Archive for ‘animal creatures’

February 21, 2014

Rakesh Khanna and Rashmi Ruth Devadasan (ed), The Obliterary Journal Vol 2: Non-Veg

When I reviewed the first installment of the Obliterary Journal a couple of years ago, I described it as (among other things) “spectacularly ill-conceived”. To my amazement, Blaft have chosen not to put this on a blurb anywhere.

Last weekend’s column, on meat, literature of, and also emus.



Consider the first war of Indian independence, commonly associated with angry sepoys protesting against being forced to consume cow and pig fat. In the aftermath of the recent events in Khirki, a local man explained to a reporter that he had heard that African immigrants ate all sorts of meat, even human. Consider the ways in which racists justify their dislike of people from the North-East of the country by claiming that “those people” eat dogs. Consider the ways in which the question of what forms of meat one does or doesn’t eat is used to keep neighbourhoods free of particular communities. And also, I suppose, consider the uncle downstairs who was always cooking fish, and the smell floated into your bathroom so that you were never rid of it. Meat is inherently political as well as emotive.

Blaft’s second, meat-themed, Obliterary Journal recognizes this. Its portrayals of meat are delicious and disgusting, exploitative and egalitarian. Ali Sultan’s photo-essay “Butcher, Butcher: Lahore” and Somdutt Sarkar’s infographics about animal slaughter (interspersed with pictures of PETA protests) provide some of the realities around the meat we eat, while Madhurya Balan’s “Livestock” and Appupen’s “The Hunters” are among a few pieces that imagine what it might mean to be prey. Nazeer Akbarabadi’s “Mouse Pickle”, translated here by Musharraf Ali Farooqi and illustrated by B. Anitha, Anil Kumar and Michelle Farooqi, is comically gross.

On the other hand there’s Meena Kandasamy’s “How to Make a Bitch Give Up Beef”, with art by Samita Chatterjee. Kandasamy collects some of the personal attacks employed against her in the wake of the 2012 Beef Festival in Hyderabad. There’s occasional lightness in the wordplay (“Plan Nine” is followed by “Plantain: Promote Vegetarianism”, for example) but since the “strategies” enumerated include threats of rape and acid attacks, it’s hardly a pleasant piece, made worse by the fact that it’s true.

Tarun Padmakumar’s “Jamalpur” has friends coming together over a shared love of meat, and the brilliant Prabha Mallya in “On Making Wet Food at Home for Your Growing Kitten” chronicles the lives and loves of four people with completely incompatible food choices. Nochikuppam Fisherwomen Comics, by Ratzzz and X. Kumar and starring Ilavarasi and Kala, is wonderful, with its two fisherwomen turned into superheroines and vengeful goddesses.

“The Legend of U Thien” (Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih and Aratrika Choudhury) and “The Stepson’s Meat is in the Kitchen” (Dukhushyam Chitrkar and Megha Bhaduri) are both translations of folk stories; a Khasi legend and a tale from Bengal. Women do not come out of either of them well, as is the case with far too many folk-tales, but I particularly liked Chitrkar’s Patua-style art and the fact that his story is clearly meant to be recited, not read, and thus particularly relevant to this collection.

The standout of the collection for me remains Aneesh K.R’s “The Past and Future History of the Emu” which begins with the bird’s evolution and traces it through the emu farming bubble in 2000s Tamil Nadu (and surely there are entire books about that just waiting to be written?) and continues into a plausible future in which only the combined efforts of India, Pakistan, China and Nigeria stand between the human race and a cyborg emu apocalypse.

In both volumes of this journal Blaft have tended to prioritise idea over execution and while this can be a problem (though perhaps this concern with execution is another of those things the obliterary journal is supposed to obliterate?) it is better than the alternative. Blaft continue to provide one of the few venues in which one can write emu-centric SF or Star Trek fanfiction (in the form of Gurjot S. Mamik’s “They Came From the Stars”) and this collection is a useful reminder of the important space that they are.


