by Philip Roy
Since he was 14, Alfred has travelled in his twenty-foot, diesel-electric submarine (built by junkyard genius Ziegfried) from his home in Newfoundland around the Maritimes (Submarine Outlaw, Ronsdale Press, 2008); across the Atlantic and into the Mediterranean (Journey to Atlantis, Ronsdale Press, 2009); down the St. Lawrence River (River Odyssey, Ronsdale Press, 2010); and into the Pacific and Mariana Islands (Ghosts of the Pacific, Ronsdale Press, 2011; reviewed here). In his fifth adventure, Outlaw in India, Alfred and his crew (Hollie, the dog, and Seaweed, the seagull) have continued on from the Pacific to the Indian Ocean and into the Arabian Sea, heading for India.
The sub's unregistered status has Alfred trying to stay under the radar and sonar of the authorities, but selecting to follow a ship that turns out to be a navy frigate (their first destination Kochi is home to a naval base) makes the submarine a target for three depth charges sent out to disable them and force them to surface. The sub loses its power and Alfred loses his hearing but is able to safely manoeuvre to a deserted boathouse connected to a series of old warehouses. With the help of a ten-year-old boy who Alfred discovers living in the warehouse, Alfred is able to get medical help for his loss of hearing, to get money at the bank, and to get food. As helpful as the young boy is, he is turned away from many places and Alfred learns the boy is Dalit, an Untouchable. Though he shows the boy the submarine, cooks dinner for him, and teaches him to play chess, Alfred doesn't learn the boy's name, Radji, until a kindly electrician speaks to the boy and writes down his name for the hearing-impaired sailor.
The discrimination which Radji endures as normal behaviour has Alfred buying him sneakers, clothes, sunglasses and a hat to help hide his Untouchable appearance, but Radji is determined that he will have a happy life if he uses the skin-whitening cream advertised everywhere. It is this same determination that has Radji stowing away on the sub when Alfred leaves. Luckily Radji becomes Alfred's ears and helps them evade those tracking the sub.
In agreeing to take Radji to Varanasi so that he may cleanse himself of his sins in the Ganges River, Alfred must find a place to hide the sub in Goa, from which they will travel by train to Varanasi. A fortuitous encounter with an elderly woman, Melissa Honeychurch, who has lived in India all her life, changes everything - their travel plans, their futures, their ideas - and shows Alfred another side of India.
While Radji and Melissa Honeychurch become two significant characters in the Submarine Outlaw series, perhaps the most imposing character in Outlaw in India is not a character at all. It is India. The country, as Alfred experiences it, is a living entity, a complicated being of the expected (e.g., the heat and amazing foods) and the surprising (e.g., discrimination and kindness).
"Every country smells different, feels different, and looks different. India was the most beautiful country I ever saw. If you think of a country as being like an animal then India was the animal with the most colour, the softest fur, the shiniest eyes, the sharpest claws, the longest tail, and the prettiest face. She also smelled the nicest . . . and the worst." (pg.76)
I am convinced that for Philip Roy to create a character such as Alfred, one of such compassion, wonder and insight, Roy must be such a person himself for the character to be so real. Alfred cannot be a creation of the imagination. I also suspect that Alfred's experiences in India are those of Philip Roy, demonstrating the fullness of his own experiences there, probably making him an excellent choice for an author visit to a school or library.
Though the series could easily be promoted as a great adventure series for boys, the Submarine Outlaw books will continue to garner fans of both genders for its great characters and adventure with a frisson of the impossible and the hope for everything working out well (a.k.a. the happy ending). Readers will continue to find all that here in Outlaw in India, fresh and engrossing, just as each new book in the series has offered. With Africa set to be the location of the next book in the series, there is even more to anticipate.