Friends Behind Walls by Harshikaa Udasi, Puffin Books: Book Review
This is a quick, fun read about a city boy’s first visit to his native place, Deolali, and how he makes friends with someone he is not allowed to be friends with. Putti’s parents have had a forever long standoff with Inu’s mother. The two children quickly realize that no one living in the colony, Shanti Park, seems to see eye to eye with each other. Because they want to have the freedom to be friends and do the things friends do together, they decide it’s up to them to remedy the situation. They try many things; eventually they are directed to meet Tekdichi Mhatari, the old woman in the hill for a possible solution. She ‘gives’ them the ‘magic potion’ of shared memories.

If this short summary has grabbed your attention, go read the book. It’s a story about friendship told at a fast pace. The neighborhood is peopled by interesting, eccentric personalities, each of whom comes with their own baggage. Easy to read with a plot that unravels clearly, the book is an enjoyable way to get deeper into reading. The vocabulary is crisp and colorful, except that the author tends to get into overdrive with words she thinks the reader will not understand. Take this bit featured on the back cover: ‘But with his parents FORBIDDING them from playing with each other, the two kids are flabbergasted. FLAB-BER-GAS-TED. Means shocked. Nothing to do with food and farts.’

Clearly, this technique of introducing and/or explaining difficult words is built into the style of the narrative, deliberately. For instance, at one point there’s: ‘He had no inkling what Inu was talking of. Ink-ling. Not little babies of ink – it means hint. He had no hint, no idea.’ At another point there’s: ‘If you’ve ever witnessed a palm frond falling, you must be aware of the brouhaha that surrounds it. Broo-ha-ha. It does not mean you laugh while brewing tea or coffee. It means an uproar, a lot of noise.’ The little book which is more like an adventure story has plenty of interjections like these, some amusing, some not so amusing. Used selectively, the device works well. But not when overused. For sure, young readers are likely to grow their vocabulary thanks to this usual approach. In fact, I noticed this in another book for young readers too, When the World Went Dark by Jane de Suza. While I feel that overdoing it interferes with the flow of the narrative, I know this is a subjective response. It would be interesting to see how readers whom the book targets, feel.

Despite being an out and out adventure story, the book offers several hooks for discussion. Take the Tekdichi Mhatari, for instance. She’s a unique character, totally quirky, who up-ends stereotypes about the elderly, even if some residents of Shanti Park live up to them. That’s a clever move on the part of the author because it offers a chance to reflect upon and discuss old age and the elderly. Another aspect that emerges from reading this book is the language ascribed to characters who, it is assumed, are unfamiliar or uncomfortable with the language in which various conversations in the story are being held. So, you have Bhalerao Kaka, the caretaker at Shanti Park, speaking in broken English. The question to ask here is: Would this conversation have been held in English or in Marathi or some other language? If in English, the broken English would be justified. But what if it were, say, Marathi? And so on and so forth. What do young readers think? This point is particularly relevant in India today, when there’s so much controversy and talk, both political and sociological, about languages, and how they are grown or are lost.

The bottom-line, though, is that this little book is a timely reminder of the healing power of shared memories – again, something our world needs very badly indeed.

Friends Behind Walls is part of the Parag Honour List 2021. You can buy it here.

Sandhya Rao is a Chennai-based journalist, children’s writer and editor.

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