Jane Sahi
THE GHOST WHO PLAYED TENNIS AND OTHER STORIES* by Illustrations by Ankur Mitra Children’s Book Trust, Golden Set , 2022, 142 pp., INR 190.00
November 2023, volume 47, No 11

Many of the stories in this collection are designed to attract young readers, including the reluctant reader! The humorous story that gives the book its title, ‘The Ghost who Played Tennis’ by Santhini Govindan, opens with the tantalizing statement, ‘Shankar did not believe in ghosts until he met one.’
The stories have been especially chosen for children between the ages of nine and twelve years. This book is welcome, in providing this pre-teenage audience with sustained reading opportunities that reflect multiple aspects of their everyday lives.
For many children of this age, it is a significant time of transition. Children typically become more self-conscious but also more aware of things and people around them. By the age of twelve children are often beginning to question teachers, parents and adults who order their lives; they may become more assertive and articulate about what they want and don’t want. Several of the stories in this book capture some of those turning points as children juggle their own wishes with the demands that are made on them.
Some of the stories deal with the challenges many children have to face such as adjusting to a new school, dealing with conflict and jealousy, finding true friendship and, on occasion, accepting failure or disappointment.
The fifteen stories are very diverse. They include a night adventure of four boys which very nearly ends in disaster and the struggle of a boy to be accepted as he is and not just someone to feel sorry for. The settings vary from events at school to interactions in an apartment complex, from survival on an almost uninhabited island to a dangerous encounter with intruders at a cave temple in the middle of the night.
In terms of the socio-economic context there is less variety; and most of the stories are about, and intended for, middleclass children. There are occasional encounters that cross these lines such as Vinny’s meeting with Didamma, a newspaper vendor and waste collector in ‘Vinny. Control. Alt. Del’ but on the whole, the stories do not confront the divides in society or attempt to cross socio-cultural boundaries in any significant way.
The stories were selected as part of a writers’ competition, and it would be interesting to know what the criteria for choosing them was. While there are a few passing references to wider issues like concerns about the environment, most of the stories are more about personal situations. There is one story that is situated within a broader context as it explores how traditional ways of life are changing with ‘development’. In ‘Number 9’ Benita Sen creates a realistic story of how a real estate dealer almost succeeds in breaking up the home of a large joint family in Kolkata. It is the narrator’s father who finally outwits the greedy and unscrupulous ‘wheeler dealer’. The life of a joint family is sharply and vividly observed and reported in the voice of one of the children of the family.
There are several stories that sensitize the reader to gender issues. In the story of Bini Pishi by Benita Sen, there is a tender relationship between the young girl and her unconventional widowed aunt who defies all expectations of conservative society but is welcomed into her brother’s house and finds her own particular niche in the family where she is able to make her own choices. ‘Before and After’ is a very different story by Nandini Nayar. It is about a young girl who discovers that maturity doesn’t mean dressing up in a sari but finding her voice and ‘speaking up’ when needed. Nisha is rudely awakened into the reality of sexual abuse but earns the whole family’s respect by publicly expressing her outrage at the violence.
The stories are somewhat uneven in depth and authenticity. In ‘The Jungle is Calling’ the story does, ostensibly, look at the vulnerability of the Van Gujjar community in the foothills of the Himalayas. The story even hints at ways of resolving the conflict between officialdom and the indigenous people but the message gets confused by inaccuracies and unlikely, and somewhat fanciful, adventures, given the context of the Rajaji National Park.
The collection brings together a rich menu of stories that are mostly engaging and thought provoking. Determination, resilience and honesty are the dominant characteristics that the protagonists show but children are also shown overcoming their struggles with jealousy, lack of confidence and frustrations.
Inviting not only different authors but also different illustrators could have further enriched the book for young readers.

*Prize-winning entry/short stories (9-12 years) in the Competition for Children’s Books organized by Children’s Book Trust.