I must admit approaching Gayathri Ponvannan’s Time Racers with a considerable amount of annoyance. Why was it, I wondered, that every other children’s book was a work of fantasy. Why weren’t there more realistic stories doing the rounds? The cover, not a particularly engaging one, did little to enthuse me. And yet, it took me exactly half a page to get pulled into this delicious romp through time and space. The book is a work of fantasy, on the one hand, but, on the other, it takes a sympathetic and deeply incisive look into the world of a typical Indian teenager who attempts to balance his parents’ expectations with an innate desire to stop and smell the roses.

Pratik Pallavanathan, the hero of this tale, is thirteen, plump and a musical genius in that walls literally crack when his voice soars in song. He also has the ability to travel through time and see apparitions, an aspect that surfaces during a family trip to an ancestral village in South India. To complicate matters, the apparition that he most regularly sees resembles him not just in looks and talents but also, and much to the chagrin of their respective sets of parents, in laziness and the inclination to grow more mutinous with every successive rebuke. The story gets curiouser and curiouser from then on, and involves Pratik getting lost in the labyrinthine corridors of the family temple, travelling back to the 1920s, befriending the boy-apparition and involving himself in his new friend’s travails, while simultaneously discovering a growing maturity and wisdom in himself. In this sense, Time Racers is a quintessential coming of age story, an effect quite convincingly achieved by the author.

What holds the threads of this entertaining book together is humour — of the intelligent rather than the slapstick or contrived sort. Ponvannan suffuses her tale with hilarious dialogues and situations with effortless ease, and her usage of words is clever and assured. Sample this: “Folks rarely get our surnames right. I mean, with a name like Pallavanathan, it usually takes a few seconds just to untangle the vowels from the consonants.” Or this, after Pratik’s first glimpse of the phantom boy: “…I convince them to let me move in with Mom. I absolutely insisted on that, since I know for a fact that Mom is better protection than Dad. She’s half a banshee herself, and might at least make a show of standing up for me. Dad, I’m sure, wouldn’t have second thoughts about abandoning me to my fate.” Pratik’s stint as a “cow-sitter”, his regular skirmishes with his father that invariably build up into “nuclear reactions”, and his interactions with his quirky cousins, Prati and Param, are extremely amusing.

Apart from the highly likeable Pratik, Time Racers is rife with several interesting, if somewhat idiosyncratic, characters. Take the gentle giant, Param, who has his first brush with love; the wily temple priest who is also a computer whiz; Pratik’s genial and somewhat eccentric grandparents, Poppy and Thaatha; his younger brother, Dhruv, the “undisputed prince of the house”; and the moody, irritable Simha, Pratik’s new phantom friend. Each character is etched with care and they stay in your mind long after the book is done.

Now for a word of caution. Time Racers, though a delightful read, has a plot that stretches the limits of the reader’s credulity time and again. It is confusing, at best, and garbled, at worst. A temple corridor as a time machine is ingenious but the concept itself is a trifle clichéd.  It is to Ponvannan’s credit, though, that she takes a somewhat jaded story device and makes it into a rollicking read. However, the cover, as I noted earlier, does very little by way of contribution to the book’s visual appeal, featuring two boys against a partly blurred background – a half-hearted hint, perhaps, at ghostly goings-on. In addition, going by the description of Dhruv’s eyes in the story, it appears that he, a completely minor character, has made a mistaken appearance on the cover instead of Pratik, the protagonist. An oversight, perhaps?

Ponvannan, by her own admission, toyed with the idea of becoming an author for over two decades before actually getting down to it. Now that she has announced her entry with this completely entrancing debut (excuse the plot and focus on the other nuances, please!), it is good news for the world of children’s books in general. Read Time Racers and laugh your way through the pages. And, of course, discover the extremely likeable facets to an extremely unlikely hero!

By Devika Rangachari

Author: Gayathri Ponvannan
208 pages
Rs 250.00
ISBN: 978-0-143-33402-6
Penguin Books, 2015
Subject Category: Contemporary/Fiction
Age-group: 13+

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