A tiny, delightful morsel
- In the vein of the Panchatantra, Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi’s The Rabbit and the Squirrel provides a charming little fable for adults
Nov 17, 2018-Indian author Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi’s latest offering, The Rabbit and the Squirrel, is likely to baffle librarians and booksellers, for it defies conventional genres. Its folktale-like title and illustrations will lure parents into taking it home for little ones—only for them to encounter, on page eight, the picture of a totally-stoned squirrel putting to good use “her skill as an expert roller of joints.”
Semi-novella, part-graphic story, this work of art proudly calls itself “a charmed fable for grown ups.” It begins with an abrupt introduction to the squirrel, who dislikes all her suitors, but is forced to settle down with a boar. Her best friend the rabbit, meanwhile, is accepted into a monastery. Leading separate lives, they often think of the other, contemplating their togetherness and the beauty of their friendship. When they meet years later, what has changed and what remains the same? That remains to be read.
Every other novel seems to trace similar plots—friends-as-lovers and friendship-or-love. This book, with a fairly common, almost universal theme, would have been lost among similar piles, but two things make it stand out and shine—the brilliant use of anthropomorphised animals as characters, and the equally quirky illustrations by Stina Wirsen that accompany the wild descriptions. In simple, well-defined strokes, both the writer and artist bring the human-animals alive, making readers want to linger on and know more.
The book is also designed to make readers nostalgic for the innocence of childhood—of Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit, of Charlotte’s Web and Alice in Wonderland. Most of all, it closely mimics the Panchatantra tales most children in the Indian subcontinent grow up with, wherein animals have vices and virtues, just like humans. Each story contains stories within itself, early traces of metafiction. And it all ends with a reminder, even an admonition if you will, to embody the best human qualities. True to its fabled ancestry, The Rabbit and the Squirrel even has a moral for readers: carpe diem. Live in the moment and appreciate it in all its glory, for it is all you have, before it swiftly slips out of your hands.
The two protagonists understand this maxim only towards the very last pages, and their realisation and internalisation of this lesson is both beautiful and painful to witness. The only take-away from this heartwarming end is that a majority of readers might have already predicted the way the book might go, guided by long association with similar works.
Which is not to say that the story is any old read. It is irreverent, fanciful and has a distinct character of its own. Shanghvi is minimalistic, almost frugal, with words, sweeping past decades in a single sentence. But within this crazy tale, there are scattered moments and descriptions that are surprisingly moving. In one of these instances, the best friends who caper around unconcerned most of the time get together to let out their collective rage and frustration—“They wept for flowers that fell before their time. They wept for the sea, heavy with the rubbish of the living. They wept for the air, sodden with the dreams of the dead. They wept because everyone disappointed them, and because they would disappoint others. They wept because everything was unbearably beautiful, and their time to experience any of it was dreadfully short.”
In such simple words, never veering towards the unknown, Sanghvi manages to capture all of human torment and misery, hopelessness and resilience. It is a masterful trick—he lays bare the pitiable human condition, and yet, camouflaged as it is in the garb of two non-humans, readers are allowed to distance themselves from the plight if they wish. Sanghvi exploits this advantage throughout the tale, this duality of human emotions cloaked within an animal exterior, which allows him to talk freely of human problems without any restriction or censorship.
For example, the story has all of human ills and evils lurking within it—alcoholism and drug abuse; mental health and suicidal tendencies; unhappy marriages and societal pressures; post-partum depression and meninists; body image and self-esteem. There is something sinister, but very familiar, hidden within the pages that might not be immediately apparent, for it is wrapped up in a display of dark humor. It makes us laugh, and then it makes us sad.
Much more prominent is the characters’, and the author’s need to speculate on existential angst. Sometimes this resonates, at other times it makes you uncomfortable, and at some places, it is simply unnecessary and comes across as high-sounding but cringe-worthy statements doled out in self-help books. So while the work will appeal to the child in you, it might not necessarily reach out to the philosopher in you, as the writer intends. When the squirrel is grieving after a personal trauma, her mother tells her, “If you are waiting, it is because you are deserving; if you are deserving, it is because you have waited.” This is a rather unnecessary homily, sounding lofty but adding very little to the work.
Sanghvi has already proven his literary mettle with his two earlier works, and this one speaks volumes about his ability to synthesise and simplify, and his willingness to test new waters. Experiments are mostly a great thing—they expand the horizons of literature and make us think of new ways to think and talk and write. This experimentation is what keeps the work fresh, engaging and readable. Its size is also perfectly suited to the attention span of a majority of today’s readers—a quick literary fix. If not as ground-breaking and philosophical as it aspires to be, The Rabbit and the Squirrel certainly makes for a delightful little morsel.
Price: Rs 640
Publisher: Penguin Random House India
Published: 17-11-2018 08:12