When eleven-year-old Neela’s prized possession – a traditional Indian stringed instrument given to her by her grandmother – suddenly goes missing, the young musician becomes involved in a strange journey to solve the mystery. Read an excerpt from the latest pick of Al’s Book Club for Kids.
It was close to midnight when the last train left the station. On board sat an American woman in a fluttery shirt, a famous musician on her way to the biggest music festival in Chennai. But the festival wasn’t the reason she was in India after so many years. If she could go back to the store, the shopkeeper might have the answer she was looking for.
Outside the air grew damp and foggy as the train rumbled through the darkness. The woman closed her eyes and fell asleep next to her husband, but not before wrapping her arm tightly around the instrument case on the other side of her.
At dawn the fog thickened, creating a beautiful mist over the country-side. The fog was also nature’s way of covering up dusty village streets, roaming animals, and makeshift huts, brown with filth.
And then the unthinkable happened.
Several hundred feet ahead of the moving train, a large wispy mist, which wasn’t mist after all but something more solid, crept across the tracks. The engineer slammed the emergency brakes, but that didn’t stop the train from striking the cow, or from derailing and plunging into a ditch.
Rescue workers arrived on the scene, pulling out survivors from the wreckage. At the end of the day, one of the workers made a strange discovery.
Everyone gathered around as he unzipped the torn cover of what seemed to be an instrument case. “Not a crack, not a dent,” he said in surprise.
The others stared at the stringed instrument and the figure on the peg box, which was different from anything they had ever seen. The case had been found in a car where none of the passengers survived. It seemed like a miracle, but no one was sure if it was an act of God or something sinister.
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“Could it be?” wondered someone.
“Rubbish,” said his supervisor, who didn’t believe in curses.
But when the man came later to add a tag, the case was gone. Exhausted, he looked around the shadowy field as best as he could, then gave up and went home. It would be easier to search in the morning hours when there was light.
The next day came, but no more thought was given to the missing instrument, and it was soon forgotten, having never been officially recorded anywhere. Instead, its journey continued, passing through many hands, sounding lovely for those who could hang on to it.
There was no place in Ms. Reese’s sixth-grade class to form a circle. So when their teacher announced that they needed to make room, everyone pushed back their desks and chairs with a great clatter, curious to know what required so much space. Neela, who saw an ocean of blue carpeting open around her, wondered if she had made a big mistake.
“Dude, is that a harp?” Matt asked.
A harp! Hardly. Neela glanced at her friend Penny, who shrugged.
“A harp’s flat, stupid,” Amanda said. “That thing looks big and lumpy.”
“Amanda,” Ms. Reese reproached gently.
Neela unsnapped the case and pulled out her instrument.
The class leaned in to have a look.
“This is my veena.” She was going to add that it belonged to her grandmother until six months ago, when it literally arrived on her doorstep from India. But her knees began to shake, so she sat down and crossed her legs lotus-style, hoping no one would notice.
“So tell us more.” Ms. Reese flashed her smile where the skin crinkled around her eyes. It was the smile she reserved for students who were about to humiliate themselves.
Neela looked through her note cards. Would anyone want to know about Guru, the veena maker who put his initials on the neck of every instrument he made, and that she might even have a “Guru original”? She decided to stick with the first card. “A veena is a stringed instrument from India,” she read, “dating back to the eleventh century. It’s made from jackwood, and played by plucking the strings.”
“What’s on the top where the strings are connected?” Matt asked. “It looks like a ninja.”
“It’s a dragon.” In spite of her shaky knees, Neela fingered the peg box proudly. “All veenas have some kind of animal decoration. It’s for luck.”
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“Would you like to play something for us?” Ms. Reese asked. There was that smile again.
Actually, that was the last thing Neela wanted to do. She had heard about how some musicians got stage fright, but she was sure that what she had was far worse. At home she could play all the notes, and sometimes when she closed her eyes, she imagined herself in a concert hall with hundreds, even thousands of people watching her. But if there was a real, live person in the room other than her parents or her little brother, something happened, as if her notes stuck together and became an out-of-tune, out-of-rhythm mess. Something happened to her, too—shaky knees, a dry throat, and once or twice, she saw spots.
Sudha Auntie said the best cure was to keep playing in front of people. “It will teach you,” she said, “to forget your nerves.”
Neela wasn’t sure about Sudha Auntie’s theory. Just this summer, she was on the stage at the temple before her family, friends, and what seemed like the entire Indian community of Boston. She was performing for the first time on her grandmother’s veena, when halfway through, a string suddenly snapped, nearly whacking her in the face. Her teacher hissed from backstage, Keep going. But Neela could not keep going; she could only look helplessly at the tittering audience. Did people laugh at an eleven-year-old mortified onstage? Yes, they did.
With that performance fresh in her mind, Neela didn’t understand how she could end up bringing her veena to school. Last week when Ms. Reese announced the Instruments Around the World unit, a bunch of kids raised their hand to bring instruments no one had seen before: a Chinese dulcimer, a Brazilian berimbau, even a set of Caribbean steel drums. In the midst of all that hand-raising, Lynne, the new girl, turned to Neela and said, “Don’t you have that really big Indian instrument? I heard you telling Penny about it.” Then, before Neela knew it, she had volunteered to bring her four-foot veena to school. So here she was, with her veena, her nerves, and the whole of Ms. Reese’s class watching her. Neela took a deep breath and began.
From Vanished by Sheela Chari. © 2012 by Sheela Chari. Used by permission of Disney Hyperion Books, an imprint of Disney Book Group.
© 2012 MSNBC Interactive