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Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Chloe in India

Chloe in India
by Kate Darnton
published by Delacorte Books for Young Readers (January 12, 2016)

I was so busy I didn't hear Mom come up behind me. I heard her voice before I saw her, and this is what that voice said:
"Chloe, Chloe! Oh no, Chloe!"
I froze in front of the bathroom mirror. In my left hand, I was holding a clump of blond hair away from my head. Well, hair that used to be blond. Now it was After Midnight Black.
In my right hand, I was holding an After Midnight Black permanent marker.

With an opening like that, this book hooked me in right away, as it did the resident ten year old.

Eleven year old Chloe did not want to leave her cool, tree-lined Boston home behind and get dumped in horrendously hot Delhi, but she had to go where her parents decided to transplant the family because, as her journalist mom puts it, "that's where the stories are."

It is bad enough that she is unable to fit in and adapt to this new situation, but it doesn't help one bit that her older sister, Anna, seemed to hit the road running, rolling with aplomb at these huge changes. Her perfect older sister Anna who could do no wrong.

Chloe is enrolled in an Indian school, Premium Academy, where she is the only American (besides her sister, of course), and the only blond-haired girl (besides the German girl, but she doesn't count.)

Chloe tries to make the best of fifth grade by trying to befriend the prettiest and richest girl in class, Anvi Saxena, all the while having a nagging sense that something about Anvi's attitude is off and unacceptable to her own ethics. Meanwhile, quite unwittingly, Chloe befriends Lakshmi in her dark black hair and ill-fitting hand-me-down uniform, an underdog, underprivileged girl, of EWS (Economically Weaker Section), who is there to fill a quota in admissions records.

The wholesome but strained friendship blossoming between Chloe and Lakshmi is developed almost poetically. The economic divide, the class-based society, the entitlement of the rich, the squalor of the poor (things that are present in many countries in the world), and the struggles of day-to-day existence are all laid out with honest candor that mitigates the stereotyping. It is what it is, and while we all can squirm and wiggle in discomfort at the inequality, the fact remains that there are social injustices we live with and feel powerless to do anything about.

The utter poverty of Lakshmi and the decadent wealth of Anvi are all-true realities in today's India, even more so due to outsourcing and globalization that has bred a flock of nouveau riche who are not sure what to do with all the new-found wealth.

Setting that aside, I want to talk about the positives of this book, which lies in the way Ms. Darnton provides a peek into the culture as seen from Chloe's perspective. The book is semi-autobiographical, in that, Ms. Darnton who hails from Boston actually lived with her family in New Delhi for five years.

Although the story and the settings are all fictional, the bona fide (fictional) characters in the book come alive in Ms. Darnton's narration, from the fussing and efficient Nepali cook/nanny Dechen, dedicated and trustworthy driver/chauffeur Vijay, to the inimitable and wise class teacher Ms.Puri and the quintessential dance instructor Mr.Bhatnagar, not to mention the kids Dhruv, Lakshmi, Meher, Anvi and Prisha, each with their own personality and baggage.

The conflict in the story for Chloe arises from the dance performance she has to participate in on school Annual Day celebrations. As a child growing up and living those very Annual Day celebrations, I loved how Ms. Darnton, via Chloe, explains the significance to non-Indian readers. It is a big deal to put on a dance and musical show to celebrate school's "birthday" so-to-speak, and it can be very stressful for someone like Chloe who does not like to dance or perform in public. There are invited guests of honor and keynote speaker who form a big part of such a celebration, which warrants a proper show with plenty of rehearsals and pitch-perfect performance.

The nuances and idiosyncrasies that are particular to India come across as genuine yet perplexing realities that Chloe faces as she tries to adapt to her new place and culture. While typecasting is unavoidable in such a story setting, the book compensates by revealing so much heart and warmth that is the essence of India, with not much heavy-handed moralizing from high ground.

Will this book encourage a tween reader to visit India and know more about it and possibly befriend an Indian? Perhaps not. There is too much "reality" and "truth" to it that borders on the negative side and too little magic and beauty that is India that is left out of the story.

The resident ten year old got every single emotion that Chloe felt through this story, she understood where Chloe is coming from, and loved the friendship between Chloe and Lakshmi. But, having visited India and having enjoyed parts of it (definitely not the heat, but most certainly the warmth and generosity of the people she encountered), it did come across as a bit one-sided to read the book as an American with Indian heritage.

I did enjoy the vivid descriptions and exchanges that rang so true that it is easy to forget Ms. Darnton is not a native Indian.

An exchange in class between Dhruv, the typical trouble-making class clown, and Chloe:

"Ma'am!" Dhruv yelled. "Chhole is fidgeting!"
I gritted my teeth. "I am not a chickpea," I hissed. "My name's not Cho-lay. It's Chloe. Klo-ee."
"Now she is talking!" Dhruv yelled. "How can I draw her if she is always talking?"
Mrs. Singh glanced up from her desk at the other end of the room. She put one skinny finger to her thin lips. "Shhh!" she hissed.

Back of the book has a "Questions for Readers" section that talks about a few of the situations in the book that warrant discussion and can turn into useful teaching moments.

A couple of exchanges between Lakshmi and Chloe:

"You look fine," I said. I was trying to sound reassuring, but Lakshmi scowled.
"No fancy kurta," she said. "No dupatta." She shook her head and pointed up toward the apartment. "I can no go your house."
"Are you kidding?" I said. "Look at me!" I pointed at the soy sauce stain on my Red Sox T-shirt. "Seriously," I said. "My parents do not care. Like, not at all. Actually, I know for a fact that they'd love to meet you...
...
Lakshmi looked unconvinced, but before she could protest further, I grabbed hold of her hand and started pulling her up the stairs.

------------------------

"Outside the hospital, one didi sits there. She is -- what you say?-- phool walla?"
"She's a fool?"
"No, no." Lakshmi let out a laugh. "She not fool. She phool wallah. She sell flower, jasmine flower."

I liked the fact that both Chloe and Lakshmi are new to fifth grade at Premium Academy, and both feel they are misfits (the title of the book as released by Young Zubaan), and they are both from opposite ends of the world culturally and economically. But, why should that stop them from getting to know each other and becoming friends?

Look Inside the Book


[image source:  Penguin Randomhouse]

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