Reading Group Guide
ABOUT THE BOOK
In The Mirror of Fire and Dreaming, the second adventure of Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni's Brotherhood of the Conch trilogy, Anand is an apprentice healer. When he gets a vision that his mentor, Abhaydatta, is in trouble, he disobeys all advice and rules and goes off to set things right. While it seems he is making a rash decision, the conch agrees to help him, confirming that his decision is the correct one and that he, with the help of Nisha, is the only one who can save Abhaydatta and defeat the evil forces.
Anand's quest is filled with challenges and missteps, failures and successes, and many difficult choices along the way, which all offer subjects for thought and discussion. The questions below are meant to help you get the conversations going.
As you read The Mirror of Fire and Dreaming, you are going to come across many words used in India with which you may be unfamiliar. For example: pakora, a snack made out of chicken, onion, eggplant, lentils, potato, spinach, cauliflower, tomato, or chili, which is dipped in a batter of gram flour and then deep-fried; and punkah, a large swinging fan made out of palmyra leaves. Keep a running list of the words you are not familiar with. When you have a chance, look them up and write the meanings down. They probably won't be in your dictionary, so go online to Google (www.google.com) type each word in, and go to the link that comes up.
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
1. In many ways, Anand is a normal kid like you and your friends. He's impulsive and impatient and often unsure of himself. Cite examples of these traits in the book.
2. Anand also possesses very special qualities, some of which are still unknown to him. Part of the adventure of The Mirror of Fire and Dreaming is his discovery of these extraordinary talents and learning how to use them and when to trust them. Talk about some of his special talents and how he learns (or doesn't learn) to master them.
You, too, have special abilities and talents. Can you count on them? If, for example, you're a great ball player, do you always rely on hitting a home run or making that basket? How do you manage your special skills? How do you develop them? What are your expectations? What are other people's expectations of you?
Are special abilities a gift or a burden? How would Anand answer that question? Name characters in other books you've read that also have extraordinary abilities. How do they view their talents? Given the choice, would you want to be one of them or would you decide on a more normal life?
3. The brotherhood has many specialties. There are brothers who watch the winds, skies, or the oceans; brothers who prepare herb potions; and brothers like Abhaydatta who have mastered remembrance and forgetting. Which specialty intrigues you the most? Which would you choose to specialize in and how would you use it?
4. At the end of The Conch Bearer, the first book in the Brotherhood of the Conch trilogy, Abhaydatta erases the memory of Anand from his mother's, father's, and sister's minds. This is a prerequisite to Anand joining the brotherhood. Why? Why is it necessary for Anand to retain the memory of his family? How does the brotherhood become a new family to him? How is it different from a traditional family? Is this something that you could do?
5. There is an expression: "Teachers teach and students learn." But it is the process that counts.
Giridatta asked the boys to hold out their right hands in front of them. "You all know the importance of willpower in enduring pain. But willpower can take you so far..." He raised his own hand and Anand felt a moment of searing heat..."I'm going to bring it back and when I do, I want you to go inside and see the pain."
The apprentices in the brotherhood are active learners, that is, they participate and experience the things they learn. Passive learners on the other hand are told what they should know by their teachers. Which approach are you most familiar with? What is the best way for you to learn? How does the brotherhood school compare to Hogwarts in the Harry Potter books?
6. When he is not chosen by the brotherhood to accompany Abhaydatta on the mission, Anand feels he is being held back because he is young and inexperienced. Do the adults in your life treat you the same way? Explain.
7. Abhaydatta tells Anand: "The world has rhythms both peaceful and violent..." How does this reflect on the philosophy of the brotherhood? They certainly have the power to prevent war and human suffering. Discuss why they choose to limit their involvement in such matters. Why is it that they only intervene when evil stirs? What role does the conch play in fighting evil?
8. Whenever Anand has doubts in his ability, Abhaydatta reminds him to trust in himself and reaffirms his importance with the phrase, "You are the conch bearer." Who in your life is the constant for you? How does that person keep you on the right track?
