When something is amiss, society often tends to look away. Or it hunkers down beneath layers of prejudice and custom, and makes believe that all’s well with the world. Fortunately, there are the feisty few who dare to step out of the collective comfort zone and voice their concern. Sorry, Best Friend! is one such wake-up call. Surely, a much-needed one in a country that has become increasingly polarized on the lines of caste, class, religion, and gender. The ten stories in this collection have been specifically crafted to drive home a message: yes, people might look different from you, speak a language you don’t understand, call God by another name, or follow customs and practices that you are not familiar with. Yet, in spite of these differences, we are interconnected, and “each of us has a place” in the “jigsaw puzzle that is India”.
Very laudable sentiments indeed, but pitch them at young readers, and you may be sure they’ll tune out with a yawn in ten seconds flat. This is where Sorry, Best Friend! scores. It succeeds because the message has been gift-wrapped and presented in the form of stories. Stories that scrutinize life-affirming concepts in an approachable way, with the authors taking pains to see that their writing is clear and lucid, so that children have no difficulty grasping what they say. Moreover, the black-and-white illustrations too blend harmoniously with the spirit of the narrative.
Many of the stories deal with the evil of communalism, but the tone and mood are varied enough to hold the reader’s interest. Among these, believe it or not, are two rollicking ones that not only convey their message effectively but are also the most fun to read. In Zai Whitaker’s bright and bubbly cautionary fable, ‘What Happened to the Reptiles’, the crocodiles are bamboozled (with visions of more food and space) by their rabble-rousing leader into throwing out all the other reptiles of the forest. Of course, the reptilian utopia that they are promised never materializes. Instead, the lack of biodiversity disrupts the food chain, and the crocodiles soon find their forest home overrun by rats and frogs and all manner of pesky pests… Then, there’s the delightful tale of the crazy fights people get into over something as inconsequential as a name. Even the Bird Man of India, Dr. Salim Ali, almost gets arrested because a bumbling policeman accuses him of having a “Pakistani name”!
Given the nature of the theme, it is not surprising that one or two stories end up being forced and preachy. Sure, the message of harmony, equality and respect for all cultures is relevant today, but do we really need to be smacked across the face with it? Far more appealing are the subtly nuanced narratives like the title story, for instance, about the ups and downs of friendship across a class divide. The carefree camaraderie of a young boy and the maid’s daughter, later marred by a foolish misunderstanding, the anger and hurt, and the final reconciliation are portrayed with easy realism. Just as heart-warming is Shama Futehally’s gentle tale of a frightened boy alone in a railway compartment, who is comforted by a stranger so completely swathed in a black burqa that he initially mistakes her for a piece of luggage… but then, she turns out to be just like his mother!
What is most encouraging is that all the stories end on a positive, upbeat note – even the sad ones such as The Doll by Sawan Dutta, which is set against the backdrop of the anti-Sikh riots. Tejinder Singh, a young peanut seller, returns home one evening to find his entire neighbourhood in flames. All that’s left of his mother is a bangle in the ashes, and his world comes crashing down when he realizes that she is gone forever. But a little girl’s generosity in giving him her precious doll (which she says had comforted and “looked after” her when her mother “went away to be with God”) somehow brings him consolation and hope.
In story after story, Sorry, Best Friend! reiterates the concept that diversity must be celebrated, not feared or crushed, for it offers us much more to experience, embrace and enjoy. In any case, even those who seem ‘different’ have the same feelings, needs and hopes. The book (which has been recommended for use in schools by the CBSE) could certainly help children realign their perspective, realize that they too can become a catalyst for change, and open up to the multicultural world in which we all live.
By Veena Seshadri
Editors: Githa Hariharan and Shama Futehally
Illustrator: Ranjan De
Tulika Publishers, 1997
Subject Category: Fiction/Anthology