NEHA AND THE NOSE
By Ruchika Chanana
Duckbill Books, 2019, pp. 88, R199.00
By Lesley D Biswas. Illustrations by Anupama Ajinkya Apte
Duckbill Publishers, 2019, pp. 65, R175.00
Homegrown middle grade fiction in India is on the rise and thankfully so! Neha and the Nose written by Ruchika Chanana brings two young detectives, one with the brains and one with the, um, nose, into the scene, where they uncover the truth about various mysteries like who stole the Sadanand Sharma Trophy for Extramural Excellence or who was stalking Harini, the head girl.
Johan, or the Nose, tends to become overly dramatic when he is using his nose to sniff out clues, become either Shakespearean or Sherlockian in his speech (and sometimes Chairman Mao too!), and while Neha rolls her eyes at this, she indulges him because together, they can work better at solving mysteries. Filled with nose-y puns and several other synonyms for ‘nose’, Neha and Johan are the school’s undisputed crime solvers who sometimes tend to disagree about their roles as detective and sidekick.
A serious mystery comes their way when they discover that the warden of the girl’s hostel has been attacked but instead of being allowed to solve it, their detective talents are directed towards solving the ghostly occurrences that are taking place in the girl’s hostel. Johan has a crush on the school’s queen bee Sarika who ‘had somehow achieved a look that was natural in an Alia Bhatt sort of way.’ He thinks solving the hostel poltergeist problem will make him appear more manly before the pretty Sarika and Neha thinks it’s just a waste of time.
The events that follow are as convoluted as the trail that the Nose likes to follow but it still hooks you in as the two intrepid detectives try to solve several mysteries within mysteries, all while still in uniform (err…school uniform). Neha’s no-nonsense attitude is a foil to several giggly girls she interacts with in class, and her ambition to have a career solving crime makes her think she is superior to the others but there are also moments of realization when she feels she may have judged Sarika too harshly.
A page turner that only stumbles whenever Johan breaks into his flourishes about his proboscis (funny in a wry sort of way to older people but could possibly elude the target audience of middle-grade readers), Neha and the Nose is irreverent and never takes itself too seriously. This is an utterly refreshing read, and one that’s probably primed for a sequel or a series.
Heavy subjects like superstition and discrimination against the girl child are distilled into an easy-to-understand story that is in equal parts charming, funny and heart-warming. Chumki is a young girl who lives in Bagmandi, a small village in West Bengal’s Purulia district. An infuriating Dadi who blames her for everything that goes wrong, a mischievous brother who hates going to school, a loving mother who is pained at seeing how her daughter is treated and a baffled bua who gives Chumki a whole lot of convoluted reasons as to why she is considered unlucky, make up a huge part of this Hole book by Duckbill.
Ten year old Chumki doesn’t have friends because the villagers and the children in school believe that she has a ‘magic tongue’ and she can curse people. Things are not helped along by her little brother who has convinced Chumki’s classmates that she can turn people into vegetables. However, he has a change of heart and comes up with a plan to help erase the ‘bad luck’ associated with her. It involves a mango orchard and its surly caretaker and a whole group of kids who want to enjoy the juicy mangoes without being chased away from there.
Without ever talking directly about the unfair treatment meted out to Chumki, especially by Dadi who forbids her from going to school, the author makes the readers feel Chumki’s pain and her confusion at being denied her basic right to education. The rural setting, the many different characters, the delightful illustrations that try to incorporate the ‘hole’ in the book where possible, make the book immensely readable.
Andaleeb Wajid is a Bangalore based writer who has been writing books for adults, young adults and children for the past ten years. She has recently published a romance novel called A Sweet Deal, published by Fingerprint.