November 30, 2013

David Sedaris, Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk

Slightly shorter version of this piece here. I like a lot of things about Sedaris’s writing–sadly, few of them are in evidence here.



Context is everything. The animal fables that make up David Sedaris’ collection Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk are each accompanied by illustrations that seem rather incongruous in their innocence (though one of them does have a lamb with its eyes gouged out), considering the general tone of much of Sedaris’s work. Then you realise that these illustrations are by Ian Falconer, creator of the Olivia books about the adventures of a tiny piglet, and the whole thing becomes deliciously twisted.

Beast fables are, of course, really about humans; this has been the case since Aesop. The characters in these stories may be restricted to animal bodies (this is the point of many of the more famous fables, such as the fox and the stork, or the hare and the tortoise), but the traits they exhibit are familiar to us all. Whether or not they come with a moral attached to the end, what is important to these stories is a sense of recognition. This is particularly clear in Vikram Seth’s wonderful Beastly Tales, in which the familiar stories are retold from a more cynical point of view. Here, the underdog doesn’t triumph merely by winning a race (the hare gains more celebrity from losing than the tortoise from winning), the talentless may prosper over the bodies of the talented (“The Frog and the Nightingale”); these poems are funny because we know the genre they’re riffing off, but also because we see ourselves in them.

And so to Sedaris, who skewers such human traits as self-absorption, self-interest and prejudice in these stories. The title piece has a chipmunk sentence herself to a life of dissatisfaction and mediocrity when she allows her lack of trust for a jazz-loving squirrel to overwhelm their relationship. The baboon of “The Cat and the Baboon” is happy to badmouth her canine friends while grooming a dog-hating cat, because business is business. “The Vigilant Rabbit” is obsessed with maintaining forest security, by means of killing anyone who suggests his system might be flawed. And so forth. In one of the best stories in the collection two storks discuss exactly how much to tell their children about where babies come from—one, the more self-absorbed, stands by scientific fact, yet her child’s life in undone by fiction. Sedaris’ view of humanity is not particularly charitable, and awful things happen here. Beloved pets may eat you, eyes may be gouged out, teeth may be broken, baby animals may die. In combination with the illustrations it ought to be darkly funny. But most of the time it is curiously underwhelming.

Perhaps part of the reason is that the fable requires such a broad brush, dealing in archetypes rather than individuals. It’s hard to do more than roll your eyes when confronted with yet another disenchanted housewife, another pair of “Ugly American” tourists complaining that the locals refuse to learn their language but at least it’s “cheap cheap cheap” (they’re birds), another fundamentalist making an increasingly desperate grab at meaning through religion. Sedaris’ earlier work has often focused (usually with plenty of self-deprecation) on his own experiences, and even when he has dealt in the universal, it has been with a strong sense of the personal and the human.

Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk contains no flawed individuals (it isn’t meant to), just a parade of flaws and not particularly original ones. As a result the whole is less powerful than it could be—it isn’t really bleak when there’s so little there to feel bleak about, and it relies too often on the overdone stereotype. The occasional brilliant moment (and the clever choice of Falconer as illustrator) aside, the whole thing just feels rather lazy. The least he could have done was to put the whole thing in rhyming couplets.


September 9, 2013

Were-lizard? (There lizard!)

Occasionally, non-Indian SFF fans ask me if India has an equivalent tradition to the werewolf– stories of humans turning into animals (or animals into humans). I’m no expert, and traditions of the supernatural differ wildly across the country, so I usually say something vague about human-snake transformations and leave it at that. But now there’s this.

This was the front page of this Sunday’s HT City, and was brought to my attention by Aadisht.

It appears to be advertising a show called Shapath: Super Cops vs Super Villains (Monday to Friday, 9pm). The caption, in case it’s not clear enough, reads: “Kya zeheriley chipkali-manav ke atank ko rok payenge supercops?”*

I’m assuming the answer is yes, but I really, really want to find out.

