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The Riddle of the Seventh Stone (Monideepa Sahu)

by Monideepa Sahu (Young Zubaan, 2010)

Monideepa Sahu’s novel The Riddle of the Seventh Stone gives new meaning to the term ‘rat race’. Rishabh the rat-boy and Shashee the spider-girl team up with two human children to outsmart a dastardly villain and save their home. The book takes the reader on a rollercoaster ride of adventure, mystery and a smattering of fantasy through the teeming chaos of the big city. It traverses a maze of lanes and dusty old shops of human occupation, as well as crawling into the secret lives of vermin in the nooks and crannies that otherwise escape our notice.

Rishabh the rat and Shashee the spider share a home and a tenuous friendship in a shadowy corner of old Venkat’s rare herbs shop amidst the bustle of central Bangalore. But when some magical brahmi powder and a mystical srichakra turn them into real children, they are in a bit of a pickle. Unaccustomed to life as human beings and their narrow definition of civilized behaviour, the vermin-kids are taken under the wing of two human children — Venkat’s twin grandkids Leela and Deepak.

As humans, Rishabh and Shashee are drawn into the troubles that assail Venkat. They find themselves pitted against the evil moneylender-turned-property-dealer called the Shark who is trying to con Venkat out of his shop. If the Shark succeeds, it could leave Venkat and his family in dire straits. What’s more, Rishabh in his rat avatar discovers that the Shark and ilk have spread their tentacles wide and threaten more than just humans. Taking his problem to the Rat Parliament, Rishabh learns that there is only one solution: to find King Kempe Gowda’s treasure and use the money to buy out the Shark before he can do his damage.

Armed with a set of cryptic clues, Rishabh sets off on a treasure hunt. Meanwhile, Deepak and Leela’s grandmother has waged war against the vermin, little realizing that the creepy-crawlies are actually on her side. Can Rishabh’s determination and Shashee’s special powers help save the day?

The Riddle of the Seventh Stone comes at a time when accelerated commercial development is fast changing the face of cities across the country. It is an insightful dip into the perils of such untrammelled change, cleverly disguised as a fantasy adventure novel. The book poses some interesting and wildly varied questions for children to consider. On the one hand, it asks what sort of impact this so-called development might be having on the lives of common people who lose their houses and livelihoods to greedy property developers. On the other hand, it takes us into the dark, damp, slimy world of creepy-crawlies in a thrilling Discovery-Channel-like adventure.

What is particularly remarkable about Sahu’s storytelling is the matter-of-fact approach to filth as seen from the rodents’ and other vermin’s points of view. For instance, Rishabh’s fascination for the ‘gastronomic delights of the garbage heaps’, his craving for rotting vegetables and other waste in dustbins, his yearning for the comforts of the slimy gutter, his horror at the thought of using soap or wearing clothes — these are all presented without any judgement, whether of his human life or vermin. Equally amusing is Shashee’s disgust at having only two legs and having to behave according to the code laid down for human children. There is no moralizing about the human way being better, and we get a completely fascinating insight into rodent life to boot.

Since this is a book published by Young Zubaan, the children’s imprint of acclaimed feminist publisher Zubaan, one approaches it with the expectation of finding a different or refreshing approach to traditional stereotypes. Unfortunately, the book does not exactly smash any clichés in that department. It might been an even more interesting tale if Rishabh had been a girl (with all other things remaining unchanged) or if Shashee had had an equal part in the story. Deepak and Leela, the human children, also play out fairly predictable roles with the boy as the naughty troublemaker and the girl as the sensible keeper-of-peace and mother-hen. However, and this is to be stressed, it would be unfair to hold this particular point up as an example of failure since by all other accounts it is a rollicking, thrill-a-minute ride.

On the subject of characterization, the author has done a good job of putting shades of grey in the good guys. Rishabh’s lack of self-confidence and Shashee’s know-it-all taunting don’t make them unlikeable, but only more real. There are some lessons for the vermin-children in the end, but no magical solutions. That said, however, the Shark is a more or less typical caricature of a villain in a children’s book — he has absolutely no redeeming qualities (and it is difficult not to cheer when he is finally taken down!).

The writing style is lucid, with crisp dialogue and some lovely descriptions that bring the bustle of crowded central Bangalore to life. It is easy to imagine the confusion and cacophony of the narrow roads; the cars, two-wheelers and pushcarts jostling for space with the human traffic, stray dogs and ambling cows. The descriptions of Rishabh’s forays into the world of vermin are especially riveting, and his and Shashee’s perspectives on living as humans are amusing to say the least. There are also some delightful illustrations by Pooja Pottenkulam scattered throughout the text.

Monideepa Sahu keeps it simple without making it simplistic. This is a book written with pre-teen children in mind, but will be enjoyed by anyone on the lookout for a good adventure story combined with pertinent issues of the day.

RATING: 7/10