9. The old crew were returning...a straggling line of men, red in color from head to toe, moving with a strange, shuffling gait that wasn't quite human...Their faces remained empty of expression...Each man clutched a bundle of rupees in his fist -- but without interest, as though he no longer knew what it was..."So, which of you men wants to put in an honest day's work and make more money in a week than you ever saw in a month?" the stranger said. All the men who'd been waiting began to shout, calling on him to pick them.
Why are the men in the village of Sona Dighi so willing to go into the forest despite the fact that they know there are terrible consequences? How does the stranger take advantage of this situation? What does this say about the human condition?
10. The mirror was a window through which he could see into the world of the past, he understood that much. But so far, he was unable to understand how he should use it to enter that world.
Anand knows that the mirror is his escape route from the stranger and the portal into the past world. How does he eventually discover how to use it? Why wasn't the stranger allowed to pass through the mirror?
11. Anand puts his trust in Paribanou (Nisha) and tells her of the conch and the danger that will beset the kingdom. What was the nature of that trust? Why didn't she dismiss him as a crackpot or a troublemaker and turn him in? Why does she agree to help him?
12. In Anand's journey four hundred years back to the time of the Nawab of Nazib, we are struck by the society's rigid class structure: Opulence, indulgence, unimaginable wealth, power, and privilege of the ruling class versus hunger, poverty, and subservience of the common people. Who in the novel are the ruling class? Who are the serving class? Is the class structure unique to that society? Can you think of other times in history where similar class structures existed? Do such things exist now? If so, where?
13. "How dare you run behind the chief minister's niece and call out to her, you insolent servant boy!" the sentry cried [to Anand]. "...It is Allah's great mercy that Haider Ali did not see you, or he would have had you beheaded before nightfall..."
Was this admonition from the sentry an idle threat or was Anand really in danger if the minister had seen him?
14. As the durbar progressed, Anand grew aware of small sounds from behind the wall with the filigree. He could hear whispers, the tinkle of bangles, once even a smothered laugh. The women of the zenana were back there, observing what went on in the court!...Was this the highlight of their day, the one chance to see how the outside world functioned, to watch the power play?
What role did women play in the nawab's court? Was Anand correct about his observations or was there more than meets the eye? How different is it from the role women play now in our country? Are there any societies today where the role of women is the same as that in the story?
15. When Nisha's memory is returned to her, she must make a decision on whether to return with Anand and Abhaydatta to the present and develop her powers as an herbmistress and healer or live out her life in the past with Mahabet and rule the land as the begum. Why does she eventually decide to go back? Why didn't Anand or Abhaydatta put pressure on her to return? What would you have done if you were in her situation?
16. Vegetable sellers sat behind piles of purple brinjals and glistening mounds of green chilies....Fisherwomen jangled their bracelets...There were buffalo carts with colorful bolts of cloth...Nearby, a sweet-ice man poured colored syrup on pieces of ice, which he shaved off a huge block of ice that lay sweating under a jute sack....
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni offers us descriptions of foods and places in The Mirror of Fire and Dreaming that tantalize our senses: taste, smell, touch, sight, and hearing. Find examples of the beautiful descriptions and list them below.
17. Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni has said that she is writing The Brotherhood of the Conch books to introduce Indian culture to many American young readers -- to help them appreciate and understand the things that are the same and those that are different from the culture American kids know. What did you learn about Indian culture from reading The Mirror of Fire and Dreaming? How does it change the way you think about people of Indian descent?
18. The Mirror of Fire and Dreaming is a fantasy novel and has many of the elements that define the genre: a theme of good that must destroy evil, a quest or two quests, the testing of the her, magic, and an exotic setting. Find and name these elements in the book and show how they interact to build the story of the novel.
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This reading group guide has been provided by Simon & Schuster for classroom, library, and reading group use. It may be reproduced in its entirety or excerpted for these purposes.
This guide was created by Clifford Wohl, Educational Consultant.