The old adage about not judging a book by its cover – and, by extension, title – turned out to be true in the case of Sowmya Rajendran’s Ashwathy and the Boot of God. Under usual circumstances, you’d have to bribe me handsomely to pick up a book with ‘god’ in the title; and even so, I’d approach it with certain foregone conclusions. However, Ashwathy takes one by surprise and refreshingly so. It’s the kind of book that will scandalize most conservative schools, teachers, librarians and parents – you know who you are!
Fourteen-year-old Ashwathy of Kuttipuram, Kerala, healthy sceptic and atheist, connoisseur of psycho movies and detective TV series, finds an old, filthy boot. Inside the boot is a notebook and within that a photograph – of God. But it’s no ordinary photo. God talks to Ashwathy through it, tasking her with getting to the bottom of a murder that took place in her town recently. (And before we go any further, let’s take a moment to savour the fact that God lives in a boot!)
Sreeja’s death has been ruled a suicide, but the dead woman, having sought out God in the afterlife, is adamant that she hadn’t jumped into the well that took her life. However, the prime suspect, her husband, has an alibi for the evening. It is now up to Ashwathy, with the able support of God (who had been taking time off during the murder/suicide to go holidaying in an alternate universe and is therefore clueless), to get to the bottom of the matter. Along with her friends Malavika, Geeta, and the devout and devoted (equally to God as to Ashwathy) Radhakrishnan, she sets forth to prove that Sreeja was indeed murdered. Various manner of hijinks follow, including the hoodwinking of parents, and being disguised as holy men and CID officers. But even with God’s help, how can they prove that Sreeja was murdered?
A murder mystery is a fairly sombre topic for a children’s novel, but the fantastical spin and comic relief provided by God-in-a-boot takes the edge off to a great extent. Sowmya Rajendran also paints an evocative picture of life in a small town, mostly through the eyes of Ashwathy. Her family dynamics and her school life, including the creepy, lecherous Sir Gopalan, ring very real, so much so that sometimes you forget that it is a story where God plays a supporting role.
The deeply religious, for whom the idea of an irreverent god (however oxymoronic that sounds) is sacrilegious, may be scandalized by this book; the agnostics who are open to the interpretation and existence (or lack thereof) of a heavenly being might be amused; while the diehard atheists might be somewhat miffed, but we’ll circle back to that point later. Sowmya Rajendran’s God is a tipple-loving, hairstyle-changing, repartee-happy being, who isn’t averse to the odd date with a hunk of a creature. Neither does she have much patience for the coconut-sacrificing type of devotion. God is pretty much what one would call “cool”, with a wicked sense of humour and well-placed exasperation with her creations. Had I been a believer, this is the god I’d like to have believed in.
Ashwathy is very much her own person, independent, intelligent and resourceful, and apparently “the brightest girl in Kuttipuram”. Which is why, God tells her, she chose her for the task (it isn’t clear why there aren’t any intelligent adults in Kuttipuram). However, the one thing that isn’t explained is why Ashwathy, being an atheist, accepts the presence of God with such equanimity, and also why there is little to no reaction from her friends when she explains the situation to them – not just the whole God-in-a-boot business, but also talking to dead people in her dreams. Also, what is the message for atheists? That their belief is the wrong one, and whether you believe in her or not, God does exist? That doesn’t seem very respectful to atheists, and reinforces the popular notion prevalent in our society that faith is “right” and not having it is “wrong”. At least Ashwathy isn’t turned into a believer at the end of it!
The antics of Ashwathy, God and the other kids are far more entertaining than the solving of the mystery itself. A few things remain unclear – such as why everyone gets excited about an old cigarette butt – though it is otherwise a well-told tale. There are some hiccups with the language now and again, but overall, one must commend Sowmya Rajendran for telling an entertaining story with fantastical elements in a setting that is palpably real, and with the good, the bad and the complex.
By Payal Dhar
Author: Sowmya Rajendran
Penguin Books, 2015
Subject Category: Contemporary/Fiction