Journalist Nilanjana Roy sets herself a tough task in her debut novel The Wildings, which starts out to be a grownup book about animals, with splashes of heroic fantasy, traces of sci-fi, and yet an adventure for all ages. The eponymous cats of the book, which is illustrated by Prabha Mallaya, share their world in and around Nizamuddin with pampered pets, feral villains, even an exotic zoo inhabitant or two.
Following the introduction of a pet kitten with the potential to upset the balance of this world, the book traces the dynamics and interactions within an increasingly large cast of animal characters. Unfortunately, the wide variety of influences and continuous stream of plot development feels sketched out rather than fullyrealised. The book never fills in the shapes it outlines, and the resulting inconsistencies in tone, language, and context make this story less fun than it promises to be.
There are plenty of fine examples of serious books about animals. Watership Down remains the high mark, with its unfussy and heartbreaking realism in depicting a rabbit exodus, but Charlotte’s Web, “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi”and Black Beauty, among many others, gave us “talking” animals in a human world; and it would be insulting to dismiss them as mere fiction for children.
In attempting to be serious and accurate, but also whimsical, mythic and tragic, The Wildings falls short in establishing its own internal vocabulary. This results in rather cloying anachronism. Humans are referred to as Bigfeet, a cutesy touch that’s particularly grating when one realises that the cats not only use perfectly normal, and human, names for most other species, but also utter phrases like “keeping the airwaves clear”, and “wet-behindthe- whiskers”.
There are inconsistencies between passages too. Early scenes with Mara the kitten employ the baby-talk and anthromorphising tendencies of works for younger readers, with the spoken-aloud enthusiasm of Enid Blyton. Elsewhere, a recollection of an adult cat’s first season and the lining-up of suitors for mating, while continuing the cats-as-people framework, seems like it belongs in a different book. A gliding cheel weighs – with comic machine-precision – the benefits of a SD&K (swoop, dive and kill) before registering a “46% kill probability”. A council debate takes place with mythic intonation to their speech (“In the years since Tigris died, there has been little need for a Sender among us wildings”). Unintentionally comedic phrases are created when the differing approaches collide, for example: “‘WoofWOOF’, he said in contrapuntal fashion. ‘WOOFwoof! WOOF!’”
Much of the dialogue is expository, meant to establish the personality types these animals represent. There is a desire to explain everything; the twitching of whiskers, for example, doesn’t have to be qualified: “twitch in irritation”. Claws are unsheathed “reflexively”. This overwriting is prevalent in the smallest of descriptions. Instead of a kitten simply staring at a face, we read about one who “found himself staring” into that face. This makes the reading slow going, and has the effect of distancing the reader from the characters, which end up feeling a bit like variations of each other – though they are sketched out as archetypes.
However, Prabha Mallaya’s black-and-white illustrations are superb; moody and yet brimming with energy. Each one adds a touch of a setting that ultimately feels unfulfilled by the book. These gorgeous pictures provide tantalising suggestions of what a different book this could have been, perhaps with reduced text and a co-authorship for the illustrator. The Wildings is an ambitious book, but would have been helped with a little more story and a little less telling.
By Angshuman Chakraborty on August 31 2012 7.12am