*(“Can the terror of the lizard-man be stopped by the supercops?” Or, why I am not a translator.)

August 31, 2013

George Saunders, Fox 8

From this week’s column.


The perspective of the outsider is a useful tool for social commentary, satirical or otherwise. What would an alien think if she (or he, or they, or whatever gender alien lifeforms do or don’t have) were to observe the human race, what conclusions would she come to about our lives and what we value?

Then there’s the fate of the innocent thrust into society. The same rules apply; her observations as an outsider about how we function are still enlightening, but we know that disaster is coming. We know that by not understanding how people are, she is in danger of becoming a victim.

Lots of literature, much of it for children, has anthropomorphised animals falling victim to the human world without ever really understanding what is going on. The rabbits in Watership Down foresee the destruction of their warren by humans and leave to seek a new home. The Animals of Farthing Wood has a group of woodland creatures also left homeless as humans build housing over the wood.

And so it’s natural that the foxes in George Saunders’s Fox 8 should be curious and worried over a sign that says “Coming soon, Fox View Commons”. Luckily, one among them can read the sign. The eponymous Fox 8 has learnt to speak “yuman” by eavesdropping on a mother telling stories to her children; from them he learns that humans have misconceptions about bears and chickens, but that they are capable of “luv”. Unfortunately, he does not learn what a “mall” is.

So much could go wrong here. Humans destroying animals’ natural habitats is a well-worn theme, and with a mall to additionally signify crass capitalism this has all the signs of a polemic. And Fox 8’s misspellings and misconceptions about the English language could so easily become twee, Particularly since Saunders has said elsewhere that it was initially intended for a children’s book. And yet.

Much of Fox 8’s humour comes from its language and the things that Fox 8 has misheard. Saunders takes full advantage of the potential for wordplay that this offers. “Whoa was us”, Fox 8 describes the shocked and mourning foxes as their forest is dug up. He speaks often of “the Curator” and “all of Curashon”. The spelling does not become less atrocious as the story progresses, but far from grating it begins to feel organic. Clearly this is not how a hypothetical fox who learnt to read from listening to children’s bedtime stories would speak, but it’s how Fox 8 would speak.

And for all its humour, Fox 8 is tragic. Because our narrator never really stops believing that human beings are capable of providing him with a reasonable explanation for the awful things that have happened to him. At every stage he is far too willing to give us a chance, and at every stage the reader knows we’re going to fail him. “It made me feel gud, like Yumans cud feel luv and show luv. In other werds, hope full for the future of Erth!” he says, of mothers kissing their children.

That hope is almost completely eroded by the end.

“I know life can be gud. Most lee it is gud. I have drank cleen cold water on a hot day, herd the soft bark of the one I luv, watched sno fall slow, making the wuds kwiet. But now all these happy sites and sounds seem like triks. Now it seems like the gud times are mere lee smoke that, upon blowing away, here is the reel life, which is: rok hats, kikking, stomping. Every minit with no kikking and stomping now seems like not a real minit.”

Yet even now the whole story is framed as a letter to humanity. Fox 8 still thinks we might have an explanation.

Is all of this shamelessly exploitative, like putting the death of a puppy into a movie? Probably. “A gud riter will make the reeder feel as bad as the Yuman does in there Story”, explains Fox 8. And at that, Fox 8 is incredibly effective.


July 9, 2013

Marie Brennan, A Natural History of Dragons and Matt Kaplan, The Science of Monsters

I yelled a bit at Kaplan’s book even as I enjoyed it; Brennan’s I read over the course of a single night and at 6am I was demanding a sequel. This may be why I’m clearly playing favourites in this weekend’s column. Or I’m just trolling. Have some dragons.

