This fable is India’s answer to western fantasy, a genre that has gained immense popularity all over the world after Harry Potter. In The Mirror of Fire and Dreaming, Book II of The Brotherhood of the Conch series, author Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s young hero, Anand, is back with his friend, Nisha, and their teacher, Abhaydatta. Those who have read The Conch Bearer will be familiar with the boy from the streets of Kolkata and the sweeper girl who, in the face of grave danger, brought the magical Conch to its rightful place, the Silver Valley.
Anand, who is the keeper of the Conch, and Nisha are now apprentices in the same place. Their peaceful life is shattered when Anand gets a message from a gust of black wind. “Evil stirs,” hisses the mini-tornado, setting off a series of events that catapult Anand, Abhaydatta and Nisha headlong into the past—and an unforgettable adventure.
Divakaruni is an acclaimed poet and author whose works have been published in magazines such as The New Yorker. She writes mainly for adults—The Mistress of Spices and Sister of My Heart are two of her better-known books. Among her works for children, The Brotherhood of the Conch series and Victory Song have won her laurels.
Divakaruni started writing children’s books because her sons wanted something magical. In fact, the two heroes of the Brotherhood are named after her sons, Anand and Abhay.
To continue with the story, the message from the wind has the brothers of Silver Valley in a tizzy. They decide to send Abhaydatta and another student, Raj-bhanu, to investigate. Anand, in the meantime, has another vision that Abhaydatta and Raj-bhanu are in danger. He decides to help, with Nisha and the Conch, but without informing the teachers (“Healers,” as they are called) of Silver Valley.
Unfortunately, he loses contact with Nisha and the Conch during the transportation and lands in a village in rural Bengal, where an evil sorcerer is bent on sucking out the spirits of young, able-bodied men so that he can go back to rule the kingdom from where he was banished.
Anand finds a magic mirror that takes him 400 years back into the past, to a Bengal that is ruled by a nawab and his trusted chief minister. He manages to locate his three companions, makes friends with the nawab’s young son, but discovers that Abhaydatta has lost his powers, while Raj-bhanu has lost his mind and Nisha (who is now Paribanou), her memory. To add to the troubles, the mirror is shattered. As Anand grapples with this, he discovers that the evil sorcerer and his equally wicked companion, the Jinn, are back on the nawab’s trail.
Can Anand help save the nawab, his friends and himself? Where is the Conch? If Abhaydatta’s magic has failed, will the Conch’s power be intact? Divakaruni weaves a magical spell around the reader. With skill and panache, she brings to life the concept of punkhas and punkhawallas in ancient India, the royal Mughal kitchens and the life of the courtiers. The nawab’s equation with his chief minister and the power play between the two are explained with great simplicity.
Like Harry Potter, Divakaruni’s work has strong hidden moral and philosophical messages. As the Conch tells a frustrated Anand: “You humans! Always wanting to know everything ahead of time. Where’s the drama then? Besides, you know I’m not supposed to tell you things that you are capable of finding out by yourself. How else will you grow?” That’s a lesson for every child.
The Mirror of Fire and Dreaming was first published in the US, where the Houston-based author lives, and released in India recently.
(The writer is editor of Heek, a children’s magazine. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org)