What happens when a visual artist and historian feels the need to combine a love for myth and folklore with immense pride in one’s heritage and has a searing desire to tell the stories of migrant communities?
It becomes a book, of course!
City of Stolen Magic is Nazneen Ahmed Pathak’s debut novel and this one is personal for her. After the birth of her son, she realised there weren’t many stories that were about his identity and heritage and so, she set about writing one. City of Stolen Magic is a middle-grade fiction novel that tells the story of Chompa, a djinnborn. She and her Ammi live on the edge of a village whose people suspect (with reason) that they are witches. They rarely socialise with anyone except when the villagers come seeking favours. They spend their days practicing magic as Ammi insists Chompa learn her Farsi letters so she can practice writing magic. But Chompa is impatient and finds “calm and controlled” writing magic boring and frustrating. She wants to practice finger magic – a more immediate, powerful form of magic and can’t understand why her Ammi says practicing finger magic comes at a price.
Chompa’s world is turned upside down when her mom is suddenly taken away by pale-faced men in the middle of the night. Now, Chompa needs to rescue her and is willing to use every weapon in her arsenal, even finger magic. When she finds her mom’s friend Mohsin at her doorstep, with a letter he says Chompa’s mom wrote to him, she believes she has found a person to help her. Her mission to find her mother leads her to learn more about her own heritage, the evolution of magic, djinnborn and djinn speakers, and the formidable Company that is plotting against the magic folk. Her mission leads her to the heart of the Company –London, where with unlikely friends she stumbles upon a plot by the British to trap magic folk and use them for their benefit. She and her friends come together to free all the imprisoned magic folk and destroy the plans of the British. But has she taken on more than she can handle? Chompa is gifted but how much can she stretch the limits of her powers? More importantly, will she ever be able to talk to her mother again?
When children’s fiction meets history
The book doesn’t just take the reader on a nail-biting adventure but also beautifully evokes the sights, sounds, and even smells of India in 1855 and the “thick, white smog” shrouded streets of Victorian London. We see the changes British rule brought about – indigo farming instead of crops, grand buildings in cityscapes – through the eyes of Chompa as she journeys through Dacca searching for her mother.
Pathak creates a heroine so convincing, that we can understand her frustration both with the limits of her magic and with her feelings of inadequacy when she faces the mighty British. While the story is riveting and grips you till the very end it is the supporting characters that will live in your mind long after you are done reading the book. Brusque but loving Leeza, street-smart djinn speakers Tipu and Laurie, Millie with the sweet tooth, unlikely comrades Sal and Yasser and even the maternal Farhana. A lot of City of Stolen Magic is woven around characters, events, and places that are inspired by real life. The Company is inspired by East India Company; The Palace of Wonder with its cages of djinn speakers and djinn born by the very well-documented and frequent human exhibitions of people of colour in Europe. East London’s Brick Lane, where we encounter the inn run by Sal and Yasser is now known as the heart of the country’s Bangladeshi community.
In her author’s note, Pathak talks about including snippets like forcing farmers to switch to non-food crops which caused widespread famine and destruction as a way of drawing the reader’s attention to the extent of the atrocities committed by the coloniser. City of Stolen Magic is written for children aged nine and above and while children at that age may not entirely understand what the Company stood for and the reason behind what it did, they will still love the book for the magic and wonderful adventure that unfolds through its pages. Chompa is a fiery, dynamic, and inspiring heroine and will become a character young readers will remember.
The amulets and tawiz magic element of the book is so different from the Harry Potteresque spells and wands, that it at once feels familiar to a South Asian audience and piques your curiosity making you want to read on. The book is also a great way to start a conversation with middle graders about colonialism and its effects on present-day cityscapes. Nazneen Ahmed Pathak started writing this book ten years ago when she felt the need for books like these to exist for her son. She concludes the book in a way that begs for there to be a sequel so that we can continue to follow Chompa, Tipu, Laurie and Leeza, on their adventures and so Pathak could have a book highlighting her son (and daughter’s!) South-Asian heritage with its rich traditions of magic.
City of Stolen Magic, Nazneen Ahmed Pathak, Puffin Books.