A child who has nothing else can at least dream. He or she can dream that one day they will be made weightless and fly away from the burdens that tie them to the earth. They can create fantasy worlds with languages they have invented where the word "No" does not exist when the hungry ask for food.
But when the child loses the power of dream and is faced with reality; that there is always going to be someone who will say no to the hungry and the only way to escape your burdens is to lay them down forever, does that make them an adult, or just lost? Are the dreams created by a child with nothing else to sustain him or her so unimportant and powerless that the world can so easily shatter them into shards of glass that will shred his or her skin as they are forced to trudge through them?
Hopefully none of us are unfortunate enough to have to live the life that Anosh Irani has created for her child characters in The Song Of Kahunsha. Since the day his father left him at the gates wrapped in a white rag with three drops of blood on it,
ten-year-old Chamdi has spent his life in an orphanage. From the courtyard that surrounds the building the sounds of the city, Mumbai (Bombay), creep like faint music.
Amidst the shelter offered by the red colours of the bougainvilleas that grow near to wild around the courtyard he creates for himself an image of what Mumbai must be in his mind, and even renames her for himself – Kahunsha – City of No Sadness. Of course some part of him knows this can't be true; even in the midst of their sanctuary the children have been told of the troubles in the outside world.
When Mumbai erupted in one of its rounds of religious riots, Muslims and Hindus committing unspeakable atrocities against each other for the sake of God, the children are told about it. They are warned in no uncertain terms not to leave the courtyard because the city has become dangerous even for good little boys and girls like them.
When the orphanage is pulled out from under them by greed, and they are to be moved to another away from the city, Chamdi decides he can't leave his beloved Kahunsha. How will he ever be reunited with his father if he is not in Mumbai? How will they ever get to Kahunsha together if he is not here to find him? So before the move he runs away out into the reality of Mumbai.
The reality is of men, women, and children living on the streets; the reality is people who say "no" on a regular basis no matter how good a boy you are, and no matter how long you have been without food. It is not only not a City of No Sadness, it is almost worse, a city of dead and corrupted dreams. Where even the children hide their dreams and only whisper them quietly at night in their sleep hoping they won't be overheard.
How can you dream when even life on the street, where at least you should be beholden to no one, is controlled? After two days of hunger on the street, Chamdi is taken in by a brother and a sister who live in a lean-to with their mother and infant sibling. Sumdi has a ruined leg from polio and he dreams of being able to fly above the city whose streets he can only hobble through. Sumdi is also missing an ear, but that is thanks to the knife work of the man who controls the neighbourhood where they have washed up in with the other flotsam of an uncaring world.
He and his sister, Guddi, and every other street person old and young, crippled and hale, are held in forced bondage to Anand Bhai, who takes all the small amounts of money they are able to accumulate throughout a day from begging, stealing, working, or worse, and doles out percentages to them. This is no colourful Dickens like Fagan; hold out on Anand and he might find other ways to make use of you.
You don't need arms and legs to see, hear, and talk. He has one such creature who he parks near jewellery stores to listen for information about when money and jewels are being moved so that he can rob them. This is no City of No Sadness.
The Song Of Kahunsha is not a book for people who want to hold on to illusions. Anosh Irani has a done a magnificent job of bringing horrors to life that should give us all nightmares for rest of our days. The casual use of children as soldiers, the indifference to suffering, and the horrible poverty are bad enough. But the fact that these same children have nothing else to even hope for, to dream about, or to believe in, except wild and hopeless dreams of escape, has to be the biggest horror of them all.
Until Chamdi shows up with his Guddi and Sumdi haven't had the luxury of being children for so long they've almost forgotten their dreams. Guddi, perhaps because she is a girl and not had to harden herself as much as her brother, retains some, but they are tamped down like an almost extinct fire.
For to dream means to have hope and in the city of Mumbai that Anosh Irani draws for us, the only hope is to make enough money to keep Anand Bhai from putting you to another use, and to eat each day. What good are dreams that don't fill your belly and keep the knife away from your face?
That's the road we travel with Chamdi, from the moment he leaves the courtyard of his sanctuary at the orphanage and learns the reality of the street. He knows there are no magical police tigers that will keep all the children safe, that Kahunsha doesn't exist. But does that mean all dreams have to die, because one no longer exists?
That is the question that Anosh Irani poses so eloquently with this book; what is the nature of dreams and hope? Perhaps a child's dreams of magical lands can never come true, but that doesn't necessarily mean an end to them. There is a single note of hope left ringing in our ears at the end of the book; there is no reason to feel it, or believe in it, so maybe it is a dream but maybe not.
The Song Of Kahunsha is a harsh, unforgiving, horrifying, and beautiful book all at once. It's about the power of dreams, and the meanness of the world. Simple and eloquent simultaneously, it will break your heart and not offer any apologies. Yes we get to close the book, walk away and leave the streets of Mumbai to her inhabitants, but after reading this book it will be a lot harder not to dream of them from time to time.
The Song Of Kahunsha is published by Anchor books, a division of Random House Canada and can be purchased directly from Random House Canada or any number of other of Canadian retailers online or otherwise.