A twelve-year-old boy living on the streets of Chandigarh, India, stumbles across a secret garden full of sculptures and sees the possibility of another way of life as he bonds with the man who created them in this searingly beautiful novel based on a true story.
Twelve-year-old Ram is a street boy living behind a sign on a building’s rooftop, barely scraping by, winning games of gilli for money, occasionally given morsels of food through the kindness of Mr. Singh, a professor and father of his friend Daya.
But his prowess at gilli is what gets him into big trouble. One day, when he wins against some schoolboys fair and square, the boys are infuriated. As they chase Ram across town, he flings his small sack of money over a factory gate where no one can get it, and disappears into the alleyways. But someone does get the money, Ram discovers when he sneaks back later on to rescue what is his—a strange-ish man on a bike who also seems to be collecting…rocks? Ram follows the man into the jungle, where he finds something unlike anything he’s seen—statues, hundreds of statues…no, thousands of them! Gods and goddesses and buildings, all at half scale. What is this place? And the rock collecting man, Nek, has built them all! When Nek discovers that Ram has followed him, he has no choice but to let the boy stay and earn back the money Nek has spent. How else can he keep him quiet? For his creations lie on land that isn’t technically his to build on.
As Ram and Nek hesitantly become friends, Ram learns the true nature of this hidden village in the jungle, as well as the stories of Shiva and Lord Rama, stories of gods and goddesses that in strange ways seem to parallel Ram’s…and Nek’s.
Based on the true story of one of India’s most beloved artists and modern day folk heroes, Nek Chand was a real man—a man displaced from his home in the midst of war and conflict; a man who missed his home so terribly he illegally reconstructed his entire village in miniature out of found objects and rock, recreating mosaic statues and sculptures spanning acres of jungle. Though Ram is a fictionalized character, Nek’s artwork is real. Intertwined with mythology and the sociopolitics of India, this is an exquisitely wrought, unexpected, and singular tale about the connection of community and how art can help make us human.
Ram knows this one is named Vijay, but to Ram he is Peach Fuzz, owing to the shadow of a mustache at his upper lip. He’s bigger than he ought to be, compared to the pack he commands. Bigger than Ram certainly.
Ram weighs the money in his parcel. He’s already got more money in there than he’s ever held at one time.
He loves this time of year, the monthlong holiday season that starts with Dussehra and closes with Diwali. Others love the season for the parades and the days off from school or work, or the fireworks and pageants, the prayer services, the gatherings of family and friends. Ram loves it because bewakoofs like these always have extra pocket money on account of aunties and uncles sending them gifts.
Ram’s beaten Peach Fuzz both other times they’ve played. He knows he can win. That’s not what worries him. It’s more the fact that every time he and Daya run into Peach Fuzz and his gang in the park, Daya reminds Ram that Peach Fuzz is the toughest kid in her school. Daya’s only in fourth form, Peach Fuzz is in eighth. But according to Daya, even the eleventh and twelfth formers steer clear of him.
“You can’t afford to lose to me again,” Ram now tells him.
“One more,” Peach Fuzz orders.
That’s the thing about gilli. It’s a simple game. All it requires is a thumb-size piece of wood—tapered on the ends—and a long stick to serve as a danda, or bat. The batter uses the danda to pop the gilli off the ground. Then, while the gilli spins in the air, the batter strikes it again with the danda to hit it as far as he can. It’s a game everyone thinks they’re good at because they’ve all played it dozens of times, either in teams at the park or the schoolyard, or on their own to practice hitting. But Ram has done it thousands of times more. And most always on his own, perfecting the flip and swing and strike of the batting motion while other kids are at school learning maths or at home having dinner with their families.
Of course, he never lets on how much practice he’s had. So kids see his ratty clothes and his bare feet and his shaggy hair and figure they can take his money easily. But they never do.
Today was no different. Ram flipped up the gilli with his makeshift bat, and each time sent it farther than the boy who stepped up last to challenge him.
Tap. Flip. Swing. Crack.
The pile of rupees grew in Ram’s hand. But every time one of the boys paid up, the pack grew more restless and their glares at Ram and Daya darkened.
Peach Fuzz digs deep in his pocket and comes up with a few more coins. Ram is tempted, but the little extra isn’t worth the risk of losing this bunch as a source of income. Ram’s made that mistake before. The trick is always to quit when they still think they can beat you. So yes, he could take Peach Fuzz’s last few coins, but he might never get money off him again.
“Besides,” Peach Fuzz says, almost friendly, “I’ve figured out your trick.”
“There’s no trick,” Daya says. “He’s just better than all of you. Ram doesn’t need tricks—”
“Not very sporting to not give me a chance to win back some of our money,” Peach Fuzz says.
