Back at work and having a nice time.

My first piece of children’s fiction is now out in the stores in a prosaically named Puffin anthology. There are some rather nice stories in the collection. Jerry Pinto’s piece is not strictly a story but it does talk about some strange things kids in classrooms used to do: Believe that if they save pencil shavings to make an eraser, play ‘book cricket’ and try to score four’s and six’es, draw flowers using compasses…strange, strange children.

Also, I have been clamping down my feelings about Susan Visvanathan’s Phosphorus and Stone while I waited for this review to get into Tehelka. Now if I stop you on the street you better be prepared while I talk your ears off about the book.


Phosphorus and Stone is an artful dodger, a slim book that worries you because you know what Susan Visvanathan manages in a mere 139 pages is no parlour trick, though there is plenty of elegant sleight-of-hand.

Magdalene is the child of erudite, socially conscious parents who have eschewed a comfortable urban existence to live in a coastal village in Kerala, among the fisherfolk from whom they descended. When Magda’s mathematician mother falls ill and dies, her father abandons her to the care of his sister. He forgets to provide for them, occasionally descending from far-off countries to the village with books but no money for food.

Fifteen-year-old Magda, as intelligent as her parents and already a scholar of the Bible, is unhappy and lonely. She is sure only of her devotion to Yesu, the son of a wealthy man in the village. Yesu is just as attached to her but inclined to mock her wildness, lack of faith and even her passion for the Bible. His faith is strong but conventional. Pragmatically, he uses the family money to organise the fisher-people so they can escape their knife-edge existence — a situation caused in part by his family. With equal calmness, he waits for Magda to grow up so he can marry her and remove her from starvation and the home in which she lost her parents.

Into this narrative, Visvanathan weaves moving fragments from what seems to be the diary of Magda’s mother, Mareek. As Mareek awaits death, she relives memories of her life as Christ. She remembers her complex relationships with Martha and Mary Magdalene, as well as several incidents surrounding the Resurrection.

The modern Yesu and Magdalene, counterpoint to Mareek’s heart-rending dreams, embody a powerful commentary on the gradual taming of revolutionaries. As soon as they are married, the two leave for Bangalore to study, intending to return at some point to the struggle. Yesu wants to free the fisherpeople from their shackles but also fears being touched by the drudgery and pain of his hometown. For years, he supports the community remotely as a lawyer in Bangalore. Fierce Magdalene, whose imagination sees beyond millenia of doctrine, is smoothed into an unthreatening domestic angel by her memories of poverty and loneliness.

Visvanathan wears her scholarship lightly and her sophisticated prose is often poetry. The narrative flies along but ends abruptly, without resolving the complex inner struggles of Yesu and Magdalene. It leaves you feeling as if you’ve been woken from a dream that was about to reveal the meaning of your existence. Towards the end of the book, Visvanathan sketches sharply critical images of the guilt-and-poverty industry that is the ngo circus that surrounds the fisher-people. She offers us the character of a beautiful teenager, ostensibly the face of the fisher-people’s ‘struggle’ but whose sly disregard for them makes her instantly disturbing to her bourgeois ‘saviours’. Regrettably, this sparkling narrative arc goes nowhere. Yet, it is easy to forgive Visvanathan because of her brief yet generous glimpses of magic.