Bold in colour and design, the cover of Asha and the Spirit Bird by Jasbinder Bilan practically sings from the shelf, a vibrant promise that is fulfilled by a truly lovely read. Recently crowned winner of the Costa Children’s Book Award 2019, Asha’s story is set in India. When her beloved Papa inexplicably vanishes, Asha must set off across the Himalayas to find him. Peril hovers at every turn but Asha believes that hovering also, is the protective spirit of her late grandmother. Trace the spiritual thread through this unique and magical adventure.
The tale begins on a humble farm in the foothills of the Himalayas. Asha’s absent papa works hard in the city, sending his wages home to his dependent family. When he suddenly becomes incommunicado, they are plunged into penury and despair. Asha, intuitive and troubled by restless dreams, visits the village wise woman, Chitragupta, for guidance, her pronouncement setting Asha on the adventure of a lifetime.
‘If you want your papa back, you must go and light a deeva (tealight) at the most northerly temple of the Himalayas…where the holy river Ganges starts her journey.’
Chitragupta tells Asha that she will be protected by the spirit of her ancestors, in the majestic form of the lamagaia bird. Now begins a pilgrimage across gruelling terrain inhabited by tigers, snow leopards and rivers swollen with rain.
Jasbinder Bilan’s writing is steeped in Hindu culture and ritual, illuminating and thrilling as Asha contemplates the novel’s central question, what if our ancestors stay with us in spirit in times of need? The lamagaia bird itself appears imbued with the very essence of her grandmother as it appears at key moments in the story.
Asha’s India is a rural idyll of mango trees, jasmine and faith, the yang to this yin being the dirty, forbidding city, a place of beggars, indifference and criminality, and Asha’s ultimate destination.
An excellent prize-winning debut from an author to watch.
Asha and the Spirit Bird by Jasbinder Bilan is published by Chicken House, 288 pages.