Lucy Bryson enjoys a voyage of spiritual and philosophical discovery with Ruchir Verma’s beautiful coming-of-age tale.
By Lucy Bryson
A brilliantly written tale of a young boy’s path to adulthood, The Boy From Allahabad is an impressive first novel that combines elements of literary fiction and philosophy.
With shades of Herman Hesse’s classic philosophical novel Siddartha, Verma’s debut is rich in mysticism and metaphor, and highlights the importance of religious tolerance and making the right life choices in difficult circumstances.
The book follows Balu, the ‘Boy’ in the title, who, on the cusp of adolescence, seeks to understand why he was abandoned by his parents as a child, and to carve out his role in society. Alive with the sights, scents and sounds of northern India, the book transports the reader into Balu’s world through descriptive language that is simple – even sparse – yet incredibly evocative.
The author hails from Allahabad, and the northern Indian city is a fitting setting for this philosophical novel whose theme is that of rising above the religious and political differences that create deep rifts in society. Allahabad is renowned for its spirit of religious tolerance, with Hindus and Muslims co-existing largely in peace. It has a deeper significance, too, as the site of the Kumbh Mela religious festival, which attracts some 50 million religious pilgrims every twelve years. Three holy rivers converge here, and the theme of water as a metaphor for rebirth and spiritual cleansing is one which flows throughout the book.
Balu has been raised as a Hindu but is agnostic in practice and is and open to the teachings of both the Hindu and Muslim faiths. We first meet him under insalubrious circumstances: slight of build yet strong in body and mind, he is putting his skills to use by breaking into a safe and stealing a significant amount of money from a local merchant.
One remarkable (and positive) aspect of this book is the lack of moral judgement – the author observes his characters’ behaviour without passing criticism, and at several points in Balu’s journey we witness good people doing bad things out of ill-judgment or simply due to circumstance.
Raised in simple circumstances by apparently loving parents, Balu learns at the age of eight that is adopted. He vows to leave his small village and return to Allahabad – where he was found as a baby – even if this means resorting to theft in order to fund his journey.
Having accumulated enough cash, the young Balu returns to Allahabad and finds himself drawn to the mysterious and mystical world of the Naga Sadhu religious sect and aligns himself with a mentor who sets him on a path to self-discovery.
But the path to enlightenment does not run smooth and Balu encounters present-day problems such as drug abuse and forced labour as he seeks to free his drug-addicted young cousin from the clutches of an infamous gang leader who makes her dance for money in his club in order to pay off her drug debts.
It’s the first of many tough situations for Balu, as he finds himself drawn further into a dangerous world of dealers and remorseless criminals. Through strength of faith and of character, Balu emerges battle-scarred but emotionally stronger. He throws himself into his studies and finds love with a Muslim girl called Ayesha, before a violent act of vengeance throws our protagonist back into a life of crime.
The book follows Balu on a literal and metaphorical journey from northern India to Afghanistan, South East Asia and onwards to London, where he falls in love with the beautiful Malieka – a young woman reminiscent in every way of his first love Ayesha. Facing moral and spiritual crossroads at every turn, he seeks to do the right thing but often makes severe errors of judgement, and events once again take a tragic turn towards the close of the book.
Nonetheless, Balu remains determined to return to the correct life path, and his tale is a metaphor for choosing to live the life that may be difficult, but is far from ordinary, using innate skills and abilities to help others and to make a difference to the world, rather than simply taking the path of least resistance.
Balu is a flawed hero (and all the more believable for it) and readers can’t help but be drawn into his story as he makes his way through life, encountering adversity time and time again.
The Boy From Allahabad may hold particular resonance with readers of Indian heritage, but Verma takes care to explain religious and spiritual concepts and contexts to readers who may be unfamiliar with customs, cultures and settings. He creates a strong sense of place in his descriptions of settings, scenery, food and drink, and his elegant phrasing, combined with a fast-moving plot and admirably three-dimensional characters, are key to the charm of the book.
The Boy From Allahabad succeeds on a number of levels – the pace and dramatic events make it hard to put the book down, while the philosophical issues and moral conundrums presented leave readers with plenty of ideas to contemplate long after the last page is turned. Balu could well emerge as a complex literary hero for our times.