On their way to school one morning, three hill children, Manohar, Pradeep and his sister Kamla, get distracted by a massive old oak tree, which somehow seems to be larger than normal – and temptingly easy to climb. Up they go and suddenly (rather like Alice perhaps, except she went down a rabbit hole) find themselves in a ‘secret sanctuary’, where the landscape remains much the same as that of their own mountainside habitat, with one major difference. The insects, birds and animals that dwell here cannot and do not sense the presence of humans: the children can walk through a spider’s web without disturbing it at all and spend the night in a cave with a black bear without it being aware it has houseguests. In this magical landscape they meet the naturalist, a bearded eccentric old codger, Dr. Pashupatinath Linnaeus Mukherjee, who tells them he has been wandering around (happily enough) in the sanctuary for three years in quest of the thought-to-be-extinct mountain quail.
The children are more interested in finding a way out and therein lies the rub – there doesn’t seem to be one. Paths that seem to lead to familiar landmarks mysteriously switchback onto themselves, taking them back into the sanctuary. Dr. Mukherjee takes them around the sanctuary, identifying birds, insects and animals (very properly by their scientific names) and as the creatures are unaware of the children’s presence, they behave completely naturally. Alter keeps the tension nicely taut as one encounter leads to another, as the children continue their search for a way out – because they will be very late for school and probably in trouble with their parents. Manohar manages to get briefly lost, and they get tantalizing glimpses of what could be the elusive mountain quail. Eventually they do of course find themselves back at the massive old oak tree and climb back into the ‘normal’ world as it were, and in fact half an hour earlier than the time they had left it the previous day, so there was no absence to be missed. Dr. Mukherjee remains behind in the magic sanctuary.
Alter introduces us to a variety of birds and animals that dwell in the Himalayas: the story is based in the Jabharkhet Nature Reserve in Mussoorie, which he knows well. A stronger storyline and plot along with more in-depth characterization could have made this little book truly magical: the idea that you can observe animals, insects and birds without them being aware of you opens up enormous possibilities and really needs to be exploited more. After all, it can be such fun to be a voyeur sometimes, especially if you are a child!
The illustrations by Prabha Mallya in black and white deserved better reproduction. All in all, a quaint trundle in a mountain jungle which hopefully will make the imagination of children – in the hills and the plains and in cities – light up and take flight and soar like Spilornis cheela.
By Ranjit Lal
Author: Stephen Alter
Illustrator: Prabha Mallya
Penguin Books, 2015
Subject Category: Contemporary/Fiction