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Novelist/playwright Irani (The Cripple and his Talismans, 2005) back cover sets his grim second novel, an Indian twist on Oliver Twist, in his native Bombay in 1993, just after the Hindu/Muslim riots sparked by the destruction of the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya. Ten-year-old dreamer Chamdi 3 runs away from the orphanage that has been his only home in search of his father 44. His fate is telegraphed by his mode of transport--the back of a garbage truck 45. "Adopted" by street-urchins Guddi and her brother Sumdi 75-83, the innocent Chamdi is inexorably drawn into the criminal underworld of Anand Bhai 138 and ultimately forced to participate in the revenge killing of an innocent Muslim family 280-89 after the local Hindu temple is bombed 218. Somewhere along the way, Chamdi's half-hearted quest for his real family falls by the wayside, undercutting the impetus that plunged him into this nightmare realm in the first place. Irani attempts to meld the magic of Chamdi's dreams and stories with the cruelty of life among the poorest of Bombay's poor; however, the plot is thin and the main character, while decent and loyal, is powerless and frighteningly naive. The novel ends on a note of apparent hope, but it is hard to believe, under the circumstances, that Chamdi's vision of Bombay as a city of "no sadness" (the meaning of his made-up term "kahunsha") 12 is anything other than a dangerous delusion.
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Ten-year-old Chamdi, a bright and sensitive boy raised from infancy in a Bombay orphanage, prays to Jesus that he will try not to be sad and imagines a place called Kahunsha, a city where there is no sadness. When the orphanage is to be torn down and the children placed elsewhere, he first cajoles the director to reveal information about his parentage, then runs away in search of his father. But the streets of Bombay are not what Chamdi envisioned and prove a cruel environment. Joining streetwise brother and sister Sumdi and Guddi, he is soon in thrall to Anand Bhai, the man who controls the beggars in the area, forcing them to commit illegal and sometimes unspeakable acts, mutilating those who cross him. Here childhood innocence and dreams meet the reality of day-to-day survival and violence, during Hindu-Muslim riots, forcing choices that should never have to be made. Irani (The Cripple and His Talismans, 2005) is a gifted storyteller, and this book, Dickensian in its plot and its vivid prose, is as beautiful as it is heartbreaking. Michele Leber
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.