(I had to put my copy of Kaplan’s book face-down and take a bad picture because no one had put that wraparound image on the internet. People who treat their books better than I do, please try not to be too scandalised)


In one of those strange and delightful coincidences where completely unexpected books find themselves in dialogue with one another, this week I read two books (both published in 2013) with oddly similar covers; a popular science book and a fantasy novel. Both featured dragons, intact in the front, but further back with scales and skin missing to show their musculature and bone structure. The first was Marie Brennan’s A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent, the second was Matt Kaplan’s The Science of Monsters.

Brennan’s book is set in a fantasy world where dragons are real. Isabella (she has not yet become “Lady Trent” when this book ends) lives in her world’s equivalent of Regency England, where gender and class roles are clearly defined and where her sole responsibilities are to concern herself with ladylike pursuits and eventually marry a suitable husband. But Isabella has a fascination for dragons that will not go away- whether she’s pickling tiny dragons in vinegar, dressing up as a boy to join in a hunt, or choosing a husband on the strength of his library.

Because part of what makes A Natural History of Dragons so good is Isabella’s singleminded love of her subject. This is a love story in which the object of the affections is science; families and lovers are nice, but they’re not really that necessary. If Isabella has to be calculating, or manipulative, to get her way, it makes sense.

Brennan frames this story in such a way that the novel’s primary voice is the elderly Isabella, recounting the adventures of her younger self. As a result the text is frequently self-reflexive, with Lady Trent often correcting Isabella’s assumptions, both social and scientific. The rapid progress of scientific study in the nineteenth century and the exhilaration which could come with it are always clear here, even if this is not our nineteenth century (Lady Trent’s preface is written in the year 5658 of her world) and dragons cannot be our scientific specimens.

That sense of discovery and absorption in its possibilities also categorises Matt Kaplan’s The Science of Monsters. Kaplan, living in a sadly dragonless world, takes for his subject human beings instead; specifically, our tendency to create monsters and the possible reasons that our historical monsters have taken the forms that they do. Kaplan is a science journalist who studied palaeontology; it’s not surprising that that is the discipline to which he turns for many of his answers. Fossils (of animals eating other animals, of dinosaurs, of incidents preserved in tar pits) come up frequently, as do things like shifting tectonic plates, the accumulation of methane in burial mounds, and the shape of an elephant’s skull. Much of this is fascinating.

In his acknowledgements Kaplan adds the caveat that he is not a classics scholar, and it’s true that in areas that don’t concern his particular areas of expertise the book is weak. There seems to be an impulse to find a single direct, material explanation for every legendary creature, and while this results in some wonderful aha! moments, it also sometimes rests on some very weak premises. There’s also a moment in which the author seems to think it wonderful that dragons (which within the book are defined as reptilian beasts that sometimes breathe fire) across the world are never depicted with fur. Well, no—because taxonomists of monstrousness wouldn’t call them dragons.

And I wonder if it’s this, as much as any difference in genre (fiction/nonfiction, fantasy/popular science) that really marks out the divide between these two dragon-bearing books. Brennan’s ostensible author-narrator is constantly self-correcting, examining and critiquing the problems with her own methods even as we read of her conclusions. Kaplan (as we all do, perhaps) tries to remake the world in order that it fit the narratives of his own area of expertise. The Science of Monsters may have a stronger basis in reality, but what if A Natural History of Dragons is the more rigourous academic work?


April 11, 2013

James Joyce, The Cats of Copenhagen

(On the question of dogs vs cats in literature, this might be relevant)

From last weekend’s column:


Recently Maria Popova of the website BrainPickings brought the existence of a children’s book by Sylvia Plath to the internet’s attention. The It-Doesn’t-Matter Suit tells the story of a little boy called Max who comes into possession of the perfect suit. It’s always a little strange, and rather nice, to find literary figures known for their writing for adults show that they could be pretty good children’s writers as well. Like many people I was introduced to Ted Hughes not through his poetry, but his children’s books The Iron Man and (this one was a little after my time) The Iron Woman. And James Joyce wrote two children’s books- The Cat and the Devil and, published for the first time last year along with illustrations by Casey Sorrow, The Cats of Copenhagen.

