With its intriguing cover, A Pair of Twins immediately evokes some curiosity and makes you want to know what lies within its pages.

The story begins on an endearing note, with its ‘twin’ protagonists –  a young girl and a palace elephant – who are born on the same day. Sundari is the daughter of the chief mahout of the Mysore Palace. She dreams of being one too, but the job traditionally is only a man’s. Lakshmi the elephant calf, on the other hand, is born to the main bull elephant that has led the Dussehra procession through the city for many years. Historically, this too is an opportunity that only bull elephants are given. In a twist of circumstance, our twin female characters set a new precedent for discussing role reversal and tackling gender stereotypes. Overall, the theme is laudable, the setting of the story in Mysore is unique, and the illustrations are appealing.

Unfortunately, the actual writing doesn’t work quite as well. Although the story has its merits, Kavitha Mandana’s text is unnecessarily verbose, and should have been more tightly edited. The sentences are long and winding, usually with several commas in each one. The language is stilted in places and the turn of phrase fairly pedestrian. Given that the intended audience is children (although the age-group the book is meant for is not mentioned), the book is not written in a style that will appeal to them. The writing is clumsy, especially at the end, where there is an awkward break to describe what a Bharatnatyam dancer’s dress is like right in the middle of the narrative. This could have been woven in more cleverly or described in the glossary if the author really felt the need to explain it to a non-Indian reader.

Nayantara Surendranath’s illustration style is very likeable. It’s bold and dramatic, and she uses some lovely motifs right through the book. The characters are very expressive. Surendranath tries different perspectives, thus playing with scale and size, which works well in most of the pages. There are some very creatively thought out spreads that add a touch of whimsy and really lift the text. The warm colour palette of the book with its earthy tones works well. In a few places though, the images are a bit disjointed and seem like they have been patched together. While the size and layout of the book is generous, a few pages still feel cluttered. With large chunks of text and illustration taking up space, these pages seem quite crowded with hardly any white space for visual relief.

One quibble I had was with the way Sundari has been depicted as a teenager in the latter half of the book, with a strong touch of exoticism. She could have been drawn with a little more imagination and a little less stereotyping. In choosing to draw her like a ‘classic beauty’, reminiscent of an Indian-style Disney princess, the illustrator wastes an opportunity to show her in a different way, which would have been more in keeping with the theme of the book.

The message this book sends out about girls being able to do anything and breaking stereotypes is important, but somewhere along the way it loses direction while trying to focus on the female empowerment angle. The real reason that Sundari gets a chance to lead the Dussehra procession is because Rajanna (Lakshmi’s mahout) thinks he is “too old” and would “look pathetic” to do so himself. How satisfying is this victory, really? Ultimately, where is Sundari’s agency? And, is this a compelling message to send out to young girls? I’m not very convinced it is.

Finally, this book has all the elements to make it a great read – a pertinent theme, memorable characters and eye-catching illustrations – but sadly does not live up to its own potential.

By Mayura K.

Author: Kavitha Mandana
Illustrator: Nayantara Surendranath
32 pages
Rs 195.00
ISBN: 978-8181903020
Karadi Tales, 2014
Subject Category: Contemporary/Picture Book
Age-group: 5+

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