What Then, Raman? – a book review

What then Raman? by Shirley L. Arora (1960)

For ages 8-12

Every now and then I come across an older children’s book that in my opinion, should be listed as a children’s classic. This book is one of those. Although it is relatively unknown, I think it should stand along side of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden and Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book. It is one of Linda Sue Park’s (Newbery Award winning author of A Single Shard) favorite childhood books. I can’t recommend it enough!

“What Then, Raman?” by Shirley Arora was published in 1960. It is the winner of the *Charles W. Follett Award as well as winner of the **Jane Addams Children’s Book Award. The novel was later renamed Tiger on the Mountain. What, then, Raman? has been translated into Swedish, German, Danish, Urdu, and several other languages, and made into a film.

*note: Charles W. Follett Award: In 1950, the four sons of Charles W. Follett, president of Follett Corporation (that provides a variety of educational products to schools, colleges, and public libraries), established in memory of their father an annual children’s book award to encourage quality writers to write for children. Previous winners that you may recognize include Johnny Tremain by Carol Hoff, All-of-a-Kind Family by Sydney Taylor, and Across Five Aprils by Irene Hunt.

**note: Jane Addams Children’s Book Award is given annually to a children’s book published the preceding year that advances the causes of peace. Previous winners that I highly recommend (too many to list) include Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson, A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park, The Breadwinner Trilogy by Deborah Ellis, Martin’s Big Words by Doreen Rappaport, Habibi by Naomi Shebab Nye, The Well by Mildred Taylor, Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan, Child of the Owl by Laurence Yep.

The Palani Hills are on the Southern tip of IndiaThe novel, set in India, is about a poor 11-year old boy, who lives in Kodaikanal, in the Palani Hills in the 1950s. Ramen’s father is a wood cutter and his mother grows and sells vegetables. Although his father is illiterate and they are poor, they send Raman to school in the valley, where he learns to read and write. Books open up a whole new world to Raman. His passion becomes reading, especially old stories of ancient Indian heroes. He buys thin paperback booklets from Tumbuswamy the bookseller with money he saves up. However, what he longs for the most is a beautifully illustrated hard copy of the Ramayana. In his quest to earn money for his family and to save money for the book, he meets an American school teacher and he begins to search for rare plants for her in exchange for money. From his encounters with the school teacher, his family and his community, he also discovers his ability to read and write is a gift he can and must share with those around him. The climax of the story comes when his loyalty and strength of character are put to the test.

About Shirley Arora:

Shirley is an an American writer and language professor. For children, in addition to What then Raman?, she also wrote The Left-Handed Chank (later renamed The White Shirt) also set in India. She met her spouse, Harbans, while attending Stanford. After graduating, they spent four years in India, in a hill area, like those described in the novel. Shirley Arora was professor of Spanish and Portuguese at UCLA from 1962 to 2000. She currently is a professor amerita. Prof. Arora’s main research and publications were focused on Spanish folklore.

What I like about this book:

1. I love how the author describes the power of stories, storytelling and reading – both oral and written in Raman’s life. There is a beautiful scene where young Raman sits on the edge of the cliff, totally absorbed in a book. The author also paints a nostalgic picture of Raman’s community and their love of stories, as the old and the young sit around the fire in a circle and listen to Tata Natesan’s stories, stories of Ancient India and Indian folklores and legends.

2. The novel is a celebration of community and belonging. It is a call to give back to the community using the gifts you have been given. The theme of loyalty to family and community is weaved in throughout the story.

We can’t go to school in the town,’ Jesu-Dasan, went on. “But if you could teach us, Raman, in the evenings after our work is done, the way you teach Vasanti and Dasan-“. Raman was silent. I wonder if I could, he thought. It would not be easy. How would I go about teachng so many?…The thoughts came tumbling faster and faster. Raman felt excitement mounting within him. He could do it! He would do it! He would be – he smiled at the thought – he would be a teacher!”

3. The central theme of the novel is about honesty, and strength of character, about being willing to sacrifice our own desires and putting your family’s needs above your own.

Caution -spoiler alert: the excerpt below, one of my favorite passages in the novel is at the end of the novel – if you don’t want to know how the book ends, DO NOT READ –

Tumbuswamy the bookseller, who was old and wise and whose eyes saw many things, looked down at Raman and the paper-covered package in his arms. He saw the tear in the paper and the red wool of the blanket showing through. And because he had also seen the six rupees in Raman’s hand before, Tumbuswamy the bookseller understood, and his old eyes was they looked at Raman seemed suddenly a little wet. “Some day,” Raman said softly, “some day, Tata, I am going to buy that book.”

4. In “What Then, Raman?”, Shirley Arora paints with words the natural beauty of the Indian landscape, setting sun, the misty mountains and plains, green rice fields, blue ponds. As a reader, you can’t help but stand in awe at God’s creation and feel yourself drawn into the beauty of the landscapes she paints.

Almost at the crest of the hill a path led off to the left….The hill people called this the Path on the Edge of the Mountain, and rightly so, for it was cut right out of the rock itself. From its edge the lonely slopes dropped down, down, without a pause, until they merged with the misty, glittering patchwork of the South Indian plains. As far as one could see the plains stretched out, patterned with squares of red plowed earth and brilliant green rice fields and blue ponds left by the rains.

5. Shirley Arora is a master storyteller, blending together adventure, suspense, poetic descriptions of the Palani Hills, as well as the inner struggles and dilemmas in the young boy’s world. I believe a successful children’s author is one that can enter into the heart and mind of a young child once again, and this author does just that in this book.

A knot of panic wrapped itself around Raman’s heart… He began to run, but running was almost impossible in the thick overgrowth. He stumbled over rocks lying along the stream bank, and thorny branches reached out to scratch at his arms and tear his shirt…. Up ahead there was a heavy-limbed tree that leaned out over the stream. If he could only reach it, he could climb and perhaps hide himself in its thick foliage. The sound was coming closer; it seemed to fill the whole ravine..”

I highly recommend this multicultural book, one that transports you to another time and place. It’s also one of those books where you finish the last few sentences, close it and stroke the cover…one of those stories that will buried itself in your heart. A great TCK book that raises a lot of questions about culture, community, poverty, race, social class and family.

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