One is left wondering at Maneka Gandhi’s sudden change of heart, at least in this little collection of stories. Renowned for her affection for quadrupeds, she takes time off to weave tales of human foibles and magnanimity.
The title short story is a simple narrative of Rain, the “droopiest creature” living in a “misty, mossy cavern,” at loggerheads with the rotund “His Warmness,” Sun. It grips one’s attention not with any surprise twists but with subtle caricatures of Nature’s personified offspring.
Boulababa, the protagonist of an eponymously-named fairy tale, is “the fattest prince in the whole world.” But featuring a spoilt mama’s child tricked into starving and punishing workouts to lose weight and gain a beautiful princess does not really send the right message, especially when ultra-thin models and the media do the dirty job of goading children and teenagers to skip meals and torture their bodies. Surely, Maneka could do better by turning the story inside out.
This is exactly what she does in “Heads & Tales,” where a king loses his head, literally. The decapitated royal is endowed with all the noble qualities of a ruler and Maneka gives a glimpse of what Utopia could be. Traces of didacticism can be noticed as the author tries to grapple with multiple issues — a perfect world, the deception of appearance and the benefits of not having a head at all. The story may, however, appear ludicrous to the young readers, what with a headless king being able to talk and see!
But the charm of the narrative lies in the good-humored dig at environmental seminars, politicians with Swiss bank accounts, and inaccurate weather predictions. In a land “on the edge of imagination,” inhabited by witches, the incongruity of reality invariably creeps in, enriching the mirth that is the trademark of this book.
The author, in fact, does have a way with words. Pithy phrases and sentences like “The sun glinted off the rainbow pool of unshed tears” (“The Kiss”) are chiseled to near-perfection to stir up the exact images that the picture words convey. But, as is characteristic of Maneka, she gets carried away with whatever she is good at, and the virtue of her style ends up being a cloying, monotonous and clever mechanism rather than an art.
A perfect example of the misuse of her gift is “The Kiss.” The story stands out in the book for its unusual protagonist — a kiss. The bizarre yet compelling human protagonist in search of a “home” invariably never gets planted on a cheek as a result of hilarious circumstances. But Maneka won’t allow her readers to derive pleasures from simple incongruous moments of life. So she includes a two-page alliterative verse that becomes nauseating with a conclusion like this: “smooch, smack, slurp, shwerp, pichee, ptchak, pcchooee, Squishified love.”
A surprise inclusion is the amoral “Autobiography, Sort of.” Unlike conventional fairy tales, the child-protagonist does not learn any lessons of life and gets away with a streak of sadism and petulance still intact. The “dark” tale is redeemed by the caricature of the king. An alert adult cannot help but be suspicious that the “genial, boyish” king is cast in the mould of Maneka’s brother-in-law and a former Prime Minister of India. It could be a subconscious act on her part, but the hints are all there, what with the problems that took place during his administration mentioned in quick succession.
However, all things must come to an end. Maneka, instead of building up the denouement with a flourish, ends on a note of moroseness and a righteous facade. “The Beginning Of The End” can be called the end of a great beginning. Maneka, full of didacticism and verbosity, clearly fails and the tale ends up looking like a dissipated creative effort. A satire on modern and ill-planned development strives to bring out the “connectedness of life” What we get instead is a study of ornithology, and the plot gets lost on the way, only to be resurrected for a ceremonial climax.
Moreover, in these days of “women’s lib” Maneka fails to usurp the dominant role men have always played in fairy tales. So we are feted with all-powerful males, while women, such as those in “Boulababa” and “Heads & Tales,” only have substance enough to capture a husband with the right dash of coyness and cunning.
Adults may enjoy this book not only because it recalls their childhood but also for the skilful turn of phrase, the wry humor, and the dig Gandhi takes at the establishment. But the book is primarily meant for children, and the advanced vocabulary could have been toned down. Her verbosity might lead her young readers to grudgingly wade through a dictionary or drive them to shut the book and go back to television — which would be a sad tale for a riveting book like this.
(Puffin India, 2000)