When editors start sending one pre-teen books for review, it’s a sign that second childhood is imminent. The Indian Express did it to me not long ago, and now it’s The Book Review’s turn!
Old age has its advantages, and so does children’s fiction—it has the fantasy, fun, and distinct story line that most adult fiction today eschews in favour of the darkly psycho-analytic and introspective. It also has happy endings! I am all for the latter—both in life and in literature.
Actually, The Magic Store of Nu-Cham-Vu doesn’t exactly have a ‘happy’ ending—it has a resolution. In this, as in other aspects, it is rather a grownup children’s story, though targeted at the 9-plus age group.
It contains numerous stories within stories rather than a single story line, and there is no one hero or heroine—or even a main protagonist. Nu-Cham-Vu, the ‘Bad Guy’, is actually, in many ways, the most endearing and certainly the most rounded and fully realized person in the book. He dominates every scene and his colour, vigour, and appalling nastiness can reduce the other characters to two-dimensional cut-outs. Rather like that other monstrous beast—Toad, in Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows!
Even the magic toys he creates—a flute that senses seasons and makes flowers bloom in winter (and is inadvertently the catalyst of the first drama of the book) a bicycle with an elephant’s trunk and coughing bell, the Honest Babble-Bird and his terrible twin DBB, the Dishonest Babble-Bird, The Talking Box with the irritating mouth, the giggly Jasmine Doll with her long white hair made of jasmine flowers—who can translate the thoughts of her creator Nu-Cham-Vu, but has no words of her own—have a persona and dynamic of their own, more memorable than most of the other characters. And, significantly, most of the toys have the linguistic powers Nu-Cham-Vu himself lacks.
Shreekumar Varma, The Magic Store’s author, is an adjunct professor in Creative English at the Chennai Mathematical Institute. (What is an ‘adjunct’ professor anyway?! Is it the same as an ‘associate’ professor?) There is a charming interlude where Mrs Galido, the Mathematics Teacher, and Miss Jaldeer, the Language teacher at the Anchan Bay Grammar Etcetera School, each attempts to proselytize for their own subject—one singing the praises of Logic and the other of Freedom. The voice of the author is reflected in their views. Language or the lack of it, as well as logic, is important to the book. Nu-Cham-Vu speaks in numbers and has to depend on the Jasmine Doll’s giggly translations, (perhaps explaining his continual frustration and rage?) and most of the toys owe their magic and charm to their ability to talk. Logic is what eventually guides the Village Council in their deliberations.
Where is this wonderful place? The nationality and language of the inhabitants of Anchan Bay, the imaginary village where the story is set, seems a composite, judging from their names, of Tamil, Chinese, and Central European—Sadgu-Nan, Charchovi, Talamu, Prof Shanilyan, Chhapu, Indru, Dr Arji-Des, and of course the inimitable Nu-Cham-Vu himself, with his multiple fingers, warts, wrinkles and green whiskers. Illustrations often form an integral part of children’s books and can make or break them. Arthur Rackham’s surreal imagery helped form my first aesthetic, while the doll-like, sweetly pretty representations of the March sisters in my copy of Good Wives completely destroyed the livelier and more idiosyncratic version of Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy I had created in my head. As a consequence, I identified much less with the sequel than with Little Women, my favourite book all through my pre-teens.
Shreekumar Varma is fortunate in having a son to realize his vision. Vinayak Varma does full justice to the extraordinary creations penned by his father. One only wishes they could all have been in colour—the cover gives one some idea of how wonderful this would be. I particularly liked Nu-Cham-Vu having his annual bath—the waterfall, soap bubbles, and ecstatically sploshing monster all lit by the glow of fireflies.
When an adult writes a children’s story there is generally a moral or an allegory enclosed in it, linking fiction and fantasy to the realities of the life the child will eventually experience. In The Magic Store of Nu-Cham-Vu these life lessons are subtle and have to be searched for. The elders of Anchan Bay are tolerant and allow even the anti-social and disruptive to err four times before they punish them; there is a non-hierarchical, highly articulate democracy in the way society functions, the means of making electric power is invented but is allowed to leave the village, thus giving the inhabitants more time, leisure and creative individuality. The views of children, though they have no legal voice, are listened to and shape decision-making, and it is the children who are clear-sighted enough to see that Nu-Cham-Vu, horrible though he is, does contribute to Anchan Bay a colourful and magical something that enhances its life and is therefore valuable. Is the book a little too wandering and shapeless? Does one want a more decisive story line, more conflict and resolution between good and bad? Perhaps—just as one doesn’t quite understand why the children should so love the Magic Store and its toys, most of them weird rather than fun, or why the lengthy preamble and finale re Mr Anchanbey and his book is really required. That wonderful opening sentence, ‘A long time ago, when the moon was still green and the sky had just recovered from as severe case of rainbow measles, there was a children’s store on Ju-Juicy Street . . .’ could have segued effortlessly into that of the 2nd chapter, ‘Only children were allowed in the store.’
But these are minor caveats in a delightful and inventive read. One hopes for more of Anchan Bay and Nu-Cham-Vu.
Laila Tyabji is with Dastakar.