Reshma K. Barshikar’s ‘The Hidden Children’ Reboots High School Witchcraft
It’s difficult to know whom Reshma K. Barshikar’s The Hidden Children: The Lost Grimoire is for — but perhaps that’s the beauty of it. Liberally sprinkled with references to young adult classics of the 1990s and early 2000s, this coming-of-age novel rooted in Wicca-inspired magic, would be a fun read for teens, as well as for anyone who came of age with The Craft (1996).
Briefly, the story follows Shayamukthy — better known as Shui — an Indian-born girl, raised in the US, transplanted back into South Bombay for high school. Already feeling a bit of a firangi, there are many things that make Shui feel different from her peers, not least of which is her dyslexia. But as Anya, the Scottish transfer student whom Shui befriends, says of Shui’s dyslexia: “that’s the only thing that makes you normal.” (A refreshing way to portray a learning disability.)
Anya helps Shui discover who she really is — a “graced” Witan able to perform magic (and no, this doesn’t magically solve her struggles with reading, a sensitive choice by Barshikar). But Anya has her own agenda, and it’s questionable whether she is truly helping Shui, or attempting to use Shui’s powers for her own benefit. Soon, the two girls, along with several of their classmates, are pulled into something much larger and darker than expected — something only a Prionsable, a Witan who has mastered all of the graces, i.e. powers, would be qualified to face.
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Barshikar successfully builds a layered Mumbai that, like the magic the Witans wield, exists easily alongside reality and the familiar touchpoints of the actual city. (The description of the Mumbai ‘Bile Rath,’ a seat of Witan learning and knowledge that is hidden somewhere in the vicinity of Mahim Fort and its detritus, will make real estate lovers drool.)
But where Barshikar really excels is her characters. She nails the South Bombay upper crust teen patois — the world-weary, sentence-ending ya’s, the nonchalant usage of ‘babe’ to refer to anyone and everyone. It would be pretentiously annoying, if the characters themselves didn’t feel so real. Aside from Shui and Anya, the supporting characters — who, as in all teen friendships, vary in their degree of supportiveness, but come through in the end — are fully formed individuals. There are the six rich kids who have all gone to school together since they were four. There’s the queen bee with the Bollywood father, and the nerdy, science-minded boy whose family has come down in the world. The push and pull of class and coolness comes across clearly — but ultimately breaks down as the danger escalates. In the end, the teens are not so different, and they all need each other in order to survive — both high school and, well, the forces they’ve summoned.
The Hidden Children (the title is pulled from the phrase used to describe kids like Shui who are unaware of their powers) has been likened to the Harry Potter books. But Barshikar’s story feels a little more adult — and keeps at least one foot firmly planted in the real, modern world of cell phones and
Beyoncé. In this way, it’s almost more fun; what happens to Shui, Anya and the others seems more possible. But The Hidden Children is like Harry Potter in one exciting way: It feels like the first book of what will be an excellent series.