Both of these books are in the form of letters sent to Joyce’s grandson Stephen—there was some controversy upon the book’s publication over whether all of Joyce’s writings or only those previously published, belonged in the public domain once the copyright had expired in 2012.

Apparently, along with The Cat and the Devil Joyce had sent Stephen a toy cat filled with sweets, a filling of which the grown-ups in Stephen’s life would probably have disapproved. The first lines of The Cats of Copenhagen are possibly an apology for his inability to send another cunningly concealed cache of candy: “Alas! I cannot send you a Copenhagen cat because there are no cats in Copenhagen”.

Joyce appears to have loved cats. There’s an episode in Ulysses in which Leopold Bloom, also clearly a cat person, feeds and speaks lovingly to his pet, who answers with an evocative “mkgnao!”, far more catlike than the more traditional “meow”. It’s fitting that he should have dedicated two books to the creatures. Children’s literature is full of faithful hounds and naughty pups. Cats (except in rare works like Anushka Ravishankar’s I Like Cats) tend to get short-changed; the only iconic figure they have is Puss-in-Boots.

If there are no cats in Copenhagen, Joyce’s book seems to suggest that the city would be vastly improved by the introduction of some. The Copenhagen invoked here is a city in thrall to its policemen, who sit at home reading and smoking in bed and drinking buttermilk (how does one apply for this job? I am very well qualified), sending out boys in red to carry out their orders. Meanwhile the citizens depend entirely on these orders, apparently lacking the ability to do such basic things as cross roads without instructions.

Casey Sorrow’s art lends another layer to this odd little account of the city. There are no cats, we’re told; but Sorrow’s illustrations are full of them. Cats crossing roads, cats on bicycles, policeman-cats lying in bed and gorging themselves. Is the author lying to his grandson? Would cats, were they introduced to the city, behave like humans? What does it mean to be a cat?

A cat, of course, being independent sort of creature, can “cross a road without any instructions from a policeman”. There’s an element of anarchy in the book’s proposed plan, which is to introduce cats to the city so that they may teach by example, render the policemen obsolete, and eat fish. Copenhagen, we’re told, has many fish.

Joyce’s insistence on the city’s abundance of fish has created, for me, a nice little linguistic mystery. “There are lots and lots of fish/ and bicycles but/ there are no cats,” he says. For most people the bringing together of fish and bicycles will recall a famous feminist statement. “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle” was popularised by Gloria Steinem, but she credits it to the Australian writer Irina Dunn, in 1970. Long after Joyce, then; The Cats of Copenhagen was written in 1936. But Dunn in turn credits the fish-and-bicycle wording to an unnamed philosophical work; perhaps Joyce read the same book? Or the whole thing is a complete coincidence.


April 3, 2013

Andrey Kurkov, Death and the Penguin

I discovered after I’d written this that Kurkov was in India recently. I suppose that makes this topical.

There’s so much more to say about Death and the Penguin. People who know more about it than me could probably say a lot about the novel’s depiction of post-Soviet Ukraine (or people who know less about it but also have less of an aversion to the pontificating of ignorant foreigners).

I also found that the flat acceptingness of its characters’ reactions to the things that go on around them had one unexpected result–that I found myself reading it as a queer novel when this same attitude was extended to the relationships between its men. You have Misha non-penguin who has met Viktor only a couple of times arranging the death of a man only because Viktor’s quite proud of the piece he wrote on him. Sergey, who takes Viktor and his newfound charge into his home to celebrate an intimate Christmas, sitting together watching Sonya and Misha playing on the ice.

From this weekend’s column:


When Elizabeth Taylor died a couple of years ago, it was revealed that the principal writer of the New York Times obituary for the actress had in fact predeceased her by quite a few years. This was the first time, I suspect, that many readers had come across the practice of publications keeping obituaries of important people ready, and updating them occasionally.

