic character or not. The reader is introduced to Jayanti’s people next — yakshas who are wary of going Outside and instead live in a sealed palace with air specially made Inside. A clever premise indeed. Twelve of these yakshas, however, are Outside-obsessed. In a strange turn of events involving the twelve rebel yakshas and blue lotuses, the girl loses her parents to a landslide.

The fun begins when the spunky Gangamma arrives on the scene. Giripuram, the temple town where Gangamma spends her days gardening and growing flowers, is the land of dosais and kaapi, sampige and nellikai. The stray usage of the Hindi karonda is easily overlooked, for such is the charm of the description of the bazaar with its shops selling perfumes, spices, food, flowers and whatnot. I could see sunlight streaming through the glass attar bottles in various hues; I could almost smell the coffee beans, boiled peanuts and oily onion-y bajjis. Like Gangamma, the author too is in her element in Giripuram.

Next comes the spirited gharial, a gharial-shaped earring actually. Gangamma’s first encounter with the gharial is guaranteed to have the reader asking for more. After the line about the gharial worrying that the earring’s screw isn’t tight enough and clinging on to Gangamma’s ear with its claws as she hurries up the hill, I don’t think I will ever be able to look at earrings the same way again! Since Gangamma and the gharial teleport to misty mountains and apple orchards, there are lovely descriptions for the reader to enjoy. With her excellent eye for detail and wry humour, Srinivasan excels in these sections.

The girl, too, is at her petulant best once she meets Gangamma and gets taken on as her apprentice. We are treated to Srinivasan’s witty, exuberant writing in the parts featuring these two characters.

While the idea of Gangamma speaking to and going off on travels with a gharial-shaped earring is delightful, and the conversations between the two are great fun, the explanation for Jayanti and company going after the breakaway faction of yakshas (and the girl) remains unconvincing. It’s hard to care about twelve assorted unnamed yakshas, to be concerned about a gharial-shaped earring, or to worry about the fate of a girl whose name one does not know. It doesn’t help that when she does get named, it is after a number — Ondu, or one. The gharial too acquires a name three-quarters into the book, almost as an afterthought. The yakshas could have been fleshed out better and their world thought through more, so the writing in the sections where they appear matches the energy of the rest of the book. Often, Jayanti’s internal monologues get dreary, slowing down the narrative, thus pointing to the need for tighter editing.

The premise of the story — a clash between the Inside-lovers and the Outside-obsessed — is pertinent. The orthodox Outside-wary yakshas juxtaposed with expert-digger, master-composter, wildflower-lover Ondu, blue-lotus-grower Gangamma and the other gardeners of Giripuram could get the reader thinking. But gardening as a theme poses a challenge. One looks for thrill in children's fiction, fantasy in particular. It’s difficult to get the reader on the edge of her seat when one is writing about gardening. Gangamma’s exploits in that department did not excite me at all, despite having been a “permanently muddy and sweaty” gardener in my school days, so I wonder if they will appeal to today’s average eleven-year-old.

The budding botanist or birder, however, will find plenty to interest her. The book would be a useful resource in the classroom, as a starting point for discussions on the plant and animal life in the Himalayas and the Western Ghats. In addition to environmental concerns, the book opens up discussions on various topics that can be taken forward (without getting prescriptive or preachy), like the disdain for the North in the streets of Giripuram (in the South). There’s some feminism thrown in, with women priests and a happily child-free Gangamma. “If you want a mother, find a different guru,” the seventy-nine-year-old tells the girl in the first few minutes of her apprenticeship. What is even more impactful is the cast; it is refreshing to see female characters who are real — stubborn, sullen, caustic, witty, loyal, bold, kind, industrious and all the glorious things women can be — instead of being mere goody-goody or strong and sacrificing characters as is the norm. Organised religion too gets a brief mention, with the priests admitting they don’t know things (if loo breaks are permissible during a god match, for instance!) and that their archives are rather vague.

There are glimpses of Srinivasan’s fantastic imagination and many flashes of brilliant writing. The puns will leave you chuckling, like “Stop arguing and get growing” in the gardeners’ god match and an “ace of spades” in ‘Lie and Die’, a card game the gardeners play. As will the typical and delightfully Indian phrases like “paavam person” or “besh besh”, which are tucked away in pages written with great stylistic flair. A shorter version of the novel — retaining the humorous bits and characters but with a different conflict and resolution — might have been a wonderful book for younger readers.

Arundhati Venkatesh is the Bangalore-based author of the Petu Pumpkin and Bookasura chapter book series, as well as the picture book Junior Kumbhakarna. She writes at arundhativenkatesh.wordpress.com.

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