“Neither is being a sore loser,” Daya shoots back, reaching for her school bag. “Let’s go, Ram.”
“Wait!” Peach Fuzz says. “What if I made it worth your while?” He pulls back his sleeve to reveal the fancy wristwatch Ram noticed before. It is a digital one, with lots of little buttons, an alarm that beeps, and even a little line with the day of the week and month. Ram never knows what day it is. Daya’s father, Mr. Singh, has one just like this that Ram has envied before.
“I caught you admiring it earlier,” Peach Fuzz says. “It’s a good one. Totally waterproof. And the battery is supposed to last ten years. My mother’s sister just sent it to me all the way from America.”
Ram guesses the watch is worth a fortune, and even if it isn’t, he’ll likely never have a chance to own something so wonderful again.
Peach Fuzz knows he has Ram hooked. “You beat me again, and this watch is yours. I beat you, you give back all our money.”
“You’re not getting your money back, Vijay,” Daya says, “and you won’t even give him the watch when he beats you.”
Vijay pulls the watch off and offers it out to Daya. “You can hold it. Until after the batting. Good faith.”
Daya looks at Ram. Ram knows he shouldn’t. He can feel in his bones that this could end very badly. But he can also already feel the perfect weight of that fancy watch on his wrist.
He starts to pull his best gilli from the parcel.
“Nahi,” Peach Fuzz says. “We’re not using your good one. We always use that one. This time, I’m picking it.”
It brings him luck, this gilli, but Ram doesn’t need luck to beat Peach Fuzz. He passes the parcel to Daya.
Peach Fuzz grins wickedly. His gang whistles and hoots behind him.
A moment later Peach Fuzz comes up with a sorry excuse for a gilli, but it will do. Ram retrieves the stout branch they were using as danda earlier.
“You first,” Ram says.
Peach Fuzz takes the danda and places the gilli on the ground.
He lines up the shot.
Tap. Flip. Swing. Crack.
The hit is good, better than Ram figured on. It sails a good five meters into the grass, halfway to the exercise path where an old uncle on a three-wheeled cycle is making slow circles.
But Ram isn’t worried.
Peach Fuzz and one of his boys walk out to fetch the gilli. Peach Fuzz stands on the spot it fell to mark it and sends his minion back to Ram with the gilli.
Ram doesn’t hesitate. He can’t resist showing off. He drops, hits, and sends the gilli flying with alarming speed. It sails over Peach Fuzz’s head, landing on the cycle track beyond.
Ram drops the bat. He glances at Peach Fuzz and sees the shock on his face, thinks how the boy looks like a stupid tree planted out of place in the middle of the pitch. Another glance at the rest of the boys and Ram can see they’re all unsure what to do.
He figures it is time to go. Daya has had the same thought. She’s already halfway to the edge of the park. He jogs to catch up to her. And even though she is sensible enough to get some distance, she isn’t sensible enough to resist the urge to launch one final taunt.
“Better luck next time,” she shouts with too much glee as she waggles the watch in the air over her head.
“Daya!” Ram warns her as he collects the bag and watch.
But Daya can’t stop. “By the way, did you know it only took you thirty-six seconds to lose this fancy watch? I timed you.”
“Get them!” Peach Fuzz shouts.
Ram and Daya break into a run. At least they have a head start.
They rocket across the road, diving into the crowd of pedestrians streaming up the sidewalk. It is only a few hundred meters back to their sector. This walk is usually one of Ram’s favorites. All the nicer restaurants in Chandigarh flank this street. Ram often walks extra slow along here just to linger in the good smells of meat roasting in the tandoors, the spicy tang of tamarind, and the slow-simmering creamy dal makhani.
He bumps into a woman wandering the street selling fresh marigold garlands; a dozen chains of brilliant orange flowers drape over her neck like an exotic shawl.
“Sorry, auntie!” He pauses long enough to return the fallen ones to her hands and hurries to catch up to Daya.
“Why did you stop?” Daya puffs, her school bag bouncing against her back.
“Just keep running! We’ll make it!”
They skirt the next roundabout, barely pausing at the corner before plunging into the street. An auto rickshaw horn blares at them. A cyclist swerves, drops his foot to the pavement, and curses at Ram and Daya as they reach the other corner.
He thinks of the old man on the bicycle back at the park, thinks again how much easier a bicycle would make escapes like this one.
Another coordinated chorus of horns and shouting drivers tells Ram that the pack has lost a little ground on him and Daya.
