In Vestin Verghese’s debut novel for children, a classic tale of Good vs Evil plays out in a steam engine

Editor's note: Writer's Room is a new books column, curated by Krupa Ge along with 15 writers across India. The column seeks to introduce new works as well as allow a peek into the writer's studio, accompanied by recordings of book readings.

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Vestin Verghese, a Kerala-based writer, is the author of a new children’s book ‘The Shadow of the Steam Engine’ published by DC Mango about siblings who make a steam engine their home having lost theirs to a tsunami. Verghese was a magazine editor at his Anglo-Indian school and a winner of writing contests while at University and went on to write for newspapers and magazines. Over the years he has written stories and poems for children of all age groups. He has written for Magic Pot and Tell Me Why; the latter won the National award for scientific communication in 2015. He was also a columnist for City Journal. His stories for adults have appeared in anthologies ranging from ‘The Madras Mag’ to ‘Inspired by Gandhi’. ‘Inspired by Gandhi’ was published by the UK-based Sampad. ‘The Shadow of the Steam Engine’ was released by Shashi Tharoor in November 2018. A vet by profession, writing is Verghese’s great love.

In Vestin Verghese’s debut novel for children, a classic tale of Good vs Evil plays out in a steam engine

Vestin with Shashi Tharoor at the launch of the book

So how did this book happen? “There is a mystery to the creative process. As they say, ‘Delays are not denials’. The idea for the novel came to me while I stood before a railway crossing, waiting for the train to pass by. The setting rekindled the memory of a steam engine. What if someone decided to live in a steam engine, I wondered. That was the beginning. I was obsessed about this image of children making their home in an abandoned steam engine. I wrote in the evenings and the novel came to life.”

Verghese thinks he is able to see the world through the eyes of a child. “My poems and stories for children have struck a chord with young readers. And I enjoy writing for children.” His works, even when they are about something else, have an undertone of social commentary, is this conscious? “I am not in favour of deliberately including social commentary. The reader should willingly enter the world of the characters and gain insights. I do have a soft corner for the underdog. In The Shadow of the Steam Engine, Arromel and Ambili lose their home to a tsunami. Being a children’s novel, it focuses on the quintessential Good versus Evil battle albeit with fantastic twists and turns.”

What does this book mean to him? I ask, and Verghese says, “Everything.” And that he lived to write this book. “A series of coincidences led to the writing and the publication of the book.” There have already been calls for a sequel and to turn this into a series. “I have a few ideas. I am sure that their time will come.”

[Read by Della Verghese, the author’s daughter.]

An excerpt from The Shadow of the Steam Engine

‘This is your home, Arromel,’ said the stationmaster to the boy. He tapped a steam engine with his green flag.
‘Oh,’ Arromel sprang up from the swan-shaped lid of his sea-chest. ‘This is the best place I could ask for,’ he said. Arromel eyed the stationmaster who was now his local guardian, and then turned towards the steam engine which stood on the side rails. A steam engine for a home! His warm brown eyes gleamed in the dark.

Arromel always wanted to make his life one big adventure. When you are a sea-boy of twelve, a boy who has ridden the sea waves on a log, you hanker for excitement. Arromel raced around his new engine home like a log caught in a current. His wavy hair danced as he shot forward. Then he toyed with his sea-blue wristband.

As twilight fell, the smokestack that dwarfed the engine brought back the memory of the mast of his fishing boat, which the sea had taken from him. He swung himself into the yellow driver’s cab. ‘I want everything quiet and normal,’ said Ambili his younger sister, ‘all of this is so strange.’ She gazed at the cow catcher, the metal frame in front of the engine meant for shoving obstacles off the rails. ‘This engine has got a jaw,’ she said and laughed – a surprisingly loud laugh for a soft-spoken girl.

 The Shadow of the Steam Engine,

The Shadow of the Steam Engine, by Vestin Verghese

‘Come up here, Ambili,’ said Arromel.

‘Careful,’ said the stationmaster as Ambili climbed into the driver’s cab.

Arromel felt like a king who had set foot in the palace of his dreams. With a sweep of his head, he surveyed the engine home. The hurricane lamp cast jerky shadows upon the firebox and the dials. ‘Looks like a workshop on wheels,’ said Ambili. She ran a hand through her jet black hair.

‘This is home,’ said Arromel.

He somersaulted on to the blue driver’s seat, raising a puff of dust. He spotted a rust-bitten shovel in a corner. How he wished to shovel coal into the red firebox and steam away! The collected rust of thirty-odd years held him back. So instead, he climbed into the lumpy upper berth of the engine cab, hung his head down and stared out of the window. ‘Look at the brother rail,’ said Ambili.

‘Brother rail?’ said Arromel.

‘Yes, the rail by the side rail on which the engine lies. The rails run together like brothers.’ Arromel was fond of Ambili and her talk. The moonlight glinted off the brother rail and a white picket fence that guarded the Jig Jigolly station from what lurked in the fields and the forests beyond. A sudden wind flung the leaf of a cinnamon tree into the upper berth. A feeling of unease stole over Ambili. Her moon-face clouded over. ‘Something is wrong,’ she said.

‘Nonsense, this is our home, our palace, our castle. Get that into your head,’ said Arromel and lifted his foot onto the lower berth.

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Updated Date: Jan 02, 2019 11:43:54 IST

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