Asha & The Spirit Bird is a culture-rich delight. Inspired by her own childhood memories, award-winning author Jasbinder Bilan is proof that you should write what makes your heart sing.
‘Family is the most important thing in the whole world.’
For young Asha growing up in the foothills of the Himalayas, her twin siblings, Ma and Papa mean everything to her. But the precious family farm that has been handed down to them through generations is in jeopardy. Unable to survive solely off the land, Papa travels to distant city Zandapur to find work and send money home. But four months on from his last contribution, Asha and her Ma have not heard from him since.
Forced to borrow money, Ma’s only option involves selling their farm to pay the unsympathetic creditors. They have until Divali nightfall, Asha’s twelfth birthday, just seven weeks away. Under a grumbling sky, Asha knows she must take matters into her own hands. She must trek the black jagged mountains to find her father and reunite their family before they lose their home forever.
“We made a pact to always help each other.”
Accompanied by her long-time friend Jeevan, the two embark upon an unforgettable journey that will challenge them physically and emotionally. From avoiding ticket inspectors on public transport to encountering wild prowling forest beasts, Asha and Jeevan are truly tested. At times even their friendship seems at stake. Will they still be the best of friends when they reach Zandapur? Will they even make it to Zandapur? And, if they do, will they track down Papa and return home in time to celebrate Divali and save their home?
“This baby will see things that others can’t.”
Jeevan is not the only protection Asha is grateful for. Upon her arrival into the world, her grandmother exclaimed that mountain-green eyed Asha would “see things that others can’t.” Wearing the teardrop pendant that belonged to her grandmother, Asha begins to feel the thrum of her ancestors through the jewel. Holy teachings show she will return as an animal but is she imagining that her departed grandmother, nanijee, is nearby?
With her spiritual senses awakening she learns that her nanijee is now with her in spirit form. A lamagaia bird who circles regularly overhead, protection and guidance at its strongest. Asha & the Spirit Bird navigate the treacherous mountain path with Jeevan, stopping at the Holy Ganges to offer up sacrifices and prayers. But although Asha’s ancestors believe she has it within her to use her powers for good, does Asha? Does she have the resilience, the strength to see this quest through?
‘I watch until my village gradually becomes a tiny distant hill, embroidered with everything I’ve ever known and loved.’
Asha & the Spirit Bird is a delight to the senses, the very essence of India woven into each sentence. Sights, sounds and smells are everywhere. Fragrant jasmine oil, incense sticks and golden fried foods. A ‘smoky-grey dawn’ and ‘orange-coloured tiles sparkling like a rising sun’. Nature is abundant too: steamy bodied farm shed cows, monochrome birds nibbling nuts from Asha’s palm and a bloody-mouthed tiger, eager for its next feast. Snapping forest twigs and howling wolves all add to the ambience. And what children’s story is complete without food? Coconut juice, fresh mango, hot potato dhosay and crunchy pakoras make our mouths water. Jasbinder draws us into her world and bids us take a seat, we are welcome.
As real as it is magical, Asha & the Spirit Bird is gorgeous storytelling, fusing modern day with ancestral traditions. Inside its beautifully packaged cover, author Jasbinder Bilan does not shy away from casting a nod to hard-hitting topics such as child labour and violence. Yet each page pulsates a rhythm of hope. Asha’s story is a journey of discovery: we all have the power within us to do good – we just need to find and honour it.
The Times Chicken House Children’s Fiction Competition Winner in 2017 Jasbinder was matched with editor Kesia Lupo at Chicken House Books. Recently crowned the Costa Children’s Book of the Year Award, Jasbinder also shares a nomination for the 2020 Branford Boase Award with Kesia, honouring authors and their editor. We wish them both the best of luck with this award. To learn more about an editor’s role, watch our interview with Kesia Lupo, a YA fantasy author in her own right, where plenty of editing tips are on offer.