What marks a work of fiction out as a ‘children’s book’? Is it the presence of child protagonists? Is it its content – content that someone, somewhere has decided is ‘suitable for consumption’ for humans under the age of twelve? Is it the language – simple words, short sentences, an overwhelming use of the active voice? Or is it the simple fact that children enjoy it, never mind that it breaks every hidebound convention of ‘good’ children’s writing? Personally, I would go with this last definition. A children’s book, in my mind, becomes that simply by fulfilling its primary raison d’etre – appealing to children.
How does Karachi-based writer Shandana Minhas’ utterly charming book Survival Tips for Lunatics (published by Hachette India Children’s Books) fare when weighed up in this particular balance? I am not sure. In my experience, children enjoy simple black-and-white stories with a straightforward, and more-or-less linear, plot that culminates in a clean resolution of whatever conflict forms the crux of the story. Minhas’ book is too nuanced and too layered to fit this description. There is no denying, however, that any adult who is still in touch with his or her inner child will fall head over heels in love with the writer’s skilful and poignant conflating of entertaining fable, cautionary tale and grim fact (the story is set against the backdrop of, among other things, Pakistan’s ‘troubles’ with its neighbour Afghanistan, American interference in the region, and the country’s debilitating war with itself).
But maybe, and one sincerely hopes so, Survival Tips will end up being a huge hit with young readers, even if they miss some of its messages. After all, it does have many of the ingredients necessary for a classic children’s fantasy-fable. There are the two cheeky and engaging young protagonists (twelve-year-old Changez and his brother, nine-year-old Timmy, short for Timur), sparkling dialogue, crackling humour, non-stop action, strong but delicately worked-in messages about conservation and the senselessness of war and organized religion, and a cast of fabulously-drawn animal characters – muggermuchhes with courtly Victorian manners, a bad-verse-spouting Chiltan Markhor (look it up!), a bad-verse-hating dragon called Chiraghdin, an absolutely endearing Baloo-Bagheera-esque pair of a Balochistan black bear called Bear and a sparrow called, erm, Sparrow, apart from long-extinct Baluchitherium and velociraptors that burst out of the earth when it split open after “no-clear testing” (Bear tells the children “it is no clear to us why humans do it, so we call it no-clear testing”), a reference to the series of nuclear tests Pakistan carried out in the Ras Koh Hills of the Balochistan province in 1998.
The story opens with Changez waking up in his tent on a hillside in the Hingol National Park, where he is on a camping trip with his family, to find that sometime during the night, the rest of the camping party, including his parents, has upped sticks and left. The bizarre truth is that he is now utterly alone, save for his pesky younger brother (aka the capuchin-monkey-brained snotosaurus), on a remote hillside in Balochistan, hundreds of miles away from his Karachi home. As he struggles to wrap his head around his situation, an earthquake begins. It triggers a landslide that shuts off the mouth of the valley, killing all hopes of a tear-stained, guilt-stricken, parent-led rescue and reunion. The earthquake is over in minutes, but the Hingol River, now dammed by the landslide, is beginning to rise dangerously, and hundreds of strong-jawed specimens of the genus Crocodilus are scrambling out and heading for higher ground, and the boys! Changez knows that he has to do Something Very Grown-Up and Responsible Very Quickly, except he has no idea what.
Enter resourceful and pragmatic Sparrow, identified positively by amateur – and completely misguided – naturalist Timmy as a baby golden eagle. Sparrow has a plan to get the boys out of the valley. And so begins a wild and hilarious and dangerous and sometimes – but only when other humans get involved – very scary adventure that takes the boys across the vast wildernesses of Balochistan and Afghanistan in the loving (or not!) company of the creatures (real and imagined, extinct and almost-extinct) that inhabit those regions, into military camps on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, and finally into the hands of a vicious beggar ring on their own side of the border, before they are eventually reunited with their parents.
This review would not be complete without a mention of the brilliant pen-and-ink illustrations by Sayan Mukherjee, which do exactly what illustrations in a book for nine-year-olds should do – enhance the pleasure of reading the book while leaving plenty to the imagination. The doublespreads, especially the creature silhouettes, are particularly dramatic, and his rendering of a guffawing Bear and the rough-skinned muggermuchhes are outstanding.
Survival Tips is a special book, a rare and welcome departure from the usual parade of easily-digestible, if very enjoyable, children’s books in the market. If its most heartwarming bits are the deep bonds forged between the brothers and the creatures they meet, and between the brothers themselves, the most heartbreaking is its underlying sense of desperation, loss and hopelessness in the face of the horrors man is capable of visiting upon his own kind and upon the rest of the planet. Fortunately, that sadness is balanced by a shining hope that we may yet learn how to live from our children, and from the other creatures we share the earth with.
Stop press: News has just come in that Survival Tips for Lunatics has won the French Embassy Fiction Prize, awarded for “excellence in fiction written in English by Pakistani writers”, at the Karachi Lit Fest on 6 February. This is wonderful news for children’s fiction; for once, a jury has had the vision and the courage to pick a children’s book for a prize primarily meant for adult fiction, simply because it is a great book. The citation justifies the jury’s position thus: “(…)the novel navigates with wit, verve, control, and passion the gnawing anxieties experienced by those children inside all of us who don’t want to grow up.”
Like I said, this book blurs the lines – in the best possible way.
By Arundathi Roshan B
Author: Shandana Minhas
Illustrator: Sayan Mukherjee
Subject category: Contemporary/Fantasy