“We stay, we starve,” says Gopal’s father, Baba, having decided to move his family from their rural village to Mumbai, where there are jobs and a new life. Eleven-year-old Gopal is torn. The city offers “film stars, cloud-reaching buildings, and mirror-shiny cars,” but he will miss sitting in the gorus-chinch tree dreaming of pirates and kings and magicians. Gopal is a natural storyteller with a love for the details of his village life—the hills and forest, the pond and birds—and this skill will save his life.
When they get to Mumbai, Gopal realizes that the city is being flooded with people from the rural states looking for a better life. When the family is separated from Baba and ends up sleeping on the streets, Gopal feels the need to earn money for his family and is soon conned by a man promising a job in a factory. Gopal ends up a slave with five other boys, locked in a little building and forced to make beaded frames in harsh conditions, for no money and little food. They’re not even allowed to speak or use their real names.
Author Kashmira Sheth was born in India and lived in Mumbai from ages eight to 17. In Boys Without Names, she ably portrays Gopal’s indomitable spirit, as his illicit evening storytelling sessions create a bond with the other boys. Together, they become a family, even though each has already lost a family of his own. With echoes of the Lost Boys in Nancy Farmer’s The House of the Scorpion and even Slumdog Millionaire, this is a tightly woven tale of a boy’s will to survive, the power of story and the bonds of friends tied together in the hope of a better day. Like the story of the jackal and the ants Gopal tells one evening, the boys work together to defeat the evil boss.
Adroitly contrasting the rich sensory detail of Gopal’s village life and the sensory deprivation of his factory life, Sheth has created a story worthy of her storytelling protagonist.
Dean Schneider teaches middle school English in Nashville.