Ratna Chowdhuri returns to the home of her zamindar ancestors in a village in Bengal, as her father and uncle have to decide on selling the house to an interested buyer. While she isn’t very excited to find that her cousin Neelesh has developed a passion for organic farming, she is all ears when she hears that there is talk of a hidden treasure and, of course, they need to find it before the house is sold.
Neel and she embark on an adventure interspersed with visitors from America, the famed Baul singers, the agrarian crisis, history lessons on the adverse impact of colonial rule on the Indian economy … Well, whoever complained about Indian children’s adventure stories being blandly boring will certainly have to eat their words.
Dipavali Sen’s offering is a well-plotted page-turner with a little bit of everything interesting thrown in. There are youthful protagonists, an ancient mansion filled with antiques, a lost message about the location of the treasure, remnants of a feudal society, underground tunnels and, of course, good food—cooked by Ratna’s Jethi-Ma. Stories—old and new—coexist and weave a narrative that proves to be both interesting and informative.
A problem that children might have (I did!) with the book is that reading it feels like being in a classroom as Sen punctuates the text with meanings, references and explanations. For instance, on page 78, we read:
‘All right, Dada (elder brother)’, said Ratna’s father, Somesh Chowdhuri. ‘We will show him the papers so that he can “search” and check out the daag (Plot Number in the Field Index register at the district records office).’
A lot of the information given in the above extract is either redundant or officiously rendered. For instance, it seems to presume that the child reader is not very intelligent and therefore needs to be told repeatedly both Ratna’s father’s name and that he is the younger of the two brothers. Quite often, the characters too talk to each other as if they are lecturing on a subject. Sen plots the tale well and is a veritable fount of information but the book would have read better with a fair bit of editing. The illustrations are excellent and capture the brooding atmosphere of an old haveli.