The Great River Magic

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REVIEW

The Great River Magic

By : Revathi Suresh  /  2017

The Great River Magic

The Great River Magic.jpg
The Great River Magic
Author:
Nandini Nayar
Illustrator:
Lavanya Karthik
96 pages
English
Rs 175.00
ISBN: 9789386106483
Scholastic, 
2016
Tags : 
Adventure,
Environment,
Family,
Mystery,
Natural resources,
Quest,
Village,
Overall Rating : 
8
Story/Content : 
3
Illustration : 
4
Language : 
3
Design : 
4

The Great River Magic left me with mixed feelings. I wanted to like it more than I did (and I did like it well enough for the most part). It is a short storybook of the old-fashioned kind—the ones that used to start with ‘Once upon a time…’ It even has characters with old-fashioned names like Sangeeta and Dutta and Rasika. It can be translated into any Indian language and fit right in. I read it with a sense of deja vu, like I had encountered it in the Hindi Nandan, Chandamama or Champak magazines of my childhood.

A family of sweet-makers from Rajpur village are worried when buyers from all over the country start returning their boxes of sweets with harsh letters of criticism. Then they find out that all the other business people of the industrious little hamlet are having the exact same problem. No one seems to like their products any more—furniture, mattresses, jewellery, all are rejected and sent back with stinkers. The mystery is linked to the (suddenly smelly) river that flows through the village. For long the people have relied on its blessed waters to bring them luck, and when magical good fortune deserts them they don’t know what to do. That’s the story in a nutshell.

In another time, it would have been possible to read the simple, undemanding story fairly superficially and leave it at that, because it is entirely likely that the children it is meant for will not read it judgmentally at all. But this is a predicament that reviewers sometimes face when we read books meant for children—to read from the point of view of the target age-group or that of a deliberately discerning adult? Though I decided to take the plunge and do the latter, I feel almost apologetic about it. Maybe I am looking for depth in the wrong story, but the book confusingly (and unwittingly?) straddles an uneasy place between the fantastical and the all too real, so it might be worth mentioning a few points.

Here is a story that is mostly meant to entertain. The main learning from it (if one absolutely must learn something from everything one reads) is to do with how we treat our natural resources. But there are other ‘issues’ that crop up in the course of the narrative. I found the portrayal of the sweet-maker family to be real enough and relatable at some levels—the father who never speaks up, the good-natured and accommodating mother, the respectful children; and, of course, the cranky, tetchy grandmother around whom the entire household hovers nervously (a nice change from the cuddly, maternal figure who populates many books for this age-group). What is harder to understand is the reaction of the household to her scoldings and endless nagging. Except at the very end, these are met with grins and winks and much tolerance when we know that being around such a person can be traumatic for children and adults alike. The older daughter shows some signs of twitchiness and stress, but the overall tone of the book does not allow this to be brought up as a talking point. Every time her anxiety comes to the fore, it’s quickly dealt with with the aforementioned grins and winks.

The idea that tradition is sacrosanct is challenged, but characters disconcertingly slip into stereotypical gender roles anyway. The father nurtures the garden while the mother stays in the kitchen, for example; all three children seek to break convention, but still end up, at least in one instance, fulfilling roles meant for them—aren’t ‘halwaiees’ (sweet-makers) almost always male?

What bothered me most, however, was young children being burdened with notions of vocations and careers when they have no business thinking about jobs at their age. And yet, even as I nitpick away, I feel the book reflects a certain reality. Too often one comes across children who speak solemnly of ‘having a career’ and ‘finding a good job.’ But this is a simple, fun book sans irony, and shouldn’t have been one to enforce such an idea. No wonder the older daughter runs away to drown in her math textbook every now and then.

The writing is neat and uncomplicated though the humour feels forced in places, and any eight-ten-year-old will follow it comfortably. The passing reference to a fairy and a monster could have been avoided in a book that is so Indian in every other way.

Lavanya Karthik’s plentiful illustrations are delightful, particularly where there is detailing, as in a drawing of a saree, a chair, a rooftop, a river bank, etc. The pictures of characters I found a little cartoonish, but perhaps it is in keeping with the light-hearted tone of the book.

Revathi Suresh doesn't really like to read or write but feels weirdly compelled to do both. Her novel for young adults, Jobless Clueless Reckless, was published in 2013

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