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by Anand Mahadevan. TSAR Publications, Toronto. October 2006. Trade paperback, 216 pages. $

For 12-year-old Hari, life in 1987 Nagpur, Central India, is a relatively happy one. He lives a carefree existence with his closest friends, and holidays are spent happily taking the train—Hari’s passion—to visit family near Madras. Life would continue to be so effortless except that the typical mysteries and confusions of adolescence in a turbulent adult world creep into Hari’s life. It is not until a complex matter of national concern occurs that Hari’s childhood is quickly snatched away from him in Anand Mahadevan’s impressive debut novel, The Strike.

Hari is a nice Brahmin boy who is both curious and helpful. Unfortunately, the combination of these qualities with the awkwardness and ignorance of adolescence creates some noteworthy circumstances that propel Hari into the spotlight within and without his family. His desire to learn what fish tastes like strangely leads to his grandmother’s accidental death. His innocent use of Hindi rather than Tamil when visiting his Madras relatives leads to insults against the family. His desire to explore during a train trip oddly results in the theft of his mother’s wedding necklace. In short, Hari seems to be at the wrong place at the wrong time, doing or saying the wrong thing, yet it is never with malicious intent.

The most extraordinary event involving Hari occurs on Christmas Eve while traveling from Nagpur to Madras. His train, stopped by political protesters who lie across the tracks, becomes the centerpiece of a strike to mourn the death of their chief minister and film hero, MGR. Oblivious to the implications of the strike, Hari lives his dream and is allowed to visit the cab of the engine. The dream, though, is shattered too soon. When the protesters try to overtake the engine and the driver fights to keep them out, Hari’s attempts to be helpful produce devastating, tragic results.

With The Strike, Mahadevan has cleverly written a book about an adolescent without targeting younger readers. Clearly, while this is a piece of fiction that rings true in the portrayal of its main character, it is written for a more mature audiences that should recall the emotions, uncertainties, and turmoil of that stage of life.

Less sensational episodes than those previously mentioned happen to Hari along the way, and each is handled with tenderness and care. From innocent questions met with inadequate responses to learning about the unrefined side of life from a film hero wannabe and a hijra on the train to dealing with changes within one’s own body, the author has rendered Hari’s story with kindness and compassion. He has shaped a tale that is layered with four generations of family love and sprinkled with the uncomfortable-yet-exhilarating feelings of sexual discovery. In The Strike, the complicated business of maneuvering through the adult world of explosive politics, misunderstood cultural variances, and ambiguous messages is Hari’s principal task, and that task is beautifully written and presented. Hari’s world of 1987 may not parallel a pre-teen’s world of today, but his growing pains are universal and unfolded in such a way that the reader cannot judge Hari alone. We all have shared those pains in one way or another.

Jeanne E. Fredriksen reads and writes near Chicago, where she freelances as a copywriter and teaches Creative Writing to children through the Center for Gifted-National Louis University.

Jeanne E. Fredriksen lives in beautiful Central North Carolina where she is a long-time contributor to India Currents and a long-time Books for Youth reviewer with Booklist magazine/American Library Association....