This story is about eight girls caught in the middle of the horrific events following Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984. Ranjit Lal weaves a taut tale of fear, heroism, sacrifice and passion that makes one wonder why civilized society has to go through such upheavals.
A fun-filled, one-week trip from the hills to Agra and New Delhi goes horribly wrong when the girls—and their teacher—reach New Delhi on the evening of 31 October 1984 in a jeep driven by the cheerful Sikh, Kartar Singh.
A frenzied mob spots the old Sardar, their jeep is stopped, Kartar is pulled out and, in front of the eyes of the disbelieving girls, the bloodthirsty horde proceeds to burn him alive. Even in the act of dying, he urges them to flee. The girls take to their heels and reach the relative safety of a house in the vicinity.
As the shell-shocked girls settle in, they discover that the hastily-abandoned house they have chosen by accident belongs to a well-to-do Sikh. Among the other things they find in the house are masks and weapons—swords and spears—that decorate the walls. The masks prove useful when the girls come face to face with the rioters. Realizing that the house will become a “hot” target for rioters, the girls start planning to outwit the crazed mobs. To add to the troubles, they discover the two children of the owner hiding in the house.
Plan A is ingenious, but the rioters come back when one of them has reason to believe that the house is occupied by the Sardar’s family. The girls then put into action Plan B, which is deadly in its effectiveness. It is not just a battle of wits. It becomes a kill-or-be-killed situation. Puja, the expert archer, finds the perfect weapon: a bow and arrows. Seema, Sheetal, Sangita, Jaya, Gauri, Ritika and the youngest of the group, Payal, get into the act with just one mission: Save the children and thwart the mob from taking over and ransacking the house.
The battle ends with explosions of petrol bombs, gun fighting and a special effort from Puja. In an increasingly violent world, where intolerance rears its ugly head more often than not, this novel comes as a timely reminder to today’s youth. What is right? And what is wrong? Lal leaves the reader to find the answer to these questions with The Battle for No. 19. Teen fiction gets a book that forces them to think. Subplots, such as Puja’s attempt to gain her father’s (a Major in the Indian Army) appreciation, are handled with a lot of sensitivity.
Lal is also an avid birdwatcher. He has written about his feathered friends in the delightful Birds of India, where he profiled more than 150 species that can be found in India’s Capital. Birds have a way of getting into Lal’s novels, however racy the plot. In this story, during a lull in the proceedings, the girls enjoy a pleasant interlude feeding and watching the munias in the garden.
Versatile Lal has written fiction and non-fiction for both adults and children with equal ease. Some of his well-known books for children include The Caterpillar Who Went on a Diet, When Banshee Kissed Bimbo, The Life and Times of Altu Faltu and the Enid Blytonesque Bossman Adventures.
The writer is the editor of Heek (e-heek.com), a children’s magazine. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org