Boys Without Names
Balzer + Bray/Harper Collins, 2010.
A bumper crop of onions is the undoing of 11-year-old Gopal and his family in Kashmira Sheth’s disturbing YA novel Boys Without Names, set in contemporary India. The overabundance creates a crash in the market, so farmers like Gopal’s father can’t repay their loans. Gopal’s parents decide to take him and his younger twin siblings to their maternal uncle’s house in Mumbai, leaving stealthily to escape the moneylender; they feel terrible about not paying their debts, but they have no choice.
Poor as they are, at least in the countryside the children had fresh air and clean water. But Mumbai, far from offering the exotic excitement Gopal hoped for, immediately proves much more challenging than he has imagined. First the family is separated from the father; then Gopal is tricked into following a boy who offers him a job. He soon finds himself, with 5 other children, gluing beads on picture frames from dawn until bedtime, overseen by a bully and enslaved by a tyrant.
Locked in the attic, the children endure frequent beatings and inadequate food and are permitted only weekly bucket baths. “Scar,” as Gopal thinks of their captor, uses intimidation and enforces silence to keep the boys from becoming friends. A bright, resourceful child, Gopal realizes that if they could only unite, the boys could overcome Scar and escape, but that is not an easy thing to make happen. He is the only one whose family is in Mumbai. One boy, an earthquake victim, has no family at all; Scar at least keeps a roof over his head. Gopal could escape alone, but realizes the others would suffer terrible recriminations.
Slowly the boys learn to trust each other, inspired by stories Gopal tells them at bedtime-- traditional folk tales; stories based on his own experience that give the other boys the courage to reveal their own histories; and moral fables that unify them. In time, they even reveal their own names, and eventually Gopal finds a way for everyone to be rescued, but the boys’ stories may have young readers in tears well before then.
Finally admitting their real names is a moment of returning self-respect for these “boys without names” and for any child who is invisible to society. Such children are all too many in the real world, and when more privileged children are ready to know about them, Sheth’s characters offer a sensitive introduction. She presents the dehumanizing process such children endure without underestimating their resilience and capacity for compassion