The Indian jungle’s most charismatic big cat – check. Two young and feisty protagonists from opposite ends of the social spectrum, ten-year-old city-bred gadgethead Tara and thirteen-year-old tiger-loving tribal boy Satya – check. An international gang of poachers and smugglers dealing in tiger parts that must be stopped before it’s too late – check. In short, all the ingredients for a cracking potboiler of an adventure. Seriously, what could go wrong?
Plenty! For one, the plot could be plodding. Or the kids could be stereotypical urban-rural, privileged-underprivileged caricatures. Or the dialogue could be stilted. Or the premise could be completely unrealistic. Or… There are tons of ways in which a writer could muck up, or at least not do enough justice to, a perfectly promising story outline.
Fortunately for all of us – I mean, the tigers that need saving, the privileged young urban populace that needs to be sensitised to the need for conservation, and anyone who enjoys a good story – debutante author Nayanika Mahtani doesn’t. Muck up, I mean. With a deft, sure hand, she crafts a heartwarming adventure story with memorable, and more importantly, completely credible characters who straddle geographies from Mumbai to Dehra Dun to fictional Kimatgarh to China. The pace never flags, and culminates in a satisfyingly happy ending, involving the rescue and rehabilitation of the tigress Bijli and her cubs, largely through the children’s efforts.
Of course, you sort of expect the book to be good even before you plunge into the story, and it is, from the outside in. The cover, illustrated by Anoop Sreedharan, designed by Tara Upadhyay, and with typography by Aparajita Ninan, is bright, beautiful and arresting. You would not miss this book if it was face up, even on a crowded display shelf. More importantly, it is recommended by nature-loving stalwarts like Ruskin Bond and Bill Aitken, and the venerable Tiger Man Valmik Thapar seals it with a warm foreword.
What are the best things about Ambushed? One, lots of humour, especially around Sushma ‘Sue’ Tripathi, Tara’s socialite mom, who “looked like she had been smacked in the face with a largish salmon” when she finds out, in the middle of a swinging seventies theme party she has planned for her husband Aarav’s fortieth birthday, that she will have to trade in her dream of a chalet on the Amalfi coast for some rather basic living in rural Kimatgarh, because her husband has decided to quit his high-flying corporate career and go and save tigers instead. How Sue handles the catastrophic (to her mind, at least) transformation was, to me, one of the high points of the book. In a sympathetic portrayal, Mahtani allows Sue to retain her independent, outspoken, creature-comfort-craving self while giving a little around the edges to accommodate her husband – and daughter’s – new passion.
Tara’s own attitudinal shift, and gradual acceptance, of her new situation is also nicely done – from trying to manufacture tiger stories to impress friends who would be holidaying in Disneyland and Iceland and Egypt rather than Kimatgarh, to using her city-girl skills to help save actual tigers, while getting herself embroiled in an international smuggling ring and being captured by a real-live poacher in the bargain. Children are generally adaptable creatures, making the best out of any situation as long as it is explained rationally to them, and this is borne out by Tara’s transition.
Two, the way Mahtani handles all the other relationships in the book is commendable, especially between Tara’s parents, who are clearly as different from each other as chalk and cheese; between Tara and Satya, who find common ground in their shared love of the tiger; between Sue Tripathi and Bijli the tigress, the simple fact of their motherhood breaking down human-animal barriers and forging a timeless bond; between Tara and the Jekyll-and-Hyde Mr Saini, the forest ranger who helps Mr Tripathi find his feet in his new life and never forgets to bring Tara chocolate. Not for Mahtani the harsh – and easy – portrayals of people as the good guys and the bad guys that feature in lesser books; here, people act, as they do in real life, as per their specific compulsions and constraints.
Last but not least is the way the conservation message is delivered – with a light, light touch, never in-your-face, never preachy, just the way young readers like it. If you hope to raise a child with a conservationist’s soul, Ambushed is a great addition to the library.
By Arundhati Roshan B.
Author: Nayanika Mahtani
Penguin Books, 2015
Subject Category: Contemporary/Fiction