It has been a while since I read a book meant for children and I almost never believe blurbs. So I confess that when Nirmala Sridhar’s book titled The Mysterious Tsunamis promised that it was a ‘geo-thriller’ I was full of suspicion.
First off, it is critical to be able to catch a reader’s eye and it is unfortunate that the cover page illustration falls short in imagination. Children need their attention to be held and enough hasn’t been invested in this aspect, which might indeed make it difficult for Ms. Sridhar to find a buyer in the bookstore chains of today.
Having said that, the content does make up for this deficiency to some extent. The book has 189 pages with 20 short chapters and is well edited and definitely readable. There are barely any illustrations, which could’ve been a magical aid to a child’s imagination. Since the protagonists, young Abhishek and Addy aged ten, appear to come from middle class Indian families, the book does devote some detail to life in such a setting.
I found this too distracting since my prejudices interfered with accepting that I was going to read more and more about this rather conventional family—decidedly vegetarian above all else.
The book opens with a scene of panic where the Sen household goes into a tizzy over a missing uncle, who was holidaying in Lakshadweep when the islands were struck by a 100-foot high tsunami. Subsequently, all interest in missing Uncle Navin is forgotten and replaced by the interest in the tsunami, professors studying tsunamis and children trying not to!
The two young friends Abhishek and Addy, find themselves faced with a geography assignment that leads them, rather simplistically, to plagiarize information from young genius Abhishek’s genius father Professor Sen. The book is true to the obsessions in all academic settings, that of publishing cutting edge (even impossible) findings and the quest among staff to outdo each other at any cost. This seemed to be the milieu of the National Institute of Geological and Nuclear Sciences, Mumbai where Professor Sen works and which is the setting of about 25 % of the story.
Eventually the boys and their father find themselves embroiled in a rather dangerous adventure and escape near certain murder. This is the part that is thrilling, though the links that can describe it as ‘geo-thriller’ are a bit tenuous. The story of entrapment and final escape is interesting but the rest of the book did not evoke as much imagery as it ought to have. Perhaps a child would have better results than I did.
Perhaps the book can educate children about tsunamis but I found the intended communication message a little too ambitious and the explanations were often not as illustrative as they should have been. Since Abhishek is a ‘genius’ it seems that he does not need the sort of explanation that I longed for.
While Abhishek’s and Addy’s character is well described and conceptualized, some of the other characters could have been beefed up a little more, and toned down at the same time! Priya, Abhishek’s classmate with the penchant for using words having not less that 7 syllables is truly irritating, but appears too infrequently and out of context to be memorable or meaningful. There is also young(er) Jaideep, a chap hired by companies to ethically hack computers for security purposes—all of eight years old! The grand scientific secret of the story, somewhat breezily explained as the finale, is unbelievable. The 100 foot high tsunami (which miraculously hit only the uninhabited islands of the Lakshadweep) resulted not just from an earthquake measuring 6 on the Richter, but was generated or exacerbated by an illegal oil drilling operation posing as a ‘fishing operation’. I can’t imagine how this was possible, and although I feel a slight hesitation in complaining about this, I do think it is important not to present outlandish ideas when communicating science information to children.
Would I recommend the book to a youngster? In the absence of any other, surely.
Aarthi Sridhar heads the Programme for Environment and Law at Dakshin Foundation. Her work involves research and advocacy and focuses on the issue of community rights to natural resources and environmental justice. She was involved in post-tsunami policy assessments in the aftermath of the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004.