Chandra Chari
STAY OUT OF THE BASEMENT; TAHKHAANE SE DUUR RAHNA* by By Cheryl Rao. Illustrations by Saurabh Pandey. Edited by Navin Menon and Kusumlata Singh Children’s Book Trust, 2022, 24 pp., INR 70.00
November 2023, volume 47, No 11

I looked again at the transparent spokes of the wheel and this time I saw the sand slipping along the spoke, one grain at a time, and suddenly I realized that these four spokes were actually two hourglasses, with a narrowed section in the middle.

Cheryl Rao is a prolific writer of children’s books. She is the author of, apart from short stories in several collections, Adventures Two, Holiday Adventures, Camp Adventure, Dusty the Daschund, The Missing Zoo, The Clothes Monster, The Boy who Liked Khichdi, Something to Do, Elephant wants to Play, Grumpy Man, and Gymming on the Beach, all published by CBT. We at The Book Review have, over the years, always carried reviews of her titles in the special issues of Children’s Books. Personally, Cheryl Rao is among my favourite authors of books for young readers.
So, it is with a keen sense of anticipation that I chose to review Stay Out of the Basement and its Hindi translation. And I was flummoxed, even after three reads of the book, as to what the author had in mind for the storyline. I decided to write to the author herself and she obligingly answered all my queries cogently. Hence this review is being written in a different format, almost in the nature of ‘In the Author’s Own Words’.
To begin with, 11-year-old Aleena and Grandma Annie (Aneela), are the protagonists. When Aleena and her mother and elder sister arrive at her grandparents’ home in the hills, they find Grandpa weak and ill and Grandma catatonic. Grandma’s strange unresponsive condition is very troubling and although Aleena has been warned by her mother to stay out of the basement, her grandmother’s favourite—and exclusive—place, she makes her way in with the hope that she could get some insights into her grandmother’s condition there. The bit by bit unraveling of the mystery and finally its impact on grandma—her waking up from a deep sleep/coma—makes up the storyline.

Chandra Chari: Cheryl, when I first read the book, it seemed to be the story of ageing which the young have to deal with along with their parents in modern times. However, that seems incidental to the main storyline. It would be great if you could let me have some inputs about what your thinking was when you created this story.
Cheryl Rao: My thoughts centered around secrets when I created the story: how secrets are a burden to carry, how secrets never stay secret, how wonderful it would be if we could shed our secrets somewhere and unburden ourselves with the knowledge that those secrets would not find their way out to others, what would happen if there was a reliable Keeper of Secrets somewhere but one day that Keeper hears something terrible that she tries to stop from happening…

CC: Not surprisingly, the warning to the young protagonist and her sibling to stay out of the basement by their parents is enough for Aleena to be determined to do so at all costs.
CR: You are right. Her entry into the basement is somewhat magical (as is her exit). In the basement, Aleena realizes that her grandmother is studying plants and other things as a nature-healer, but she is perplexed by her own reaction (all kinds of voices in her head) when she touches a bead curtain there. She also finds a wooden wheel on the wall, and she sees that there are two hourglasses in it. Aleena accidentally bumps into the wheel, and later discovers that she has moved Time for herself—and in the hope that she can do the same for her grandmother and get her back to her former energetic self, she goes back to the basement to try and make that happen. I hope this will be a part of the voyage of discovery for the young reader.
Armed with Cheryl’s inputs, here is Stay Out of the Basement which the savvy young pre-teen reader would enjoy and imagine more magical happenings in the basement. The illustrations by Saurabh Pandey are adequate but a bit too stylized to create the aura of magic which the author seeks to bring to her story.
*Stay Out of the Basement won the 1st Prize in the Category ‘Get Ready for A magical Time’ in the Competition for Writers of Children’s Books by CBT.