You followed me unquestioningly until I turned down a different road, away from our usual route to school.
“No, Rukku. We’re going to a new place. A nicer place.”
“Far from here. You and me.”
Rukku and Viji together?” You offered me your soft, trusting hand.
With our fingers interlinked, I felt braver. I led the way to the main road, where buses to and from the city roared through the village.
In front of the bus stop sign, a woman was already waiting, chewing tobacco as placidly as a cow chewing its cud. A large basket filled with coconuts was beside her.
“Waiting for the bus to the city?” My voice trembled as I checked to make sure we were in the right place (13-14)
Viji, with her sister Rukku, have made the difficult choice to run away from the abuse in their home. On the streets of the teeming city of Chennai, India, they find a home on an old bridge, and within this precarious shelter they form a family with two boys who are also without a home. With the developmentally disabled, but kind and trusting Rukku, Viji tells us a story of fear, trust, desperation, kindness, and hope. The four children earn a meager amount by digging through trash and from the beaded necklaces Rukku makes.
“Couldn’t we all learn to make necklaces?” I suggested the next morning. “We’d get so much more money.”
“But if we stop providing the waste man with stuff every day, he might start paying us less,” Muthu argued. “Plus, Kumar’s gang could take over.”
“The city’ll have trash every day, but those girls aren’t going to buy necklaces every day, Arul added. “Who knows if we’ll find other customers (83)?”
When the children are forced to leave their bridge home, and when sickness threatens, they must sell their faithful dog in order to buy food. Soon the mosquitos bring the dreaded illness, and even though most of the adults in their lives have not been trustworthy, Viji and Arul decide they must take the risk to trust the adults at the children’s home and also Celina Aunty.
Celina Aunty and Muthu were standing in the front yard, peering up and down into the street, into the gloom. Muthu walved wildly as soon as he spotted us returning, and Celina Aunty practically ran to the gate to let us in.
“Thank goodness you’re here at last,” she said. What kept you out so long?”
“Told you they’d be fine, Aunty,” Muthu said. “Why were you so worried? Because this is the first time Akka and Arul have ever been out on their own in the dark without me, or something?”
“That must be it.” She tousled his hair and smiled at us. “But please, next time you want to stay out late, warn me so I don’t get so scared?”
I promised I would.
And I thought about Celina Aunty and Muthu’s concern. It felt good to see them feeling happy that we were back safe.
For the first time since we’d left the bridge, I had the feeling I’d come home (174-175).
This “Battle of the Books 2020” novel offers a window into the caste system, of homelessness and income disparity, of trust and friendship, and generosity of spirit. Beautifully written, with a disarming sweet voice of Viji, but with powerful messages, this book offers readers a range of emotions and glimpses of hope.
* “Venkatraman’s middle-grade debut tackles sisterhood, chosen families, and loss. . . . Viji’s narration is vivid and sensory. . . . The novel also touches on social justice issues such as caste, child labor, and poverty elegantly, without sacrificing narrative. A blisteringly beautiful book.”—Kirkus Reviews, starred review
* "Exquisitely narrated novel set in Chennai, India. . . . Venkatraman vividly sketches the group’s precarious economic situation. . . . This is a poignant portrait of love, sacrifice, and chosen family in the midst of poverty.”—Publishers Weekly, starred review