Padma Baliga writes about Sisters at New Dawn:
A doption is not an alien concept to Indians. Our epics and legends abound with adopted children beginning with the Ramayana in which King Janaka adopts Sita, or the Mahabharata with its multitude of adoptions, including the well-known tales of Kunti, Karna, and Krishna being raised by loving adoptive or foster parents. We also know that adopted children were awarded legal recognition for, wasn’t Sita known as Janaki and Kunti whose real name was Preetha better known as her adoptive father, Kuntibhoja’s daughter? In South India, many of the Tamil saints or Alvars were raised by adoptive parents. It is common knowledge that even in ‘modern’ times, kings and other royals have turned to adoption as a means of securing continuation of their lineage or dynasty.
However, Indian children’s books have by and large ignored the reality of adoption even while Indian teens have loved the most famous adopted child in fiction–Anne Shirley from LM Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables series. In the last few years a few Indian picture books have featured this prevalent but silenced issue and created spaces for conversations.
Varsha Seshan’s Sisters at New Dawn ingeniously normalizes adoption and presents it in a framework of parental and familial loving and cherishing. Early on in the book, the reader comes to know that the protagonists–Kannagi and Padma–are adopted. Their grandfather who is against their joining the hostel says, ‘You two need family. When your parents signed the papers for both of you, they were supposed to give you a family, so that you would be loved and looked after, not sent away to boarding school.’ Unlike Sophocles’s Oedipus who agonizes over whether or not he is his father’s son, Padma and Kannagi are comfortable with the fact of being adopted.
Brought up on a diet of Malory Towers and Harry Potter books, the sisters–whose parents work in Dubai–are eager to stay in the school hostel but have to wait out the mandated period of probation. Meanwhile they learn to adapt to their new school, which seems to have been inspired by the real-life Summerhill School founded by AS Neill with its emphasis on student democracy and its focus on subjects such as imagination, art or—Kannagi’s favourite class–Maths and Beauty. However, pretty soon, Padma and Kannagi come up against the school bully, a Prefect who has ‘discovered’ a sinister reason—that implicates their father—for their hostel admission not coming through and decides to blackmail them.
Sisters at New Dawn cleverly embeds the issue of adoption into a popular convention of children’s literature, the school story. One encounters all the standard tropes here—midnight escapades, inter-house events, bullying, sworn friendships, an understanding and exceptional Head, and adults who don’t seem to fathom the inner lives of children.
Seshan is a skilled writer and keeps the suspense going in this middle-grade novel as the children fumble and stumble through their first year in a new and unusual school. A veteran writer, this is her first book for tween readers. Sisters at New Dawn is available both as an Ebook and a physical book.