Satire is a tough genre to pull off for a young readership. For it to be effective, the context has to be firmly in place, and when one is talking about war and violence, this is especially tough. Mike Masilamani’s TH3 8OY WHO 5P3AK5 1N NUM83R5 – that’s The Boy Who Speaks in Numbers for those of you who don’t understand L337, sorry, Leet – is a dark and ironic account of “children caught in the crossfire of civil war… where human deaths are reduced to numbers.”
The protagonist of Masilamani’s story is a young boy who, as we already know, only speaks in numbers, while everyone else in his village speak in colours – “The cost of living makes people purple, people are often marooned, and the jokes are all black.” Numbers, on the other hand, say it like it is. The Boy is a resident of the Small Village of Fat Hopes in the Island of Short Memories. As the island is caught up in the Civil War of Lies, the Boy finds himself homeless after a round of shelling, which leaves his village in flames. Accompanied by his companion, the Constantly Complaining Cow (who keeps up a running commentary of the price of food items) and the Kind Uncle (who eventually becomes the Kind Uncle Who Never Speaks. Ever.), the Boy reaches the refugee camp called the Kettle Camp, “a tin-pot kingdom” with enough tin to remind one of “a giant patched-up kettle”.
At the Kettle Camp, the Boy has a run-in with the Aunty, who runs it with her army of Important Peons – variously called Importunate, Imperious, Impish, Impractical, Impulsive and Impotent. Aunty is your usual tin-pot dictator and hates questions; questions make her break out in pimples and “scold in rhyme with no reason”. Life in the Kettle Camp is dire – the monsoons turns it from a blazing oven into a muddy slush pit, teeming with poisonous snakes and mosquitoes, and cut off from supplies such as food and medicines. Aunty, though, tries to keep spirits up with games of Silly Cricket and Rap-for-the-Refugees parties. Other adventures include the visit of the rebel army’s Little Tin Soldiers – young boys armed to the teeth and trying desperately to look like men – and the flowering Question Tree with its profound queries like, “Is war a wholesale business?” and “Is truth a refugee?” The civil war intensifies and then suddenly draws to a close, and the Boy finds himself part of the Travelling Refugee Circus, and we’re eventually given to believe that there may be hope ahead.
In case you haven’t got the point yet, everything in The Boy Who Speaks in Numbers is a metaphor, an euphemism. It is undoubtedly a clever book – perhaps too clever by half – but it is difficult to see what attraction it might have for a teenage readership that is not familiar with the Sri Lankan civil war. Without context, the clever wordplays and puns don’t really mean anything. The never-ending wordplays can get a little trying, and you’re left wondering if there’s a clever innuendo here or a metaphor there that you might have missed. Some of them were beyond my comprehension anyway.
Writing about conflict for children and young adults is not an easy ask – yep, I’ve already said that before, but it’s worth repeating. We just need to hark back to our own childhoods and recall what wars meant – they meant a good side and a bad side, and an imperative of the former needing to ‘defeat’ the latter. We, the lucky ones who didn’t live in times and spaces of armed conflict, had no inkling of the everyday life of war, of refugee camps and checkpoints, of the politicians and the military with their own respective axes to grind. We didn’t understand the nuances of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ sides. Neither textbooks nor newspapers ever told us all this. Even as adults, not all of us are lucky enough to discern that we don’t, and perhaps never will, know the full story behind every conflict. This, however, is a gap that fiction can fill – even satire, provided there is a frame of reference.
By itself, The Boy Who Speaks in Numbers doesn’t quite hit the mark. That said, it could be an excellent source of learning about metaphors. Matthew Frame’s vivid yellow-and-orange illustrations have a fiery quality to them, quite apt for a book about human beings killing and maiming each other. The cover, which features the Constantly Complaining Cow, is somewhat incongruous, though.
By Payal Dhar
Author: Mike Masilamani
Illustrator: Matthew Frame
Tara Books, 2015
Subject Category: Contemporary/Fiction/Young Adult