The title conjures up enough images of rampaging spooks cutting through internal wiring, fiddling around with apps, playing havoc with screens – so that you can’t wait to get home and fall headlong into the fun with the ghost in the PC.

The book, however, falls neither into the funny nor the scary genre, and it leaves you somewhat in no man’s land. And you get it only if you’ve seen Payal Dhar’s other work, Slightly Burnt. This is an author with a conscience, who brings to young readers complex and confrontational issues in the guise of stories. She makes her young readers think about the blind spots that hide in their everyday life – friendship, independence, relationships, sexual choices, death…

The story is told in alternate chapters through twelve-year-old Madhu’s voice and a third-person narrative of her ten-year-old sister Kumuda’s. Madhu, a serious, gentle girl, holds on inexplicably to the doddering computer her mother had bought off the neighbouring Nairs, when Viru Nair killed himself. This, despite her mother offering to get her a new laptop – which kid today would turn down an offer like this? And then her attachment to this PC is revealed – it’s because Viru realised, a little too late one would think, that “dying was no good” and so decided to haunt his own PC, and now Madhu’s. He helps her with her homework, cleans up her files once in a while and keeps a chatter going with her. This in itself seems a little spooky. What’s a guy in his twenties doing chatting up a young kid? “Viru’s here” sounds (intentionally perhaps) like a virus, and Payal Dhar’s note at the end of the book serves as a strong warning to kids that such fantasies don’t really pan out and such ghosts may actually be hackers or spammers. Good, that!

Back to the goings-on in the woman-only household, with practical, hard-working Amma, her lifelong friend Meenakshi Chikkamma (little mom, for the uninitiated) and the television-addicted household help, Lily Akka. A lovely little sub-plot is woven in about Kavitha, Chikkamma’s daughter, who has so many differences of opinion with her mother, that she seeks her own independence and scoots off to stay with her motorbike-riding friend, Nadia. Nadia, whom Kavitha’s mom so strongly disapproves of, is a wonderful character, compassionately sketched out, who comes to the help of these hapless adventurer-sisters once in a while. Payal Dhar questions the claustrophobic nature of traditional Indian families where mothers even decide whom their kids should hang out with. Bravo then for the girl who walks out and does her own thing!

Another stream of the plot involves Amma’s friend, Simon the Creep, who the sisters think is definitely shady. So much so that little Kumuda hides in his car to go out and do some serious spying on him. Is he a fraud hiding something from their trusting mother? Or are the sisters feeling plain-ole-jealous? See what I mean about some serious issues being woven into this story? Nice!

This book, adventures notwithstanding, is not the rollercoaster ride that seems the norm today. It is more a leisurely morning stroll; unveiling tender moments, peering into hidden secrets and giving one plenty of time for quiet introspection.

Deconstructing the book (which is what I hate in a review, because writing is an art, not a science), I believe the title is its weakest straw, because there is so much more to it than just the ghost. I guess the title does its job of drawing readers in – the suspense of the ghost, etc. The cover illustration is non-committal, perhaps intentionally. The writing flows evenly, and Payal Dhar does not talk down to her young readers, which makes me want to put her up on a pedestal, just for that. She also paints a clear picture of the house and its residents, giving us a slice of life of modern Bangalore that stays in our mind’s eye a good while after.

Payal Dhar admits she knows a “few things about computers” (she knows much more than that – and is a writer on technical matters) and “nothing at all about ghosts”. Therefore, the title character, the ghost in the PC, does make an appearance once in a while, doing his best from within his boxed-in environment to help out, but this is really not what the book is about. It’s more about those ghosts lurking in us – the ones young readers are discovering within them. The ‘Should I rebel?’ and the ‘Whose life is this anyway?’ ones. A thought-provoking read amidst the hurried cacophony of voices in the Indian children’s book world today.

By Jane De Suza

Author: Payal Dhar
Illustrator: Sanket Pethkar
154 pages
Rs: 150.00
ISBN: 978-81-8477-759-8
Scholastic, 2012
Subject Category: Contemporary/Fiction/Young Adult
Age-group: 12+


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