Don’t be misled by its title. The Ghost Of Malabar is not your average spooky story; rather, it is a heartwarming tale of familial relationships, of buried secrets, and of promises kept and broken. Written by Soumya Ayer and illustrated by Isha Nagar, the book has recently been shortlisted for the Atta Galatta-Bangalore Literature Festival Book Prize 2022. The story connects two time periods—the arrival of the Portuguese in Fort Kochi in the 1500s and contemporary times.
Ayer, who has a vivid visual vocabulary, beautifully evokes the coast, with its fishing boats, sprawling nets and wave-sprayed beaches. You can almost smell the fish in the evening air and picture the stalls lined with shrimps, eel, mullet and more. While Ayer has authored a series of books on Indian mythology for children, The Ghost Of Malabar marks her first foray into children’s fiction.
In its first chapter, you meet young Edwin, who has been given an heirloom by his ammoomma, or grandmother, on her deathbed. Sad at her demise, he is also frustrated and dismayed by his father, a wayward and drunk fisherman, who simply can’t keep promises. One day, as Edwin is grappling with these emotions at the beach, he meets Velu, the ghost of a skeletal fisherman. This chance encounter throws Edwin’s life into chaos.
Velu walks in and out of his life, often turning up at unexpected moments that lead to a whimsical series of events. Edwin hopes that being home will keep him safe from Velu. He soon realises, however, that even locked doors and concrete walls can’t keep the ghost with “kathakali eyeballs” out.
School is no better. Velu keeps appearing during classes. He screams “murderer” once when the history teacher embarks on a lesson on the Portuguese in India and mentions the explorer Vasco Da Gama. It is then revealed that Velu was murdered on the order of “Kapitan Da Gama”.
Throughout the book, one meets unique characters such as Uncle Francis, who runs a cornershop, keeps lizards for pets, and has a deep camaraderie with ghosts. “This land is full of ghosts. Edwin, I call them the ghosts of Malabar,” says Francis as he describes how spooks sit around his dining table every night. He casually suggests home remedies to repel ghosts as if they were simple beauty hacks: Create loud noises, use salt, rub garlic on yourself.
This is a book that will appeal to both parents and children. Rest assured, this is no hocus-pocus tale but one that is very rooted in the real and the humane. Like Edwin, a lot of kids feel let down by adults, and it is something adults must acknowledge. The book acts like a companion for those experiencing such complex emotions.
Is Edwin able to bring peace to Velu and realise just how inextricably enmeshed the ghost is with his family’s history? The book offers engaging twists and turns as it gets set for a final reveal in the concluding chapters. As Edwin embarks on adventures, he tries his best not to turn into his fickle-minded father. However, as he attempts to keep his grandmother’s memento safe while trying to keep his word to his mother about being better at studies, Edwin realises that promises are fragile—and that a little otherworldly intervention can’t hurt.
Children's Corner spotlights stories for young readers