Most aspiring writers have at one time or the other faced the vexed issue of what comes first (rather like the chicken and egg problem): characters or plot. Put your characters before the plot and you run the danger of boring your readers because the story fails to take off; do the reverse, like thriller writers often do, and your characters – often made of cheap cardboard – fade away into oblivion thirty seconds after you finish the book. Ruskin Bond has solved this problem in his own unique and very simple way: His characters are the plot.
In Tigers for Dinner, that character is Jim Corbett’s alleged erstwhile cook or khansama, who comes to work at the Bond household, after Carpet Sahib leaves India for Africa. Naturally the man is full of riveting jungle stories and the young Bond’s ears are flapping to hear more. Some of those tall stories are recounted here: an encounter with a tiger who dined on a masaalchi; of a leopard accidentally shot out of a tree (“good shot, Mehmoud!”); of wrestling a king cobra in bed; of wild boars tossing royalty; of being taken for a ride on the back of a crocodile; and, of course, the inevitable ghost story (involving an eyeball)… and more.
Bond shows as he always does, that you don’t need a racy plot to keep the reader engrossed: you just need interesting, kind, funny, sagacious, charismatic, imaginative, brave (and sometimes cowardly), mischievous characters – just like yourself, of course – to keep the reader involved. (Who wouldn’t want to read about him or herself?) His deceptively simple and sparse prose shows that you do not need to use words more than ten letters long (or sentences of more than ten words) to convey what you want, and how you feel – and to make others like or dislike you. All you need is a keen eye and a mind that makes connections – between ideas, not with politicians and their ilk! A peppery sprinkle of badinage between the khansama and the young Bond keeps the smile on your face a permanent fixture. This is a single course book; seventy-two pages of comfort-reading easily devoured in an evening.
In his Introduction, Bond tells us that old Mehmoud, the cook, was prone to exaggeration and that one of his “specialties” was Turtle Soup, the recipe for which, Bond out of courtesy to his publishers, refrains from giving us. The recipe for his writing is easy to recognize though (maybe not so easy to follow): observe, keep it simple, and always see the absurd and funny side of things.
The cover, page design and illustrations by Sunaina Ceolho are a perfect match for the stories. Dark, brooding browns are the main theme, suitable to dark brooding jungle settings. The characters: the young Bond, the khansama, and the denizens he describes (both human and animal), make for hilarious counterpoints, what with their incredulous, almost gargoyle expressions, and bristling moustaches.
A perfect gift for a ten- or hundred-year-old. Or anyone in between.
By Ranjit Lal
TIGERS FOR DINNER
Author: Ruskin Bond
Illustrator: Sunaina Coelho
Rupa Publications, 2013
Subject Category: Fiction/Anthology