When Viktor, a failed writer in Kiev, gets a job writing these premature obituaries for a newspaper, things seem to be going very well for him. He may not have the immediate satisfaction of seeing his work in print (his subjects remain stubbornly healthy at first) but he has a steady job and is making extra money from freelance work. He also meets and befriends a militiaman named Sergey and forms a bond with the daughter of one of his clients. Until this point Viktor’s only companion has been a rather unusual pet.

Andrey Kurkov’s Death and the Penguin begins with a joke. A military man sees a subordinate standing with a penguin and orders him to take it to the zoo. Later, seeing the same man with the same penguin, he asks why his orders were not obeyed. But he did take the penguin to the zoo, says the subordinate, and to the circus, and now the pair are on their way to the cinema.

Within the novel, the presence of a king penguin within Viktor’s household is given a plausible, if not particularly likely, explanation. Apparently the Kiev zoo can no longer afford to keep all its animals and has distributed them among citizens who are willing to take them. Hence Misha, who spends a great deal of time staring at himself in the mirror, and enjoys cold baths (he comes “plip-plopping” at the sound of running water) and fish.

Yet soon the subjects of Viktor’s columns begin to die in mysterious circumstances; one of them “fell from a sixth-floor window – was cleaning it for some reason, apparently, though it wasn’t his. And at night”.  A man who has occasionally given him work disappears, leaving Viktor in charge of his daughter, Sonya. Various threatening figures seem to be taking an interest in Viktor and he and Sonya are forced to go into hiding. And who is the mysterious plump young man who seems to be collecting information about him?

On the surface Death and the Penguin could easily be a crime thriller. But Kurkov is less interested in the events of the plot (who is killing these people? why? how are the breaking into Viktor’s home and leaving him money?) than he is in Viktor himself, an ordinary man caught in increasingly absurd circumstances. George Bird’s translation captures much of the book’s willingness to play with the genre. On the first page itself we get the dramatic “a shot rang out”, but the book will never tell us why or who fired it; instead Viktor writes a story about it and it is forgotten.

In addition there’s a curious flatness to these characters’ reactions to the strange and alarming things that are happening to them. Informed that his new friend is on the run from assassins, Sergey shrugs and invites Viktor to spend the holidays with him. Sonya hardly seems to notice her father’s disappearance. The only person who seems to react to his circumstances as you might expect is Misha the penguin who, apparently, has been diagnosed with depression, has heart trouble caused by being too long in the wrong climate, and is clearly lonely for the company of other penguins.

It’s the presence of Misha, usually to be found staring mournfully at Viktor, that gives Death and the Penguin more emotional power than one might at first credit it with. This is an accomplished, bleakly funny story of a man in an increasingly absurd world, but with a heartbroken penguin at its centre it is also something more.


(Image stolen shamelessly from here.)

February 11, 2013

Two Owls and a Goat.

I’m never looking for anything in particular at the Delhi Bookfair, which is why my purchases always feel (to me) so unexpectedly entertaining. Among those I picked up this year were three Indian children’s books the covers of which featured, respectively, an owl, an owl and a goat. I like owls and goats.

The first was The Magic Feather by Roma Singh, published by Tulika Books. The owl on the cover is slightly misleading — though it plays an important role in the book it has very little screentime and no speaking lines. A little girl is looking for her friends. She tucks a fallen owl feather into her hair, and from then on, whatever she places in her hair leads her to a wonderful land. Eventually she reaches the land of books, where she finds her friends and they all read things.

What makes this is the art, which is a mixture of papercraft and simple, drawn-on colours, which makes for a sense of overlapping textures leaping off the page. The little girl’s hair is made of long strips of curling print, and birds, clouds, leaves are varieties of patterned paper. Some of the paper still bears text,  so that on the owl’s wings or the belly of a frog it is possible to read part of an article about construction work. It is so very pretty.

