Friday, June 12, 2015

Standing at the Crossroads

Mitali Perkins

Mitali Perkins gives readers a journey to an exotic land in flux in her novel Tiger Boy. The village itself mirrors young Neel's predicament. A developer, Mr. Gupta, has arrived in the Sunderbans of West Bengal, who wishes to exploit its resources, using its sundari trees for his buildings, and pressing the villagers to take the wood from reserves where the trees should be protected.

Then a Bengali tiger cub escapes. Mr. Gupta wants to sell it on the black market, and Neel becomes determined to find it first and return the cub to the rangers. It's a crisis of conscience for Neel because his father has begun working for Mr. Gupta to pay for Neel's mother's medical bills and a tutor so that Neel can win a scholarship to go to Kolkata and study--a path Neel does not wish for himself.

Change is in the air, and Neel is resisting it. His country is at a new stage, just as he is. Perkins exposes the differences accorded to the genders in West Bengal without judgment--it's a way of life that requires a girl to drop out of school to tend to the cooking and washing if her mother becomes ill. Yet the focus remains on Neel's choice to remain in the village he loves or go out into the world and try to bring back his knowledge and experience. The author also exposes the moral crossroads of the villagers--namely Neel's father.

As with her Bamboo People, Perkins smoothly conveys the all-too-brief childhood of young people forced to grow up quickly because of the changing nature of their way of life. She transports readers to faraway places yet endows her characters with problems that feel immediate and universal: the importance of safety, food, clean water, family and community--and standing up for the ideals you hold dear.

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