A few days ago, I read a short story by Poile Sengupta published in Out of Print, an Indian English online journal devoted to the short story. True to form it had a surprise ending, or a twist in the plot. I have read Sengupta’s works in the past, and have been struck by her wry humour, and her ability to flesh out human frailties in sharp relief without losing compassion for her protagonists.

Sengupta is also a prolific children’s writer. In her stories for children, she eschews the bite in her pen (which, I hasten to add, is never brutal, but a natural progression from her keen-eyed and sharp-elbowed observations of humanity), for a gentle, more whimsical prose, giving the impression of the narrator on a swing, with the rush of air on her face. Reading her children’s fiction is a different experience, even as it remains quintessentially Poile Sengupta.

A modern fable

Naturally, it was with anticipatory pleasure that I picked up A Time for Ebby, a chapter book set in the fictional town of Nimish. The name means moment in Bengali. Since it’s derived from Sanskrit, ‘Nimish’ and its variations exist in other Indian languages as well.

The title of the book and the cover – grandfather clocks in the back ground and a young girl with flaxen hair – made no secret of the subject of the story. Predictably, the story began thus: “The Ebons made the best grandfather clocks in the town of Nimish. The present head of Ebon & Sons began to learn clockmaking from his father when he was seven years old. That father Ebon learnt it from his father, grandfather Ebon, who learnt it from his father, Great Grandfather Ebon, who in turn had learnt it from his father, Great Grandfather Ebon. And so it went back eight generations of Ebons.”

The predictability bit begins and ends with the first paragraph. A Time for Ebby is a modern fable, and what the first paragraph actually does is to set the tone. Because the writer is Poile Sengupta, there is (naturally) a twist in the tale. A surprise that is both sweet and a lesson as well. The lesson part is necessary for it is a fable after all. The story is dotted with several “smaller lessons,” too. All told gently, almost like a whisper. The black and white illustrations by Shaunak Samvatsar are simple and straightforward, reminiscent of old English literature textbooks from primary school. There is an old
world feel and charm about the drawings in keeping with the tale.

Meet Ebby

The protagonist of the story is 15-year-old Ebby, “a glowing girl, excelling in sports as she did at her books, as adept in the garden as at her embroidery.” The story however begins many generations before her. With the first Ebon – Five Times Great Grandfather Ebon – who was taught the art of making grandfather clocks by a sailor. The sailor also shared two secrets that had to be kept safe by the family. And the family did keep them safe, for many, many, many years.

As it often happens, secrets can be misplaced and forgotten. And new generations of Ebons over time remembered only one – how to recognise a true Ebon grandfather clock – but forgot the other. Years passed; every Ebon father passed on the Ebon clockmaking baton on to his eldest son when the time came. But before that, the boy was taught the craft of clockmaking by the men in the workshop. With every new Ebon at the helm, their clockmaking business grew, bringing the family fame and wealth. For Ebon clocks, fully handmade, were rare and precious. People who owned them were proud of the clocks, and cherished them like heirlooms.

However, when it was the turn of the eighth father Ebon, he was unhappy. For he had only one child, his beloved daughter Ebby. All the Ebons before him had had sons to carry on the Ebon Grandfather Clock business.

“Who would carry on the family business? Was this to be the end of the Ebon family line?

The future seemed as dark as a winter’s night.”

But, “extraordinary things often happen when days are as dark as winter nights…”

And so, the adventure begins, first with Ebby and then with her father, and mother too. And after that with all of them together, when the second secret is revealed. And with it a new era, and new beginnings.

Written in lyrical prose, and with a timeless appeal, A Time for Ebby has all the hallmarks of a classic tale. Even though the book is for middle readers, younger children will enjoy having it read aloud to them. And parents will enjoy reading it aloud to their children too, as well as along with them or even by themselves, simply for the pleasure of it. And later on, repeat the experience as grandparents. For, A Time for Ebby is for all times and all ages!

A Time for Ebby

A Time for Ebby, Poile Sengupta, Karadi Tales.