First the title got me hooked. I’ve done my share of roaring in a crowded pub to the song, ‘Living Next Door to Alice’ (first released in Australia in 1972 but made hysterically famous by Smokie and later parodied to even greater fame in the number ‘Who the #@$ is Alice’). So what was a children’s book doing in such interesting but dubious company?
In case you’re wondering why this book review begins with a ramble about music, I had to begin with that fact because of what ‘Alice’ the song is about: A guy croons on about being in love with his neighbour Alice but having never told her. Ah, now the stage is set. Anita Nair’s book is also about a little boy who is a loner, who would rather bury his head in books than go out and play. I mean, there are ants outdoors, for crying out loud! Ants! And so the little boy, Siddharth, who starts off being afraid of tiny ants moves through this charming book to befriend an elephant next door – Alise, short for Aishwarya. His “parental unit” clearly does not sympathise with his fear of “all creatures, great and small”, and seem the conventional, busy, nagging, serious sort. His sports teacher is such a loser that he just deserves to be bitten. His schoolmates aren’t worth a mention. The only one worth his love (and yours) is pink-bowed, fun-loving Alise next door.
Alise and Siddharth amble through adventures, from lesser ones like Alise popping over in a blue-checked tablecloth to school to bigger ones like hunting down a very Veerappan-looking poacher. Nothing major to report there; just the usual adventures that adults write up for children. There are poignant bits where Alise sees a family of elephants in the wild, and yearns to join them.
You may wonder how Anita Nair, being a critically acclaimed author of books for adults and one who conjures up elaborate, exquisite prose, adjusts the barometer to writing children’s books. If the book has any drawbacks, it is that the author may not have squeezed entirely into the head of her little protagonist. The child’s talk is serious and rather formal, especially his exchanges with his schoolmates and parents, even for a bookworm. The flipside is that the book’s language at no time talks down to young readers. Bigger words are not substituted with smaller, easier ones. (To quote an example, it isn’t a thicket of bamboo or a cluster – it is referred to as a copse). In a field where the constant criticism of children’s writers is that they talk down to kids, such a book is warmly welcome.
Getting to the best bit last, my childhood fantasy, like that of many an only child, was to have a secret friend – big, wild, but just my own. And here is Alise, absolutely living up to that fantasy, with her curling eyelashes, her mastery over fractions and her pink bow, which she is endearingly vain about. A dream-come-true talking elephant – so needed, so believable for a misunderstood little kid. In fact, it is this believability that is the key to the story. Nowhere is this talking elephant treated as a circus act or a hallucination; she’s just a mischievous, unique baby elephant who snuggles in close to your heart as you go through the book. Till you shut it on the last page with a sigh, because you suspect you will, as the song goes, “never get used to not living next door to” Alise.
By Jane De Suza
Author: Anita Nair
Illustrator: Sayan Mukherjee
Puffin Books, 2007, reprinted 2015
Subject Category: Fiction