A debut novella tells the story of a gifted orphan attempting to survive a harsh world.
India, 1769. Ravi, 14, lives with his grandparents in the small village of Panchali. He is a cloud dancer who, via his preternatural sensitivity (or imagination), is able to see incredible paintings in the clouds. “Clouds tell stories, in shapes and designs and images,” says Bali, the village elder and mystic, “of things that happened in the past, and things that will happen in future days.” When Ravi sees a bank of dark clouds obscure the sky, he can’t predict what exactly will occur, but he knows it will be bad. Sure enough, torrential rains fall for days, causing dams to break upriver and flood the land where Panchali lies. Ravi and his best friend, Vijay, work to save their neighbors from the cataclysm of water and mud that descends on Panchali, but many are killed, including Ravi’s grandparents. Bali, Vijay, and a few others manage to escape on an ancient raft, but Ravi is swept away, clinging to a piece of driftwood. Washed far downstream, Ravi is forced to contend with crocodiles, brigands, hunger, and deadly waters in order to reunite with his community. Along the way, he will discover the true power of existence, nature, and the extremes (good and bad) of which humans are capable. Henson’s prose is image-laden but overwrought, sacrificing flow in favor of complex syntax and 50-cent words: “Dazzling images appeared, but pushed by solar winds these light-chiseled pictures vanished, and in a flash of moments, ominous configurations materialized, etched by a spectral light.” The plot at the novella’s heart has a pleasing folkloric simplicity to it, though Henson spends so much page time making Ravi stare at the sky and ponder the nature of the universe that the story never develops sufficient momentum. While it seeks to evoke the epics of an earlier age, the final product feels more like a Hermann Hesse knockoff: a humorless series of episodes populated by flat characters coming to epiphanies that aren’t nearly as cerebral as they want them to be.
A serious but overwritten flood fable.