A wild romp through author Nandini Bajpai’s imagination, Rishi and the Karmic Cat is, essentially, a book for the reader who demands a thrill a minute. The sibling protagonists, Rishi and Karishma, typifying average Indian-American teenagers, are suddenly confronted by the fact that their cat, Kesar, hitherto an ordinary feline, has transformed into one that talks and, subsequently, leads them on a quest for the Jiva Sutra – the ancient Book of Life –that could wreak havoc if used for evil intent. This is where the book more or less falls apart with a highly unconvincing villain who masquerades as an iguana (whose apparent ruthlessness is completely negated by the cover where it poses benignly and rather sweetly on a tree branch) and a distinctly weak plot line that bristles with loose ends and stretches the limits of the reader’s credulity.
The talking cat, who, incidentally, transforms into a Bengal tiger at will (and particularly when a little intimidation is required) proves to have been a teacher at the university of Nalanda in its heyday. It soon transpires that Westbury, Massachusetts, is, inexplicably, the chosen area of rebirth for the other learned contemporaries and colleagues of the cat at Nalanda, including a talking dog, Sheila, and the children’s school principal, Dr. Waldgrave. The children themselves were supposed to have been entrusted with the Jiva Sutra in a previous life and their express purpose in this birth is revealed to be the book’s restoration for the benefit of the world and its denizens – facts that they receive with odd equanimity. Extreme incredulity and denial would have struck a normal note at this juncture. Rishi and Karishma, however, take these revelations in their stride, apart from some extremely mild protestations on Rishi’s part, and doggedly (or, in this case, ‘cattedly’) get on with the stern task of locating the book. This, of course, begs the question of why the title only refers to Rishi when his sister plays an equally important role in the tale but this is a tangential point here.
While the villainous iguana, Hiramani, sustains himself for his personal quest by burrowing into the walls of the Qutub Minar and knocking off the top of the famous iron pillar with cheerful impunity (a fact that strangely does not seem to occasion a national furore despite it remaining lopped-off throughout the tale), the children race around the ruins of Nalanda, the forests of Gir and, later, the Temple of the Saffron Cats in Tibet, punctuated by meetings with the ‘Keepers’ of the various elements to uncover the mystery of the Jiva Sutra. Followed, at every point, by the tiresomely tenacious iguana, the tale is meant to increasingly throb with danger and menace but fails to do so until a confrontation in the ballpark towards the end, which finally achieves this effect.
The overall effect of the story is ironic for one tends to sympathise more with the iguana, the only character to whom Bajpai has paid some attention, rather than with the other inadequately-delineated characters who pepper the story and are meant to power the action. Furthermore, the final resolution is alarmingly pat and contrived, and seems more as if Bajpai was seeking to end the story in a hurry rather than think it through. This book, admittedly the first that was written but the third to be published, lacks the assuredness and skill of Bajpai’s other offerings – Red Turban, White Horse: My Sister’s Hurricane Wedding and Starcursed – and, additionally, suffers from careless proofreading errors, particularly in the initial pages, that serve as needless irritants. Lacking the beautiful simplicity and intriguing characterisation of Barbara Sleigh’s Carbonel, from which parts of it seem to be derived, the wry humour and fast-paced action, however, do serve to elevate Rishi and the Karmic Cat in places, and the latter aspect should definitely appeal to adventure buffs.
Author: Nandini Bajpai
Illustrator: Devaki Neogi
Rupa Publications, 2015
Subject Category: Contemporary/Fiction