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Review: The Rabbit & The Squirrel by Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi

A story that examines the nature of love, life, friendship and the quest for happiness in a difficult world

books Updated: Oct 12, 2018 23:33 IST
Manjula Narayan
Manjula Narayan
Hindustan Times
anthropomorphism,Animal Farm,Kenneth Graham
The Squirrel and her parents!(Stina Wirsen)


Rs 399, 66pp; Penguin

From The Wind in the Willows to Animal Farm, authors have used anthropomorphism to explore serious themes and a range of issues that have preoccupied humans. If Kenneth Graham’s book with its moles, rats, badgers, weasels, otters and that deranged driver, the fantastic Mr Toad, is a lively children’s story, it can also be read as an allegory set in early 20th century England’s underground gay scene with the flamboyant Oscar Wilde at its unquiet centre. George Orwell’s novella was never warm and fuzzy enough for it to ever become comfortable bed time reading for mom and the kiddies. Animal Farm about Soviet Russia, and about the ruthlessness of Stalinism with its purges and gulags, was a fine examination of the devolution of idealistic communism into bloody dictatorship. The contemporary reader wouldn’t have found it at all difficult to see Trotsky and Stalin in the power struggle between the pigs Snowball and Napoleon. Though the USSR and the original political context of the book no longer exists, Animal Farm is still a powerful read that’s very “now” because allegory leads readers to a deeper understanding of human behaviour itself. All animals are equal but some animals continue to be more equal than others in an era of identity politics, doublespeak and creeping authoritarian fascism just as they were in the heyday of Stalinism. An accomplished writer can use allegory to tell us much about ourselves and our world.

And so it is with Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi’s The Rabbit & The Squirrel; A Love Story About Friendship. At first, the reader is drawn by Stina Wirsen’s superb illustrations that have a Beatrix Potter-meets-John Tenniel quality: the one featuring an agitated Squirrel smoking a joint to keep calm before she’s hustled into the presence of the rich but repellent Count Boar, whom her parents want her to marry, is truly wonderful. It quickly becomes clear that Shanghvi’s writing is a match for the light, richly detailed-but-minimal drawings. How they pull off this trick in unison is magical.

Author Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi (Courtesy Penguin)

Though the social context isn’t described to death in the way of, say, a Theodore Dreiser, a few words – the mention of an arranged marriage here and a sari there – makes it clear to the Indian reader at least that the squirrel belongs to the kind of ‘respectable’ bourgeois family that worships wealth and convention and is obsessed with finding a ‘suitable boy’ for its daughter.

Squirrel, like a lot of spirited but dutiful Indian girls throws tantrums (Her mother told her to comb her fur and appear to meet with Count Boar, who was expected with his family in an hour. ‘I hope to be dead before then!’ she howled, but her mother did not hear her.) but eventually marries whoever Mummy-Daddy chooses.

Illustrator Stina Wirsen (Courtesy Penguin)

Shanghvi is the master of witticisms: ‘How come no one tells a rabbit to settle down? It’s completely kosher for all of you to “fuck like bunnies” – in fact, it’s part of the job description’, the Squirrel complains. To which the Rabbit smiled. “He had had his share of chickadees of all genders (I’m an equal opportunity employer’ was his pickup line at the local bar, The Dangling Carrot)… But the bon mots lead to a solid serious core, to aphorisms on life, the nature of friendship, marriage and love, universal concerns really. At the Squirrel’s wedding, her Boarish husband garlanded her with jewels.

“All the Squirrel’s friends envied her riches. But she knew how a diamond necklace could quickly turn into a stone choker.”

Read more:  Truer than love

And then there’s the evocative line about the Rabbit: “Without love, age leapt into him like a demon.”

A wonderful book that’s beautiful to behold and to read, this is, to use that tired blurby phrase aptly for once, “an instant classic”.

First Published: Oct 12, 2018 23:32 IST