Judging by the title - I thought it was some kind of a copy of Slumdog Millionaire. But BIna Shah's a Pakistani writer and that made me curious. Turns out the book's about a Christian girl in a Pakistani slum. I'm Christian myself and that's what finally made me sit down and read the entire thing. I'm quite happy I did.
This book isn't a copy of anything. It stands for itself and is a compelling story. I don't know what sort of person Bina Shah is or what sort of life she leads but from her descriptions of the slum that Laila, her chief protagonist lives in and the thoughts that flit in and out of her pre-teen head - it seems like Bina knows this place. That she's either lived in one, or interacted closely with slum children.
I grew up in an unauthorized area in a quasi-village on the outskirts of Delhi. An area where residents would illegally tap electricity from the mains, where there'd be huge pools of squishy filth after every rain, where packs of stray dogs would chase the garbage man, where packs of kids would fight in the streets and outsiders wouldn't venture after dark.
Yet, a place just twenty minutes away from the order and beauty of the army's cantonment area, about an hour away from the richest, flashiest malls in the capital. So, yes the book did ring a bell. It's effortless almost unconscious descriptions of its surroundings, its mental painting if you will, was something I haven't come across in many books from the recent past. Vivid. Immediate. And believable.
Even more believable was a young Christian child's struggle in balancing the beliefs and teachings of her own home, with what she comes across at school and among neighbors. Christianity and Islam come from the same roots and the same ancient beliefs. Yet, they diverge dramatically on a bunch of crucial topics - differences strong enough to trigger wars around the world and in Laila's slum, strong undercurrents of suspicion and resentment.
So yes, Laila's an outsider, struggling to understand her own place in the world. She stumbles into the life of another outsider, a drug addict and vagrant. Interestingly, he's of African descent, apparently there are many like him in Pakistan. They either migrated or were trafficked from central Asia many thousands of years ago.
Meanwhile, Laila's family turns upside down, her father abandons her, her sister passes away, her mother suffers a nervous breakdown. In the midst of all this turbulence, tiny Laila suddenly grows up, from a scrappy school kid to a woman who knows her own mind.
It's a lovely, honest, refreshing story - the sort that deserves to made into a movie some day. It might not be everyone's cup of tea - but anyone who observes people, is curious about human feelings and human struggle, won't come away disappointed.
Slum Child; Written by: Bina Shah; Published by: Tranquebar Fiction; Price: Rs. 295