We all have to face these uncertain times in differing degrees. Considering that the COVID-19 pandemic appears endless, we would all want to escape it at some point. Fantasy books are the surest way to escape the real and enter a completely new world. Magic realism is another genre that presents a unique blend where you are in the real world, yet experience the impossible or the magical.
To escape the uncertainty and anxiety, Vinod Kumar Shukla’s recent Hindi novel, Hari Ghaas Ki Chappar Wali Jhopdi Aur Bauna Pahad (published two years ago) is a must read. It takes the reader through a dreamlike ride of fun and adventure of the school children in a small village. Shukla weaves in fantasy to the realistic setting of a village in India, most possibly from his home state of Chhattisgarh.
This is why this novel can be considered as a shining example of fantasy and even magic realism. The beginnings of magic realism are attributed to several Latin and South American writers such as Jorge Louis Borges, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Isabel Allende and Laura Esquival among others. It is a genre popular across the globe from Murakami to Toni Morrison. However, Indian writing has not fully embraced this genre with a few exceptions, notably that of Salman Rushdie.
Thus, when I bought this book because of its title and when I read it, I expected it to be a fun children’s novel. It was exactly that but the surprise was how subtly the author has mixed seemingly impossible things to the real life adventures of the three protagonists, Bolu, Bhaira, and Kuna. The school they go to is itself an example. It does not have the usual benches but instead the children sit on gunnysacks on the floor and the school’s thick walls have shelves or cubbyholes which are occupied by pigeons if not by the children’s bags and books. Eventually, even kids begin sitting in these shelves, first during their free time and later even during class. Imagine, trying to take your seat by climbing up ladders!
The titular green grass roofed hut is one of the centers of all their adventures. The hut’s origins itself seem mythic as no one has seen it being built and seems to have existed since times immemorial with an equally old couple inhabiting it. The moon rising behind it appears as if the hut itself births it, making the kids believe that from the top of the hut they could catch the moon and the rainbow. The titular mountain next to the hut is easy to climb and has a deep crater at the top, whose depths nobody can fathom.
The most impossible of all things is perhaps the teacher telling the students one fine day that the lesson of the day was no lesson and that to learn this lesson they have to spend a holiday! This is when the great adventure to find out the mysteries of the crater in the mountain begins. The kids plan to spend their holiday well by zipping down the large crater to explore it. This adventure also shows the quintessential childlike nature to get to the bottom of things (quite literally in this case) and their wonder about everything around them.
Enmeshed with this childlike wonder is the natural world from a variety of birds that even have the power to disappear to animals drinking from a pond near the temple. The adventures that the children have are linked to their natural surroundings. It creates a bond with the surrounding, evoking curiosity and excitement among the children of the story.
Shukla’s language is simple, yet creates beautiful vivid metaphors about the environment. The prose is mixed with poems and songs which again suffuse the story with feel of a bygone era. It is as if the entire novel was one big folktale. Shukla has created an outlandish world full of curiosities in this novel. It is a delight for both adults and children. Adults will be taken back to their childhood and perhaps be able to rekindle that same curiosity. Children will be taken away from their computer screens to the living, breathing, and the mesmerizing world of nature through this story.
If you loved Alice in Wonderland, then this novel is a must read. Shukla writes from his own deep connection to his surroundings and his strong belief that fantasy is a way of thinking common to all of us. If reading in Hindi is not your cup of tea, then the novel has also been translated in English by Satti Khanna. In English it is titled, Moonrise from the Green Grass Roof.