March 21, 2016

Mission Mumbai: A Novel of Sacred Cows, Snakes, and Stolen Toilets

by Mahtab Narsimhan
Scholastic Press
272 pp.
Ages 9-12
March 2016
Reviewed from advance reading copy

Dylan Moore, 12, has gone a long way to get away from the worries of his parents’ impending breakup in New York City after finagling an invitation to go to India for three weeks with best friend, Rohit Lal.  For Dylan, it’s all about the adventure, the new experiences, especially the food, and taking photographs, determined to win a National Geographic contest and show his dad that his hobby is a worthwhile endeavour.  Problem is that Rohit isn’t that keen on going back to India, having accustomed himself to the amenities of life in New York City, and his displeasure is evident in every interaction he has, most notably with his mother and his Bua (father’s sister) whom Dylan dubs Boa for her venomous attitude.  Sadly Rohit’s rudeness has Boa deciding that, since she has financed the family’s stay in the U.S. including Rohit’s schooling, Rohit needs some discipline and will remain to go to school in Mumbai.

Even with the boys’ worries, everything is thrilling, flavourful and photogenic for Dylan.
My life in New York was so predictable, and this was so exciting! It was almost like starring in my own Bollywood adventure. (pg. 28)
But Dylan is trying to balance being a good guest and being a supportive friend, while navigating a culture with which he is totally unfamiliar.   Not surprising, Dylan gets himself into quite a few scraps, not including a scandalous shooing of a sacred cow, a swim in sewage-polluted water, a bladder-stressed train ride, and getting them banned from a restaurant.  And Rohit, desperate for his mother to take him back to NYC asap, resents Dylan’s wanting to stay on and takes advantage of Dylan’s ignorance time and time again.

It’s adventure after adventure for the two boys, as they bicker their way through their holiday in India, each resenting their own family dynamics and envious of the other’s, not realizing how much they both have.  Their friendship is so honest and complex and simple and real that every reader will understand the ups and downs of it, all against the unique backdrop that is India.  Mahtab Narsimhan has demonstrated her ability to capture the essence of other cultures in multi-layered plots in her previous books which include the 2009 Silver Birch Fiction award-winning The Third Eye (Dundurn, 2007) and The Tiffin (Dancing Cat Books, 2011), reviewed here, but Mission Mumbai takes her writing into more humourous realms.  Think of the lightness of Gordon Korman’s books with the flavours of Rohinton Mistry for middle-grade readers.  It’s a dazzling combination of characters, atmosphere, plot and humour.
Kerosene lamps smoked, a temple bell at a roadside shrine tinkled, and the air was thick with smells–some good, some gross.  Rohit swore softly under his breath as the cab inched forward.  After being in the air-conditioned flat, the heat was borderline torture.  It was like being in a malfunctioning steam room with the temperature stuck on “cook”.  My face was burning witht the heat and probably beet red. (pg. 48)
Whether a young reader is like Dylan, new to Indian culture, or Rohit, for whom the culture is familiar, Mission Mumbai will engage, enthrall and entertain.  And I haven’t even mentioned the monsoon, the wedding, the fire at the theatre, the wise old woman who gives them shelter, the heat, the scooties, and the glorious food!  So much to delve into and it’s all sweet and savoury and spicy and wholesome.

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