To begin with, the history of Delhi is a difficult subject to encapsulate in a book of this size. The sheer volume of facts can overwhelm and undermine the best of efforts. Even if one were to define and delimit the scope of such a venture to just a few monuments, it would present a substantial challenge. Then there is the question of HOW. How does one begin to tell the story of the ‘ancestors’ of the city of Delhi in a way children can follow? Should the author follow a linear narration beginning from the first and reaching upto the present? Or, should it be monument focused?
What age group of children does the book target? Is it for the 8-year old? Or the 16-year-old? For an 8-year-old, it is a confounding tale. For a 16-year-old, it is childish, and perhaps demands more patience than a 16-year-old can muster, at the best of times!
The illustrations in the book are where the author’s heart is embedded – it is obvious. The perfect detailing, the richly imaginative compositions, attention to colors and shades – the illustrations mesmerize the reader. Connaught Place, Siri Fort, Tughlaqabad Fort, Hauz Khas village and other south Delhi notables are all depicted with the faith of a believer and the eye of an artist. The colorful rendition of a map of south Delhi on the first page is eye catching.
The text itself, however, betrays a certain distractedness – in style and conception. The use of animals for narration is quaint, and an overhead on the reader, at pains to make sense of the plethora of historical facts, and at the same time, contend with animal names like Tunnu the Tiger, Bula the Bear, and Zero the Giraffe. Janwar Dosti is the body these animals are part of, and they travel from the forests of Ranthambore to Delhi with Dr Kamala. Dr Kamala is the quintessential pedagogue, and the animals, surprisingly well-informed and smart as forest creatures go! Chapter 1 (Delhi Chalo!) gives the erroneous impression the book might have something to do with animal rights.
The animated chatter among the excited animal-tourists from Ranthambore obfuscates the historical nuggets the author wishes to share with readers. The animal parts are labored, they eddy around and die within the flow of the tale. Their caricatures seem purposeless – Zero the giraffe decides to parachute around the Qutb Minar in Chapter 2; in Chapter 6 (Haus Khas), Zero wants to buy necklaces for his family back home; and Tunnu the Tiger takes a rickshaw ride through Chandni Chowk in Chapter 10, with sun shades too!
The story telling is afflicted by distraction – in Chapter 10, the peacock, called Mayurdas of course, discusses globalization and a couple of lines later, the reader is introduced to the Uprising and a couplet of Ghalib’s. In Chapter 11, page 50, the mention of Urdu and its origin as a ‘camp language of the common soldier’ is not entirely accurate. It is one school of thought, no doubt, but it is a contested idea, and more nuanced, and therefore, tenable points of view as to the origin of the Urdu language now prevail.
There is a profusion of ideas, historical factoids and myths herein – and that leaves the reader confused. Animal narrators add to the sense of surreal bewilderment.
But let’s be fair, Delhi and its city predecessors, its tortured birth and rebirth age after age, its dogged search for identity and stability, can hardly be the ideal candidate for compression and narration in a single cover.
The author’s illustrations capture her love for Delhi and that keeps the reader hooked until the last page.
By Meenakshi Chawla
Author and Illustrator : Premola Ghose
Price: Rs. 225.00
Publisher: Amber Books, Young Zubaan, 2011
Subject category: History/Young adult