After many decades when Ruskin Bond was the only well known writer in the field, Indian children’s fiction written in English is beginning to attract attention. Penguin India and Scholastic India alongside smaller publishers are publishing more titles for young readers and now one of India’s most important literary prizes, the Vodafone Crossword Book Awards has instigated a new prize category for children’s literature. Siddhartha Sarma’s debut novel, The Grasshopper’s Run, was its first winner.
Set in North East India in 1944, this powerful historical novel starts with a gruesome massacre when an ambitious Japanese colonel, convinced that British troops are hiding in a village of an Ao Naga tribe, orders an attack. No British are found but all the villagers are killed, including Uti, the chief’s grandson who has bravely resisted the invaders. The narrative moves to Calcutta where Uti’s best friend Gojen is at school. Gojen vows revenge and as the war continues, takes an active role in fighting the enemy as part of his mission to seek out the colonel responsible.
The novel is densely written and perhaps a little overloaded with the weight of the historical research its author has conducted although there are some nail-biting battle scenes. Sarma’s emphasis is on action rather than characterisation but Gojen is a stalwart hero. What fascinated this reader is the insight this novel provides from an Indian perspective on an area that was to become a major theatre of WW11.