Sheela Chari, Vanished

There’s been a minor revolution in Indian children’s publishing in the last few years, particularly with regard to Middle Grade and Young Adult books. But all this really means is that we have MG and YA books; it’s still rare that I find one I actually enjoy. So I leapt at the offer of a copy of Vanished, a book set in India and the USA and featuring a hunt for a possibly-magical veena.

Neela is eleven years old and lives in Massachusetts where, after school, she takes veena lessons. Her veena is an unusual one; a gift from a grandmother who also plays the instrument, it’s a Guru original, made by one of the greatest veena makers of all time. It has a strange, winged dragon carved into its pegbox. And then the veena goes missing.

Legend has it that one of Guru’s veenas keeps returning to a particular music shop in Chennai. And we’re also told that a famous American veena player called Veronica Wyvern (as in winged dragon, you ask?) owned a Guru original. None of this is particularly hard to piece together and it doesn’t really have to be. For me the big mystery was whether or not this was really a supernatural story.

There’s a blurb from The Hindu at the back of this book which¬† suggests that one of its virtues is that it “gives Indian readers a glimpse of life in America”. I thought this was interesting because I got the opposite sense–I think there’s an element of explaining India to American (or Americans of Indian origin) children (Vanished was first published in the USA by Hyperion in 2011). And part of the reason why it worked well for me is Chari’s choice to avoid turning it into a novel of multicultural angst. We’re never under the impression that there’s one model of Indian-in-America; Neela’s friend Pavi has far more conservative parents, but is (unlike Neela) also more willing to flaunt her difference and wear a bindi in public (Gwen Stefani wears one, she points out in a popculture reference that might already be outdated). And there’s no romance plot, merely a few friendship ones, and at least one of these is left unresolved in a way that felt very realistic to me. It sounds at this point as if I’m praising the book more for what it doesn’t do than what it does. But what all these omissions allow for is a relatively simple, likeable book and I genuinely enjoyed it.

And look, cover art by Jon Klassen!

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