Varsha Shah’s debut children’s novel Ajay and the Mumbai Sun takes readers to the side of Ajay and his friends in the heart of the Mumbai slums, railways stations and factories. Here readers will marvel at the energy, ambition and hope imbued by these characters as they work together to uncover the corruption in their city.
The stage is set from the first few pages where Ajay, who sells newspapers for ten rupees at the station, encounters a bald businessman ‘with a crafty glint in his eye’ who foolishly, and as it turns out unsuccessfully, tries to outwit our astute main protagonist. First, he asks if the news is worth reading, then once Ajay has told him about the earthquake (which the man somewhat tellingly dismisses as ‘That’s all?’) he says he has no need of the newspaper given Ajay has already disclosed its contents. But, as we see again and again in this tale of hope and resilience, Ajay outmanoeuvres the adult who tries to get the better of him. Ajay, wittily tells the businessman that the newspaper also contains the cure for baldness, at which point he grabs the paper and is eventually forced to pay for it. While this may be a seemingly insignificant exchange, Ajay’s quick thinking and humour as he shouts at the breathless man running to catch the train ‘Health section is on page five,’ are apparent throughout the novel.
That the small outwit the mighty is the bread and butter of children’s fiction, and there is always a useful discussion to be had with readers, both young and old, about whether this is empowering or simply adds to the pressure, as once again we ask children to save the world. Ajay, whose dream has always been to become a reporter, with the help of his friends– for no one can do this alone – produces his own paper – The Mumbai Sun. Here, with a wink to Emil and the Detectives, the children uncover corruption as they eavesdrop, question and ‘follow the money’ to the top where they, somewhat topically, find the Bollygarch. The text is careful to acknowledge, as Ajay observes that ‘corruption was a problem everywhere! So was the death of the innocent’ and there are nods to Western business owners’ exploitation of workers and to corruption in Britain too. The Grenfell Tower tragedy is, for example, briefly referenced and thus gives space for a conversation about how people are sacrificed in favour of profit the world over.
Although the novel contains some violence (the lawyer’s hitmen come after them), catastrophe (the factory collapses) and sadness (Ajay remembers his mother), there is also some humour (the lawyer with bucket of water over her head) a fair bit of self-reflection (not all adults are brave but that doesn’t make them ‘bad’), as well as an exciting cricket match where the street children play those from the exclusive private school. The tone is one of hope and change; it acknowledges, but by no means lingers over, the children’s hardships. The optimism and faith in children’s sense of justice is evident not only in how the children successfully sell their newspaper and alert the people to dishonesty thus engineering change, but also in Yasmin’s talk of her illustrations: ‘I don’t want them to be beautiful. I want them to be powerful.’ This is the crux, that words and art can change the world. This is the perfect upper KS2 text to extend the discussion of critical literacy in the classroom, to show readers that we need them to question stories and ultimately to find their own voices and tell their own tales.
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