Children’s book publishers are constantly trawling the slush piles in search of fresh, original voices. One imagines that when Lalita Iyer’s collection of short stories reached them, they must have broken into an impulsive bhangra, or a spontaneous therukoothu, or indeed, any type of celebratory jig favoured by publishers when they chance upon a manuscript with immense promise, for Iyer’s narrative voice is light, chatty and quite distinctive.
A popular blogger, and author of one book for adults, The Boy Who Swallowed a Nail is Iyer’s first book for children. In this collection of nine short stories, she recounts anecdotes from her own childhood growing up in small towns all over India. At the heart of the stories is the author’s own utterly lovable family. There’s her Amma, who is determined to use up the wool leftover from previous knitting projects whenever she knits new sweaters for the family. This has some startling results, one being a sweater which has each sleeve in a different shade of pink. There’s Appa who has the most extraordinary friends and falls for the most improbable schemes. Twin siblings (a brother and a sister) complete the family unit.
The gem in this collection is “The Man Who Couldn’t Stop Farting”, Lalita Iyer’s retelling of a story that her own grandmother regaled her with. The humour is earthy with a clutch-your-sides funny moment when the character’s over-consumption of sundal… erm… misfires most dramatically.
“Everyone Goes to Nainital” is another delightful story. The author’s family takes a budget holiday – not to Nainital where everyone goes – but to Dhanaulti, which is supposed to have the best views of the Himalayas. Amma cannot be discouraged from washing clothes at every halt, never mind if the first stopover happens to be the railway station. Some glitch has resulted in the family spending two nights at the Dehradun Railway Waiting Room. Here, morning tea is served in a teapot accompanied by white serviettes, and at night, the children tiptoe straight from their room onto the platform in their nightclothes. It’s all so enjoyable that they want to spend the rest of their holiday at the train station rather than travel to Dhanaulti.
The family’s wacky adventures charm us in story after story. They narrowly escape becoming owners of a buffalo, a mouse gets trapped in the sofa being upholstered, the fun is endless. When converting family stories such as these into books, there are tricky narrative hurdles that authors must negotiate skilfully. Divested of the base of shared memories that creates a special resonance when anecdotes are recounted to family or friends, the stories must work independently to entertain.
Do the stories in The Boy Who Swallowed a Nail engage children as independent narrative entities? Yes, most of the stories are cracking good tales. This makes the few instances where the narrative stumbles a great pity, since it required nothing more than a bit of thoughtful editorial intervention to keep the appeal of the stories even and universal. To give an example, family members – and adult ones at that – may be interested in the fact that the birth of the author’s twin siblings was a considered a collective miracle, because firstly their mother didn’t know she was expecting twins until her sixth month of pregnancy, and secondly because she weighed forty kilos and had a rheumatoid heart. However, this sort of information overload will probably have the child reader hurriedly turning the page.
Some of the tales are more anecdotal in nature rather than being stories in the conventional sense. “Appa and his Weird Friends”, for instance, has the feel of an essay on the unusual friendships that the author’s father strikes up. Pattumami’s failure to keep the two sisters interested in their music lessons ends with the author staying true to reality and sharing Pattumami’s tomato chutney recipe rather than dishing out a more story-driven resolution.
Spellcheck and auto-correct have today become dreadful little landmines in the field of verbal communication. How often we’ve pressed ‘send’ on a message only to find that auto-correct has mangled it beyond recognition? There are instances in this book where simple sentences are mystified into incomprehensibility by spellcheck. How else can one explain well-built men being referred to as “burlesque men” (page 55)? Or the road being described as “just a long, straight, often winding road” (page 53)? Or a mother most confusingly portrayed as “always a spendthrift, never wasted anything” (page 17)?
In order, perhaps, to preserve the authenticity of the author’s voice, the editing of the text has been less gimlet-eyed than required. “His head reminded us of a sunflower. He was bald in the middle and had tufts of hair surrounding it” (page 10) is just one example.
The inside illustrations (in colour!) by Shamika Kocharekar complement the quirky tone of the narrative, though one wishes that one of the more attractive illustrations had found its way onto the cover.
Ultimately, The Boy Who Swallowed a Nail is a fun read for children, and would also be an excellent resource for teachers looking for texts to use in the classroom.
By Asha Nehemiah
Author: Lalita Iyer
Illustrator: Shamika Kocharekar
Scholastic India, 2016
Subject Category: Contemporary/Fiction