Imagine bards in the hilly region of Kumaon, Uttarakhand, sing and enact the love story of a brave, ingenious girl and a charismatic king. The story is passed on by word of mouth for over 10 centuries from one generation of bards to another. Come the 21st century and all we hear is a distant echo – modern day exigencies threaten the survival of this precious piece of Indian folklore.
Luckily for us, Deepa Agarwal becomes the voice of the ancient bards as she resurrects the story for a young audience. She brings to life the love story of Rajula, a Shauka girl from the Indo-Tibetan border region, and Katyur’s King Malushahi.
Rajula’s story is set in a time when women were expected to meekly surrender to their destiny. An obedient Rajula initially bows to the will of her father, the much-feared Sunapati Shuka, the head of their tribe, who has promised her in marriage to a Tibetan chieftain. However, ever since, she is secretly troubled by a recurring dream; Rajula’s world is thrown into turmoil when her dream plays out in reality – she meets King Malushahi, the handsome stranger of her dreams, and falls in love with him. Her enraged father forbids her from meeting the King and accelerates proceedings for her marriage to the Tibetan chieftain.
Rajula refuses to be buffeted by fickleness of fate and a wilful father. She uses her mother’s magical spells and her considerable ingenuity when she makes the perilous journey to Katyur and leaves a message for her beloved, King Malushahi. She returns home to find that her Tibetan bridegroom and his party are to arrive the next week. Rajula will have to use every ounce of her acumen to postpone the loveless marriage. Does she succeed? Will King Malushahi reach her in time? Does the enraged Tibetan chieftain, who vows to marry her at any cost, stop the lovers?
While the story is rich in magical elements and suspense, simplicity and elegance characterise Deepa Agarwal’s writing. What stands out is the passion and empathy she feels for Rajula. Her attention to detail (the description of the Himalayan flora and fauna, the lifestyle and food habits of the ancient people) and elegant metaphors paint a rich canvas for her readers.
A pause here though - while Rajula’s character is strong, one has to wonder why King Malushahi does not immediately pursue her when she is whisked away by her father. Also, why does he not (as Rajula’s father validly puts it) attempt to ask for her hand in a honourable way? Perhaps we cannot argue with a story handed down over the ages, but one can certainly question the staid cover of the book which a poor reflection of an adventurous fantasy tale. Also, the book jacket which doubles up as a ‘mini-poster’ does not add to the substance of the story.
Minor criticism apart, the book is one in “The Book Mine” series of Hachette Publishers where the history and geography of the story, its origins, an understanding of bard traditions across India, and other such topics attempt at providing depth to the contextual understanding of the story and its characters. Reader participation is encouraged through the section on ‘What would you have done?’ and ‘Guess which character am I?’. The final section provides guidance to review and rate the book. School libraries and book clubs can dip into these to organize children’s activities based on the book.
In conclusion, this is a wonderful attempt to revive an ancient story for modern day young readers. A must have in every library and a must read for every child.