Asha lives in the foothills of the Himalayas. Money is tight and she misses her papa who works in the city. When he suddenly stops sending his wages, a ruthless moneylender ransacks their home and her mother talks of leaving.
From her den in the mango tree, Asha makes a pact with her best friend, Jeevan, to find her father and make things right. But the journey is dangerous: they must cross the world’s highest mountains and face hunger, tiredness – even snow leopards.
And yet, Asha has the unshakeable sense that the spirit bird of her grandmother – her nanijee – will be watching over her.
“The lamagaia starts to make a clucking sound, as if trying to tell me something, and I stare into its dark-flecked eyes, mesmerized. I feel a little heart-patter of nerves, but lean even further forward, stretching my fingers towards its feathery wing. It hops away, perching back on the well, tilts its head to one side and lifts its wings.
‘I wish you were my nanijee,’ I say, my voice quivering. ‘I need her so much.’ A grey feather tinged with gold floats down and lands by my foot. I stroke its silky softness and weave it into my plait. ‘Perhaps I’ll call you my spirit bird.’”
I don’t read a ton of middle grade books, but I’m so glad that Asha and the Spirit Bird by Jasbinder Bilan made it into my hands. It’s the perfect kind of MG read – a deft blend of the magical with the real; the hopefulness of children who don’t know any better yet with the reality of what can be a brutal and unforgiving world.
Asha has lived all her life on a farm with her family – her papa, her mama and her younger siblings (mostly just known as “the twins”) – until the family fell on hard times and her papa had to head into the city to make money. They haven’t heard from him for months, so one day after loan sharks turn up at the farm to shake down her mother, Asha recruits her best friend Jeevan and together they make the treacherous journey to Zandapur to track down Asha’s missing papa.
Yes, two unaccompanied children do this. As an adult, it makes for highly stressful reading.
But despite the odds – which are stacked against them, precariously, ready to come tumbling down in a destructive flood at any moment – Asha is driven forward by her love for her family. That, and her spirit bird. Throughout the book, Asha is followed/guided by a lamagaia that she comes to believe is the spirit of her nanijee. Lamagaias, or bone-eating vultures as they are also known, are actually kind of terrifying by the way. One of the largest vultures in the world, they are characterised by their orange-reddish feathers – though naturally white, their feathers are dyed by, depending on who you ask, either mud or blood. Their red-rimmed eyes stand out against jet black eye liner-like feathers and their hooked beaks lend them a murderous expression that makes them not a little intimidating. Unless, I suppose, they are on your side – which, fortunately for Asha, they are. I mention this because I did not get around to image searching this bird until I came to write this review and having a true picture of these extraordinary looking creatures would have added to the reading experience, I think.
Jasbinder Bilan has said that one of the questions she asked herself while writing Asha and the Spirit Bird was: what if our ancestors are never really gone, but actually stick around to come to our aid in times of need? From the moment Asha’s mother fastens her Nanijee’s necklace around her neck – a piece of jewellery passed down to the oldest daughters for generations, Asha feels filled with the power of all the women who came before her. Her connection with her ancestors is a resource of strength she pulls on in the darkest days of her and Jeevan’s journey to Zandapur – and let me tell you, there are some dark days. I’ve been listening to a lot of Layla F Saad’s The Good Ancestor Podcast lately, and in it Layla places herself and her interviewees among their ancestors; framing her work in the context of the women who fought before her and, as she builds her life, what being a good ancestor might look like for the generations who will come after her. I couldn’t help but think of this when I read Asha’s story. Asha is a strong young woman born of all of the strong women who came before her, and in her you can see all of them – as Layla would say, living and transitioned – driving her ever forward.
“She leads me to the mirror behind the shrine and the pendant catches the golden light from the flickering deeva, illuminating Ma’s face behind me, and in this moment a rhythm sweeps through my body as if I’m connecting to all the daughters in my family who have worn it before me. It’s as if I’m seeing my eyes properly for the first time, mountain-green flecked with fury, and the faces of my ancestors flash across them like stars from the distant past.”