CM . . .
. Volume XXII Number 30. . . .April 8, 2016
Dylan Moore, 12, takes a vacation to India with his best friend, Rohit Lal, who is going back to his home country to attend a family wedding. The boys’ friendship is tested by their family problems: Dylan is fleeing his parents’ teetering marriage, and Rohit’s aunt Bua threatens to force Rohit to stay behind in India to finish his schooling. An aspiring photographer, Dylan is desperate to take a winning picture for a photo contest to impress his critical father. As Rohit’s parents argue about Bua, the boys are separated from Rohit’s parents in a cinema fire and forced to spend a night in a slum neighbourhood where they re-set their friendship and where Dylan resolves to confront his parents with forgiveness and determination. He and Rohit, now free of the threats of his aunt, attend a very eventful wedding where they again manage to avert disaster.
Mission Mumbai is an all-too-rare children’s book that portrays the contemporary life of immigrant North America, eschewing tales of hardship and rejection for universal themes of friendship, family, adventure, and comedic mishap. Narsimhan, a Mumbai native herself, portrays the beguiling culture, cities, family life, language, and especially food of India in a masterfully appealing way. Dylan’s ignorance of Indian reverence for cows is but one in a series of cultural misunderstandings that pepper the story, and Mrs Lal’s liberal use of expressions such as “Hey Ram” gives the story a delightful flavor.
Dylan is a believable character, a misunderstood son of a rich New York power family, who revels in his geeky friendship with Rohit, himself an awkward, sensitive, and occasionally petulant boy trying to straddle his roots in two countries. The most fascinating characters are Bua (or “Boa”, as Dylan cheekily calls her), the overbearing, gossiping, parochially critical power-tripper; and Shakuntala, the gentle, generous, and forgiving slum-dweller who takes in the boys when they are lost after the fire. One of most poignant scenes occurs when Dylan, observing Shakuntala sharing her meager meal with her dog, takes a photo he knows is his best ever.
But the book is rarely poignant, more often tending towards slapstick, especially with Dylan’s often sarcastic first-person narration. In some cases, there is almost too much effort made for Dylan to sound hip and contemporary, with liberal sprinklings of “TMO” and “PDA” throughout, and his constant comparison of himself and Rohit to Sam and Frodo of The Lord of the Rings can be tiresome—especially if the reader is unfamiliar with those works. There’s some confusion, too, in the overall premise of the family conflicts. At times, it is difficult to tell which of the boys’ tactics to get Rohit out of Bua’s clutches is being employed—act so respectful that she’ll forget he’s becoming Americanized, or act so badly that his parents will be forced to take him home. And Dylan’s reflections on his home life veer towards the melodramatic and caricatured—the poor rich boy spurned by cold parents, spending evenings alone in his mansion with only the servants for company. When his parents, relieved he is alive after the fire, promise him better things in a phone call, it’s almost too good to be true.
Still, the boy’s friendship, and their reluctance to tell each other their true feelings, is as real as it gets, and their hilarious adventures in an exotic land will keep readers fascinated. With its feet planted firmly on both sides of the Atlantic, Mission Mumbai is as entertaining as it is enlightening.
Todd Kyle is the CEO of the Newmarket Public Library in Ontario and President of the Ontario Library Association.
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