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THE GIRL WHO RODE A BALLOON

The Lost Fragrance By Amit Dasgupta, Wisdom Tree, Rs 195

Let’s face it: an educated Bengali’s prime target in life is to become a poet or a musician, no matter where he lives on the globe and no matter what his bread labour consists of. Isn’t this inner urge preferable to a people who wish to become cowboys or engineers or even explorers? It creates a mass of happy dilettantes content with praising one another; but then there are these fancy orchids of creativity, these beautiful minds from which spring truly exquisite works of literature.

Here we have a children’s book which is meant to be read by adults. It tells you the story of a little girl who, after losing her father and mother, ventures out on a trip of discovery. Her name is Little Girl and she rides on a balloon whose name is Balloon and can, of course, talk and express feelings. Together they cross mountains and plains in search of the Land of the Blue Jasmine.

Not that the journey is easy — there are dangers and there is evil lurking round many corners. But there are plenty of co-travellers, for example a crow whose name, of course, is Crow, and brothers-in-arm such as Lost and Found.

The story goes on episode after episode, chapter after chapter, 44 of them, winding its way from one encounter to the next. Some of them are pleasant and helpful in Little Girl‘s search, while others are disturbing and obstruct it. But there is that movement towards a positive and healing goal, which, in itself, has a healing effect on the reader.

The author, Amit Dasgupta, freely employs symbols from oriental and occidental lore; we have the Serpent as the embodiment of evil, the magic flute, and The Awaited One — which have their origins in Europe but can be recognized by anyone.

The entire world breathes and speaks and emotes, breaking down the barrier between animate and inanimate objects. Everything is animate and thus becomes a somebody which is clearly of Indian provenance. These free-floating symbols lend an ethereal quality to the book. This is a fanciful, children’s world-view, indeed. But the author clearly hopes to rescue it into the serious and rational adult world.

An undercurrent of melancholy humour suffuses the narrative. The key sentence is: “Little Girl... wept as she remembered how after her parents died, all the jasmine flowers lost their scent, as if the bushes too were sad...” Now we understand the title.

Reading the Afterword, we grasp the biographical background as well. Dasgupta began to create the story after his father died, and he wrote on and on every night. It was his “way of trying to come to terms with loss”. It became a “neverending story” (comparable to Michael Ende’s famous children’s book of the same name) because, by continuing to write, loss might be overcome and something pure and eternal be found: who knows?

The author is a high-ranking diplomat presently serving in Manila. It is good to know that even persons bound by stiff protocol feel the child within and, like children, are capable of mourning parental loss. This has gifted us with a wondrous tale of fantasy and depth, a fancy orchid of creativity.