Owl Ball by Francesca Xotta was published by the National Book Trust and was not half as attractive as (though a fraction of the price of) The Magic Feather. The NBT can be frustrating if you like children’s books– there’s so much potential for greatness wasted for lack of funds and perhaps lack of care. I’d work for them (part-time only) for free if it meant better-edited books.

So, Owl Ball. It’s about an owl who lives in a park where children regularly dump junk food. Our protagonist eats these unhealthy things and grows fat. This causes the other animals in the park to bully him and call him names, including “kumbhakarna” and “football”; it becomes clear that in calling him “Owl Ball” the book is doing something similar. Owl Ball is too weak to defend himself from the bullies until he meets a little girl. She tells him he must become physically strong in order to stand up for himself. A strict programme of exercise follows but this is not enough. She must “turn Owl Ball into a normal owl … his behaviour also needs reformation”.

Now that he is strong, does Owl Ball defend himself from the bullies? Well, no, because they are impressed by his newfound slim handsomeness and do not taunt him anymore. Instead they all become friends. What Owl Ball has learnt is that his new friends are really a bunch of bullies to whose ideas he was forced to conform “excess of everything is bad”. Owl Ball  is a story about how children can protect themselves from being bullied by getting rid of whatever traits about them the bullies fixate upon — and that these bullies make desirable friends. And that being fat is the worst thing in the world. It was published in 2009.

The last of the three books was The Bravest Goat in the World, a story (incredibly) by former president Dr. Zakir Husain, translated by Samina Mishra and with illustrations by Pooja Pottenkulam. It’s published by Young Zubaan, and I bought it mainly for the combination of the title and this illustration, reproduced on the cover:

(Note: the goat in question does not have seven legs. That is merely her coat, though various people on twitter suggested that they might be udders).

Chandni is a goat, owned by a lonely man named Abbu Khan who keeps goats for company. All his previous goats have escaped and run to the mountains, as mountain goats cannot abide being chained; Chandni yearns to do the same. Eventually she breaks free, lives the life of a real goat, falls in love, and (spoiler warning!) … is killed by a wolf.

Which is the point at which in many books we’d learn that Chandni shouldn’t have left her nice safe home. Instead, The Bravest Goat in the World actively validates her choice. We’re told that she had lived “like a mountain goat”, that in fact “it was Chandni who had won in the end”. What we have is a book that upholds an idea of personal integrity as more important than anything else– certainly more important than safety; as far as morals in children’s books go this is one we really don’t see enough of. Our former president. There’s rather too much text on each page to make for perfection, but between the unusual, gory morality of the story and Pooja Pottenkulam’s adorably silly illustrations, I was completely charmed.

January 30, 2013

Musharraf Ali Farooqi & Michelle Farooqi, Rabbit Rap

I found Rabbit Rap hard going the first time I read it a few months ago. It was easier when I reread it for this review, but it’s still a disappointing book. Particularly when one knows just how good a writer M.A.F really is. At least I was kinder* to it than Ashley Tellis?

A version of this review was published in this weekend’s Sunday Guardian.



A fantastic (and devoid of humans) world has reached a post-predatorial era. The uninhibited use of a pesticide called UB-Next has killed off many carnivores and driven away the rest. Meanwhile the Fishermen of Urban Lands (FOUL) have been using a laser-guided system to protect their fish, thus wiping out most species of birds of prey. The rabbits, who own most of the farms benefit the most from this state of affairs. Newfound prosperity and a freedom from predators leads to a number of changes in rabbit society—most significantly a move to above-ground dwellings that marks a huge cultural shift.

