Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Reflections: Princess Ben

We are often intrigued with the question of whether each of us are born to suit the roles we play in life, or we merely adopt and act our parts on stage, as the scenes of life shift. Till this day, the dynasties of Kings and the lineages of Sages and Rishis have formed an important aspect in defining our clan and our origins. These are used as measures to evaluate the worthiness of the genetic pool we carry. Starting from castes and religions, one is apt to get branded. As my grandparents have often intoned, do we carry such an indelible, all too obvious brand of genetic make-up that dictates the roles we are destined to play? Is a child in a royal family implicitly born as a prince/King/princess/Queen, ready to slip into the shoes and act their part?

My grandma often used to say that I must have descended from some Royal blood, for I've always vehemently insisted on having our traditional sweet porridge (Paayasam), only at the very end of a meal. According to her, only royalty could afford to exercise such a luxury, while the common Brahman gulped his Paayasam right smack during the middle of the meal. As a little girl, any flattery from a favorite grandma is delightful. But it didn't take me long enough to discover that most of the world practised this norm and such metrics are all but superficial in our definitions of what makes Royalty. Murdock's book explores what the true meaning of being a princess is.

In this enchanted book of fantasy and magic, Ben is a young girl who wakes up one evening to realize that her world has been rudely pulled from beneath her feet, and she has been pushed into playing the role of a princess and the next heir to the throne. For a fifteen year old girl who is all but orphaned at the mercy of her aunt, a frigid and uptight Queen, such a change is bound to be drastically jarring. Ben comes across as a belligerent young teen who copes with her emotional losses through an insatiable appetite and temper tantrums. Try as she might, she seems to pitifully fail in her feeble attempts to be groomed as a princess, and instead spends much of her time learning magical spells to escape the tyranny of her aunt and unearth the secrets of her parent's demise. Ben's rebellious opposition to be married off to the prince of the neighboring country, deemed as a political ruse to save her land, throws her in a series of adventures, testing her strength of character, exposing her to the brutalities of the world, and the realities of life. As a coming of age story, Ben transforms from a plump little stubborn kitten into an intelligent and mature lady, suitable enough to pass all the qualifications of a real princess - not in terms of waistline size, or abilities to dance and embroider, but in terms of real calibre portraying bravery, mettle, intelligence, compassion and virtues befitting a Queen.

In many levels the book quite surprised and impressed me. As a book primarily for young adults, the author not just builds up an interesting tale of enchantment, but also suffuses good measures of morals and themes that are quite necessary for young teens to think about. Through a pleasant touch of humor, Murdock emphasizes that external parameters of beauty that are so highly valued when we are young, do not count a whit when it comes to realizing our true potentials and executing them. Ben personifies the sturdy young girl who is balanced and tough enough to not let herself be weighed down by others' insults and insinuations against her and sets out to prove them wrong. In many ways the story is inspirational as Ben decides to redeem herself in a positive manner, and in the process blossoms into a self-aware and conscientious person. I also appreciate the fact that the author tries to retain a sense of grounded reality, however fairy-tale like the tale is woven. She makes a concerted attempt to explicate that there are no happily-ever-after-fairy-tales, and that life is a lot of hard-work and bitter realizations, even with the help of magic and spells. Despite lacking the primary traits of being born into a Royal family, Ben gets in touch with herself, identifies her strengths and cultures her best qualities to turn herself into a princess. Ben's fumbling escapades, angst and hard-work are sure to resonate with many young girls. As always, I wish I had read this book when I was ten years old :)

In all, this is a charming book. Of special mention is Murdock's prose - I was highly impressed with the quality of prose in this novel, that the book elevates to the ranks of literary fiction. The writing is stellar! Murdock is beautifully expressive - the words hold deep insight, as well as delightful humor, making the book a realistic fantasy tale sure to hearten and inspire young girls.


Sanjini said...

I like my dessert at the end of the meal and I have heard my patti say about the royal blood thing! So We both have the similar trait.

Once again this is a very interesting book. Moreover the initial question you posed (first line) has intrigued me as well for years. I dont think I still found the answer!

SecondSight said...

And all this while I thought brahmans eat the payasam first.. isn't that the way its served on the plantain leaf? :)
Somehow, I am not sure I would have appreciated books like this as much as a child- I might have missed the deeper meanings that make me appreciate both the fantasy as well as the truths in the tale..
I'm currently reading something that discusses fairy-tales in a very present day context, it puts an interesting spin on things when the mother of a teenage daughter and a four year old girl is trying to decide which version of Cinderella she wants her kids to read! Books like this one, she could probably hand safely to both girls.. :)

Neeraja said...

Sanjini - Same pinch! ;) I guess the question of nature vs. nurture is quite exhaustive for us to find an answer anytime soon. But I have been told that to understand our Hindu Varnaashrama Dharma, Advaita has a lot of explanations... A project for some day!
And Happy New Year! :)

SecondSight - We are just given a teeny amount in the beginning. But right after Rasam, and before Curd rice, there is an interim of Payasam and other sweet delicacies :)
Not sure if I would have been perceptive enough when I was young, but yet the explicit caution to not get carried away with fairy tales, is a good one that I could have used ;)And I agree that contemporary fairy-tales need to carry such bouts of reality!