Twelve-year-old Anoushka, a.k.a Nooni, spends a summer vacation with her grandparents in Somanahalli, a village four hours away from Bangalore. The story begins like a local version of the Famous Five with the tastes, sounds and flavours of village life folding and unfolding upon themselves, for it is a village replete with legends, folklore, ancient traditions and food. For those of us who drooled over ham and tongue, and scones and clotted cream in the Famous Fives despite never having tasted them, the descriptions in this book are satisfyingly of the familiar and the known, and one can easily relate to the legends in it.
Sudha Murty’s preface, which tells the story of a couple of golden bangles lost for thirty years, neatly sets the tone for the treasure hunt to follow. Nooni quickly settles easily into village life, in the process unearthing numerous treasures early enough; the company of her cousins, her grandmother’s cooking, the general lack of regimented structure, her grandparents’ stories, and the lazy village life, where deadlines are set by nature, pregnant cows and thunderstorms rather than by man-made timetables. This in turn sets the tone for the larger and more divine treasure that Nooni helps dig up later in the book.
The book is an easy, quick and interesting read like most of Murty’s books. It will probably appeal more to parents on behalf of their children than to children themselves, for parents usually tend to get nostalgic about vacations or childhoods spent this way, and a book like this is likely to stir up those memories.
The book makes a few critical social commentaries – for instance, respect for heritage sites and structures, the need for toilets and good working conditions for people in general and women in particular, and the importance of giving back to the community.
But, and yes, I have a few buts. The story completely lacks conflict of any kind. It does not pack enough punch or action to sustain the interest of a child who might not have the benefit of nostalgic remembrances. The village needs no saving of any kind. It is apparently perfect as it is, one might even say almost too perfect. The city girl and her country cousins meet and get along just famously. There is no gossip, no interpersonal problems, no evil intentions or even mildly wicked situations to salvage or sabotage. Rather, Nooni’s grandparents repose almost dangerously blind faith in Mahadevan, the eighteen-year-old son of the kitchen help, and enlist his services as Nooni’s protector, guide and general voice of reason. Let’s not kid ourselves here, life in a village certainly has its charms and no one is debating them, but it is not heaven where everyone and everything is always picture-perfect.
This also means that the book is populated mostly with stock characters who could have used a little less perfection and a few more quirks to make them more real and likeable.
The preface is an enchanting little story in itself because of its crispness and veracity, and because of Murty’s classic candour. Sudha Murty excels in this type of writing, retelling anecdotes of tales that actually happened. These are stories that make you feel that you are in the presence of a cherished grandmother, listening to legends and sagas of the past – a feeling that the author tries so hard to create in this book, but unfortunately falls just a little short.
There is also a curious absence of notes on whether this story is based on fact and research or is a figment of the author’s imagination. Either would have been acceptable, provided it was clearly mentioned. This is a little disappointing, not to mention, misleading.
I would also have liked to see the good parts of city life with its attendant technology, like the Internet and smartphones, working alongside the magic of the village, rather than glorifying one and denigrating the other.
The illustrations, which have a native character to them, are rather well done, and add a rustic charm to the story.
All in all, The Magic of the Lost Temple certainly has a large dollop of magic, but not all of it has been unearthed, excavated and presented to its audience.
By Anandam Ravi
Author: Sudha Murty
Illustrator: Priyankar Gupta
Penguin Books, 2015
Subject Category: Contemporary/Fiction