The Mag This Week

Sunday reading:

Sumit Chakraberty interviewed Pankaj Mishra, about his new book From The Ruins of Empire. There are many quotable quotes in there. My favourite is probably the where Mishra says that India at the time of independence had “a moral prestige.”

A review of Jeffery Deaver’s XO, by Apoorva Dutt.

I reviewed Nilanjana Roy’s The Wildings and interviewed the book’s illustrator, Prabha Mallya.

The Cat’s Whiskers

A few pages into Nilanjana Roy’s The Wildings, you’ll wish you had whiskers and could mew. The world as imagined by Roy in this remarkable debut is filled with marvels, not the least of which is the feline social media network which makes Twitter look witheringly banal. Roy is a cat-, cheel-, mouse- and mongoose-whisperer and this is the animals’ story, unhampered by human interference.

Set in the neighbourhood of Nizamuddin, which is neatly divided between different wild and semi-tame animals, The Wildings begins with a threat named Mara. You wouldn’t think that an adorable orange fuzzball could endanger an entire colony of cats, but Mara is no ordinary kitten. She is a Sender, which means she can dominate the telepathic network through which cats communicate.

The problem is that Mara doesn’t belong to Nizamuddin and has been adopted by humans. Stray cats, or wildings, don’t think much of house cats and to have a Sender who transmits messages about “the fell captivity of the fearsome sock drawer” is downright embarrassing. Fortunately, Mara has a few friends among the wildings, namely Beraal, who becomes Mara’s tutor, and Southpaw, a kitten with a gift for landing in trouble.

Unfortunately, despite the fact that Mara and Beraal are the most finely-etched characters in The Wildings, the novelis not about the Sender. Mara’s appearance in Nizamuddin is the appetiser while the entree is a clash between the wildings and the ferals, a group of crazed, bloodthirsty cats led by the vicious Datura. With the ferals taking centrestage, Mara’s story is set aside (presumably for the sequel), which is frustrating.

Roy also makes you hunger for more back stories, particularly since the few she offers, like that of Ozzy the tiger, are delightful. However, despite these disappointments, The Wildings is a pageturner and a charming read. Apparently, Roy wrote the novel by treating it like non-fiction. No wonder, then, that it feels perfectly real.

Interview with Prabha Mallya

The Babblers from Nilanjana Roy’s The Wildings (Aleph); illustrations by Prabha Mallya.

How did you begin work on The Wildings?
Aleph had given me the manuscript and [asked for] a set number of illustrations. Going strictly by that, the book might have looked different. However, as the illustrations began to develop, we (Bena Sareen, creative cirector of Aleph, David Davidar, co-founder of Aleph, and the other editors) could all see what a difference little drawings snuck into the margins could do. It just grew and grew, like a wild interesting bunch of mushrooms, like kittens tumbling out of a box.

Did you read the entire book?
Yes! From start to end, and I was glued. I must have read it twice through the whole two months of illustrating.

Were you very conscious that The Wildings shouldn’t seem like a children’s book?
Yes. Aleph wanted it to be an illustrated book and specifically, a not-cute one. Conventional kiddie illustrations tend to stay bright and cheerful and keep away from gory ideas like death, blood, un-prettiness, wildness. I think if a kid can take in this gritty, brave, wild story, then the illustrations must stay true to the words and be just as wild and real. I wanted to portray the animals in a way that appeared as realistic as possible, so readers could perhaps relate what they see in the book to what they see in the street animals around them too. The world of The Wildings is full of so many layers — plants, earth, rain, stone, garbage from humans, sound, smells.

Is it more fun drawing animals than humans?
I’ve come to prefer drawing animals (though I absolutely love drawing kooky-looking people and strange clothes). There are so many nuances of bodily expression in animals to latch upon, so much that can be observed from an animal and captured in a drawing in unconventional ways. I think when you’ve spent enough time with a particular animal, you get to know what it’s telling you non-verbally. That’s what Nilanjana’s view of cats reveals.

What are your favourite parts of The Wildings?
My favourite character of all has got to be Kirri. I could even imagine how her voice might sound. The idea of a mongoose “dancing” with a snake or any other enemy is so full of thrill and movement. The illustration of Kirri needed to show the kind of sinuous motion she’s capable of. Besides, to all the other creatures, she’s almost a mythic creature full of unexplained power, so the figure drawn is a little bit abstract and unreal. Of course there is the cinematic, stripey spread [when Mara meets Ozzy the tiger]. The illustration was a black and white translation of the scene. Nilanjana’s written this so vividly you nearly expect to see black and orange flames crackling in the air around you as you read. As one of the first illustrations done for the book, this is where the mixed-media technique really fell into place.

Do you have a preference for cats? 
I started out a dog person until one day a mewling kitten was brought to Pencil Sauce (where I worked, in Bengaluru). Watching that cat grow and do all those wonderful things cats do… I have been inspired by cats ever since. Artistically, you can reduce every move of a cat to a gentle s-curve. They’re very poised and balanced and graceful, neat and composed. And besides, they sit on your lap, making you stay put and finish the drawing instead of prancing around and being distracted or procrastinating. One should never wake a sleeping cat. Somewhere an angel dies when you do that.


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