An uncritical supporter of this new way of life is Rabbit Hab, a farmer and chairman of the Lapin Alliance, who aspires to wealth and social success. He is befriended by Rabbit Fud, a director of the UB-Next company, and is persuaded to become an early adopter of the company’s new product, a fertiliser called Vegobese. He is also keen to move his extended family out of the warren and into modern housing, but is foiled in this by the cunning aged matriarch, Gran-Bunny-Ma. As these new chemical products have unintended effects and things grow more and more out of control, Rabbit Hab and Gran-Bunny-Ma find themselves on opposite sides of a social revolution.

It’s clear from the beginning that Musharraf Ali Farooqi and Michelle Farooqi’s Rabbit Rap is a work of satire. It’s not always clear what it is a satire of. Ecological issues? We have here the unchecked use of chemicals promoted by big agro-tech businesses causing huge changes in the flora and fauna of a place. Entire species are wiped out, and the food produced by these new methods is pale and tasteless. Capitalism in general? Important decisions are made over games of golf. As UB-Next’s products fail or come with unintended side-effects, they are repackaged as luxury brands, and impressive amounts of spin are applied to make exploding, or radioactive vegetables seem good. Revolutionary movements? The movement initiated by the young rabbit Freddy goes off the rails almost immediately, lacking focus and easily manipulated by a number of people with their own agendas. Is the target of the satire then modern society (“a fable for the 21st Century”, says the subtitle), and can so generalised a subject make for a successful satire? I’m not sure.

Surprisingly, the most sympathetic characters here are Freddy and Rabbit Hab himself. In their own ways, each is the innocent abroad, caught in the machinations of those around him. Both rabbits, though on opposite sides of the conflict, seem to believe sincerely in their respective causes, and neither of them appears capable of understanding the extent (all too clear to the reader) to which they are being manipulated. Rabbit Hab’s desires in life may be simple and material (an impressive-looking modern lifestyle, a less embarrassing family, a membership at a prestigious golf club) but they’re not particularly evil, and they’re easily understood. Freddy’s initial motive is an unattainable crush, yet even as he becomes first an acknowledged leader of the movement and then a scholar, he’s still easily made a fool of. The real political genius here is that of Gran-Bunny-Ma.

And there’s much to be said for the image of the seemingly weak, elderly lady scheming her way to the top by means of a more powerful understanding of the world she’s in. Just as there’s much to be said for the scenes in which Freddy interacts with the “NERD-bred” rabbits; a dynamic as influenced by 1950’s “JD” (juvenile delinquent) narratives as it is by the low slung jeans of Kids These Days (where “these days” are the mid-1990s, it’s all rather dated). But none of this is relevant, or leads to anything. Then there’s a joy in the wordplay where concepts are acronymised and inverted so that FRUMP and NERD are now desirable things to be. But a setting like this offers so much scope for linguistic play that the few instances we get merely serve to draw attention to a more general absence.

It’s too easy to dismiss a story about talking animals as silly or frivolous, unworthy of serious critique. But some of our best works of social commentary have employed animals to make their point. We don’t need to go back as far as Aesop’s Fables; the twentieth century has given us George Orwell’s Animal Farm and (more recently) Art Spiegelman’s Maus. Done well, political or social satire can be scathing and powerful, or at the very least clever. Rabbit Rap is content to be a silly book about rabbits, and I can’t help being disappointed.


* I don’t really believe that a critic’s being “kind” to books is a virtue.

November 27, 2012

Some Peake

From here, Mervyn Peake’s original drawing for Irma Prunesquallor. Included in my copies of Titus Groan and Gormenghast, and for some reason on the cover of one of my copies of Titus Alone (in which the character does not appear).

Irma Prunesquallor


The Knitting Sheep

And the Knitting Sheep, from Peake’s illustrations of Lewis Carroll’s two Alice in Wonderland books. Long before I found a copy of the Peake-illustrated editions for myself, I saw this particular one in a Lewis treasury at a friend’s house. I may have shouted “Irma!”. Now that I see them side by side (or in this case one on top of the other) the differences are slightly more visible- including, obviously, the fact that one subject is a sheep and the other a human woman.

The sheep looks happier.