The Adventures of Stoob/The Tigers of Taboo Valley

While I’m in India, I’m trying to make my way through as many relatively recent children’s books as I can get a hold of; particularly those on this shortlist (the picture books and fiction, mostly). Here are a couple, both published by Red Turtle/Rupa in 2014:

51C6nTU6HDLSamit Basu and Sunaina Coelho, The Adventures of Stoob: Testing Times

I’ve never actually read a Wimpy Kid book, so saying that this is like one of those is probably not the most rigorous of statements. But it certainly feels like it wants to be seen that way, judging by the cover art, etc. They’re for similar age groups, they’re told in first person with text interspersed with comical illustrations, both series even begin with slouching boys with backpacks, but that’s a bit of a reach. (There are obvious differences—the Wimpy Kid books are presented as diaries, whereas the context of Stoob’s narrative is less clear; Coelho’s illustrations aren’t so much a part of the narrative as they illustrate and enhance particular ideas/images. But still.)

Stoob (Subroto Bandhopadhyay) is 10 and in class 5, and a few short months away from being a senior. Those months are, it seems, to be filled with end of year exams—there are also monkeys and crows, more diligent friends, and a quest to stop a friend from cheating in the final exam. It’s light and funny and gave me a mnemonic for remembering the order of the Mughal emperors. There was a moment partway through where I thought we might be heading for a rather abrupt genre switch; Stoob’s guitar teacher is missing from his home, and the door is unlocked, the house is a mess, and there’s a horrible smell. Fortunately there’s an innocent explanation, and lightness is restored.

It’s all good fun and the illustrations are great, but I’m not particularly drawn into Stoob. As I say above, the context of his story is never quite clear—is he addressing an audience? Is this a diary? Are we in his head? How much does he feel the need to explain to his audience, whoever they are? I’d have liked to see more interiority given to these characters—to, for example, see the cheating dilemma feel like the huge battle for the soul that Stoob seems to think it is (which is not to suggest that I want morally instructive books about the badness of cheating in school exams). I’d just like more substance somewhere.

 

Ranjit Lal, The Tigers of Taboo Valley

The anthropomorphised-animals-with-apposite-names genre is not one I particularly appreciate except when targeted at very small children (what about Kipling??? cry my readers. Kipling is an exception to most rules). Particularly when the naming attempts clumsy references to Our World Today. Unfortunately, this is exactly the sort of book that The Tigers of Taboo Valley is—the tigers in question are both well aware of, and a bit obsessed with, their presentation in the media (courtesy a famous wildlife photographer named Ayesha, with luxuriant black hair). We’re told that Rana Shaan-Baahadur changes his facebook profile picture often—except not really, he’s a tiger, their facebook walls are the trees they urinate on. The vultures are named Diclo and Fenac, the crocodiles Magar and Machch, the jackal is Naradmunni, the poacher is Khoon-Pyaasa. This is all probably fine if you’re into this sort of thing. There are also terrorist porcupines: the Al Seekh Kebab Atankvad Andolan (ASKAA). This is not fine, it is cringeworthy.

Raat-ki-Rani, the mother of four cubs, is shot by the poacher, Rana Shaan-Bahadur takes over parenting duties. Taboo Valley is so named because the former natives put chemicals in their cattle to increase milk production and in doing so poisoned the vultures (and possibly the cattle?). It’s now deserted and the animals are afraid to enter it—except that they do enter it, and find that it’s perfectly safe, so it’s hard to be sure what the point of this interlude was other than to give the book an alliterative title (and gesture at an Important Lesson about putting chemicals in your cows). The other tigers decide to kill Rana Shaan-Bahadur for being a disgrace to gendered assumptions about parenting, the porcupines and hyenas and poachers are also converging upon the family, and it all gets a bit Game of Thrones. Everyone makes it out alive, somehow.

I’m being harsh, probably; other than some of the cringey names it’s perfectly competent. I’d rather read the Jungle Book, like many of Lal’s own characters.

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