Ram is quick. Plus, he’s not wrapped up in a school blazer and tie and long pants or even wearing shoes to slow him down. But Daya wears her starchy uniform, stiff shoes like the other boys. She’s fast enough, but not as fast as Ram on his own.
He urges her on. “Almost there!”
They round the back corner of the sector occupied by the bicycle factory. In the far distance the foothills leading up to Kasauli and Shimla hover on the horizon. Ram loves this time of year in the Punjab, when the air cools and the haze disappears and the mountains return like forgotten old friends. He loves the brilliant red and gold of the trees that line the wide avenues. He loves his city all scrubbed and illuminated for the festivals. He loves it all even though he knows it also means the cold is coming, and months of shivering through the night await him.
Daya’s father’s building looms halfway up the street on the right. Barely breaking stride, Ram reaches into his pocket and fishes out the small packet Mr. Singh sent Ram to fetch from the post office. “Give this to your father!”
“Don’t forget my commission!” she says. “Five percent!” Daya peels off toward the square municipal building with its grooved concrete and dark windows.
“Three!” Ram says, running on, though they both know Daya has to work out the numbers for him anyway.
Daya bounds up the steps to the front door two at a time. The doorman sees her coming, shuts the door quickly behind her. Then he glares at Ram, shaking his head. All this before the boys round the corner at the end of the street. They’ve not seen Daya disappear. She at least is safe.
And soon Ram will be too. He shoves the watch in his pocket and lets loose, uncorking the speed he’s been holding back to stay with Daya. He’s near enough now to make it home, near enough to—
But then he pitches forward, one toe catching on an uneven seam in the concrete. His arms spin as he fights to stay on his feet and his parcel swings up and away. Even though his brain screams at his hand to hold on to the knot, his grip fails. He watches with horror as his bag sails through the iron bars that make up the gate to the bicycle factory.
Splat. Ram twists and lands on his shoulder in a pile of what he hopes is only mud, but he expects all the luck he awoke with today has already been used up. His parcel lands next to the back wheel of a bicycle leaning against a tree. The gate guard doesn’t seem to have noticed.
Ram scrambles to his feet.
He could climb the gate and get his parcel. Or he could beg the guard to get it for him.
But both would take too much time.
Ram glances back. Maybe fifty meters away, the pack of boys—a tangle of stupid blue coats, faces as red as the ties they wear—breaks around the corner. From here, they look like one body with ten heads and twenty arms.
Twenty arms could do a lot of damage.
It hurts him to do so, but Ram leaves the bag; he can figure out a way to get it later after the boys have grown bored and given up. So before he is spotted, Ram bolts across the road, arrows into his alley, and disappears.
Jennifer Bradbury is the author of the middle grade novel River Runs Deep and of several critically acclaimed young adult novels: A Moment Comes, Wrapped, and her debut, Shift—which Kirkus Reviews called “fresh, absorbing, compelling” in a starred review. Shift was picked as an ALA and a School Library Journal Best Book for Young Adults and is also on numerous state reading lists. A former English teacher and one-day Jeopardy! champ, she lives with her family in Burlington, Washington.
In Chandigarh, a town in northern India, is Nek Chand's Rock Garden, a magnificent, 40-acre garden of some 5,000 sculptures made from recycled ceramics, industrial waste, and discarded household scrap—and the real-life inspiration for this historical novel. Bradbury (A Moment Comes, 2013, etc.), who worked as a teacher in Chandigarh, offers a thoughtful novel based on this story, featuring 12-year-old dark-haired (and presumed dark-skinned) protagonist Ram. A shrewd orphan street kid, Ram accidently discovers Nek Chand's secret, built over years on unused government land, and is delighted to help him make those beautiful figurines. When the situation turns desperate and the garden is threatened, Ram shows them to his friend Daya and her father, Mr. Singh, an art-loving urban planner who helps save this incredible folk art from being demolished. Intertwined with Ram's story, and printed on pages with a patterned background, is an incomplete version of the Ramayana, the mythological legend of Rama, Sita, and the 10-headed demon Ravana, as it parallels Ram's life. Some details do not conform to the norms of traditional Indian society. Why does Mr. Singh allow his daughter to roam the streets with homeless urchin Ram? Why doesn't Ram address Mr. Singh and Nek Chand with proper respect, as Singhji and Nekji? Apart from this, Bradbury immerses readers in Ram's world, authentically describing the sights, smells, and sounds of Chandigarh's streets and the daily lives of its inhabitants. Readers will wish for visuals to complement Bradbury's descriptions of Chand's creations; she does provide further information on both it and the Ramayana in an author's note. A compassionate story of homelessness and friendship, recycled art and community. (glossary) (Historical fiction. 9-13)
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