City of Ghosts by Bali Rai
Jack Colley not only won a prize during Children's Book Week - one of Bali Rai's books, no less - but he's written a review of it. We're really looking forward to welcoming Bali back to Guernsey in May.
Last year, I participated in a competition run for Children’s Book Week, sponsored by Ardel and organised by the Schools’ Library Service. The task was to write a short story based on an opening line written by visiting author Bali Rai. I was fortunate enough to be awarded second place and was given the book City of Ghosts as a prize. Since last year, the book has lain stranded on my bookshelf, among a heap of other paperbacks which I have vowed, one day, to read. When I learnt that Bali was visiting Guernsey again for the Guernsey Literary Festival in 2014, I decided that reading his book now would be a good idea.
Having extricated the book from the pile (which was comparable to playing a tense game of Jenga), I began to read. The story is set in the Indian city of Amritsar in 1919. At first, the plot concerns a young boy who is trying to gain a wealthy merchant’s permission to marry his daughter. However, it quickly broadens to encompass the rising tensions of Indian citizens against the goreh, the white British colonialists who control everyday life. The action moves swiftly along as tensions rise and violence begins to spread. As the end of the book nears, the revolutionary atmosphere culminates in an outbreak of violence, mirroring how the young boy’s quest to marry his sweetheart resolves in a similarly violent way – Rai does not hold back with the gory descriptions (especially when it comes to eyes …).
Throughout his narrative, Bali discusses many issues which are just as relevant in today’s world as in 1919. The most prominent is that of revolution. Before reading this book, my knowledge of colonial India was limited to a scattering of facts about Gandhi. Now I have a better understanding of the problems, caused in a large part by the British, which Indians faced after the war. Of particular note is the Rowlatt Act, which is mentioned frequently. This act gave the British the right to detain Indians without trial, among other equally draconian powers which by today’s standards are synonymous with the Nazi police state.
Bali Rai also discusses the First World War, taking the reader back to 1915 through the eyes of an Indian soldier. By means of this character, he conveys how meaningless the death and destruction of the Great War were. He also raises the point that Indian soldiers were forced to fight for another country in a land which they had never even heard of before.
Although I was slightly taken aback when the story, with the presence of ghosts, took a mystical turn (I probably should have guessed from the title), I thought that Bali’s book successfully mixed a good plot with a decent splash of historical content. It was certainly an enjoyable and enlightening read.