The Conch Bearer
By Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
(Roaring Brook Press, Hardcover, 9780761319351, 272pp.)
Publication Date: September 2003
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Action, adventure, and magic are combined in this exotic, compelling quest fantasy by a distinguished author of adult fiction and poetry. Set in contemporary India, the story opens in a poor section of Calcutta, where 12-year-old Anand is entrusted with a conch shell imbued with mystical powers. Anand's task is to return the shell to its rightful home high in the Himalayas. Will he succeed? This is literary fiction of the highest order, as well as an adventure story that is almost impossible to put down.
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni was born in India and now lives and teaches in Houston, Texas. Her books include the New York Times bestseller, The Mistress of Spices.
Publishers Weekly Starred Review Divakaruni makes her children's book debut with this exotic novel, in which fantasy threads intertwine with spiritual teachings. While 12-year-old Anand is at work one day at a tea stall in Kolkata, India, he offers a beggar man his own ration of tea and pooris, only to discover that the man is a healer, Abhaydatta. Abhaydatta enlists Anand's help in his mission to return a sacred conch shell to the community of Master Healers that live in the Himalayas. The way in which Abhaydatta wins Anand's confidence is just a preview of the magic and miracles to follow (he heals Anand's sister, who had stopped speaking after witnessing a murder). A street urchin joins the pair on their journey; Surabhanu, the one who stole the conch from its rightful place in the Himalayas, with powers dark enough to match Abhaydatta's light, dogs their every step; and the journey itself brims with magical beasts and enchanted streams, cliffs and winds. As with any true quest, Anand must look within in order to complete his mission. Divakaruni keeps her tale fresh and riveting with details of India's smells, sights and tastes, with characters that possess both good and evil, and with her exploration of the fine line between faith and magic. Young readers can only hope for more from this master storyteller. Booklist In modern-day India, a boy named Anand perseveres in difficult circumstances. His father is gone, his sister has had a breakdown, and he and his mother struggle to keep a shack's roof over their heads. Anand is kind to an old man, Abhaydatta, a healer who is charged with bringing home an irreplaceable conch shell, stolen from his brotherhood. What follows is a classic quest story in which Anand and feisty, orphaned Nisha eventually continue the quest for the shell on their own. Faced with all the conventions of the genre, they undergo various trials, and Anand makes choices that change his life. Fantasy lovers will recognize familiar elements; certain touches are reminiscent of the Harry Potter books (the evil one takes the shape of a snake) and C. S. Lewis' The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (tempting food controls a child). With so many fantasies being published, what's special about this one? It's the unique setting, along with the elegance of Divakaruni's writing. The slums of "Kalcotta" are so richly created that readers can almost smell them, and the pure beauty of Anand's destination is a shimmering Shangri-La come to life. The characterizations have the same lucidity, real to the core, yet cloaked in magic. This speaks directly to children, in a very enticing voice. School Library Journal Anand's compassionate gesture of sharing his tea with an old man in a Calcutta market leads to radical changes in the 12-year-old's life. The stranger is a member of the Brotherhood of Healers and invites the boy to join him on a dangerous journey to return a magical conch shell to its proper home in the far-off Himalayas. Along with Nisha, a sweeper-girl who insists on joining them, Anand and Abhaydatta travel to the mountains pursued by the evil Surabhanu, a power-hungry ex-member of the brotherhood. Anand struggles in his own mind, doubting Abhaydatta's motives and the existence of magic, jealous of Nisha's comfortable relationship with the old man, and occasionally succumbing to Surabhanu's tempting illusions. When he finally reaches the Silver Valley, more challenges await him before he can enter. In the end, he faces the most difficult choice of all-to stay in the world of magic he had always dreamed of or return to his family. This quest adventure has an exotic flavor: the journey from a crowded Indian city through rural villages and the high mountains, a magical background from traditional Indian tales, and deliciously detailed description of Indian foods. Honesty, loyalty, and compassion are the virtues demanded by the Healers; Anand's actions show that he has all three. Readers can sympathize with his struggles and long for his success. This traditional story in fresh new clothing should appeal to middle graders.