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Shaheen Choudhary

By Andrea Ashworth
Picador, London, 2004, pp. 330, £ 5.99

By Sergio Scapaginini  Translated from the Italian by Frederico Poole. Illustrated by Amita Balachandran.
Puffin Books, Delhi, India, 2004, pp. 182, Rs. 200.00


Once in a House on Fire, a part autobiographical account of growing up amidst drunken stepfathers, broken homes, plasticky TV suppers and concrete backyards, stands out for the stark honesty with which it captures the slice of life which it describes.      ‘My father drowned when I was five years old...he had stopped to take a pee...slipped in the mud, landed on a rock, and drowned face down in a shallow stream...less than four inches deep.’     The above quotation demonstrates both the in-your-face quality and the blandness, which characterize the book. An aspect of the story that I greatly appreciated was that it is entirely without self-pity. The facts in themselves portray an amazing victory of the human spirit. That, in fact, is perhaps the reason I was left wondering why I didn’t have a lump in my throat as I read it. The distance between the writing and the actual emotional experience can be seen most clearly in the fact that the perspective of the author undergoes no change as she grows from the age of five to eighteen. I also feel that occasionally this books falls into the trap of trying to depict dreariness realistically by itself becoming a bit dreary.     Very different from this very worthy book is the second one in question here. The Story of Lala, though perhaps for a slightly younger age group, is a rollicking little tale of a ten-year-old boy who leaves his village and migrates to the ‘great Bombay’ to seek his fortune. He dreams of earning enough to enable his father to buy the plot of land that he has been tilling for years. As Lala sets off, turban on head and stick in hand, on the path to riches, it seems that the entire universe has conspired to help him realize his dream. Although he does have a few close shaves along the way, luckily for him, (and for the reader) he is always miraculously rescued in the nick of time.       ‘ “One knows everything”, said Lala’s mother, “once you’ve seen a baby being born, an old man die, once you’ve seen the sun rise and set, the earth being seeded and its fruits grow, once you have felt love, fear...once you have felt hunger, cold, the joy of giving a gift, the shame of having said a lie, once you have listened ...

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