'Adults believe in love that is timeless'

Sep 27, 2018, 09:00 IST | Fiona Fernandez

Life lessons traipse with poetry in mellifluous fashion in an adult fable by Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi, who is back after nearly a decade

'Adults believe in love that is timeless'

Friendship and love through talking animals — from where did the idea of an adult fable emerge? Once this was clear, how did The Rabbit & The Squirrel (Penguin) take shape? Tell us about the process. I've asked this question to myself, with no clear answer. It's been a little like minnows in dark water — they turn, the underside catches sun, there's a glint of silver, then it's gone. Writing this story was somewhat like that — watching things swim up to surface from the dark and then vanish. What remains is a record of a fleeting moment. Also, to be honest, I don't feel like this book's 'author' — it was something that was already around, and I simply chanced upon it. I became the one who saw it first, and then I turned to someone else and pointed it out to them.

Are these real-life people — the Rabbit and the Squirrel?
I hope so! They are real to me, they are a part of me.

Pic/Shekhar Karambelker (C) 2018
Pic/Shekhar Karambelker (C) 2018

Simple wisdom and life lessons flow through each page; did you let your protagonists take over?
Yes. I wrote the book as a gift for a friend. She was leaving the country at the time. I wanted to give her something to remember me by. When the characters came, they bore witness to our lives, as we did to theirs. Over the years, even though my friend and I are no longer in touch, we still have this little book. A ruby ring of unity.

The plot despite being set in wild landscapes and little towns has touches and elements of the present — like the noise-cancelling headphones and nut cafés. Why?
Frankly, it's an odd, odd world, and this is an odd little book that collects it and celebrates oddness — all the things and folks who don't quite fit. Wasn't it Stendhal who said 'a novel is a mirror walking down the street'? Well, this is not a novel, but it still makes room for the cracks and missteps of being alive — these include noise-cancelling headphones.

Illustrations courtesy/Stina Wirsen
Illustrations courtesy/Stina Wirsen

There are these phrases and places that pop up (My friend in the green room/ Meaning of Life) from time to time in the story. They state a lot more than the obvious, don't they?
The phrase 'my friend in the green room' was one I shared with the person for whom I wrote this story. In different ways, we were hamming it up for the world around us. But when we were together, we were our truest selves — that exact moment before the performance. Now, I see we enjoyed even our performances — the charade, the public face. In a deep, karmic friendship, we become co-actors, and co-directors, of each other's fate. The play is divine, of course, with room for mortal errors. These errors are known and forgiven only in the field of love. We were each other's friend in the green room — there was no one else.

What was going through your mind as you reached the final chapter of this fable? Also, were you tempted to tweak the ending at any point?
Tweak it in what way? Make it happy? Gosh, no. I believe the strength of this story, if it has any, is the recognition that being apart allowed the Rabbit and Squirrel to become entirely whole. This does not mean that when they are finally reunited they might enjoy this wisdom for any length of time, but to accept they had led each other into a strange and noble wholeness. In different ways, they had enlisted a monastery of longing, and through this fire, they came out
as gold.

The humour is a delightful addition to the story line. Was it easier to weave it in because it was about animals in human-like scenarios?
Yes. Absolutely. But to be honest, I never thought of them as animals or humans — they just were, and like a lightening sword through monsoon sky, I watched them and recorded them. They laughed. I heard. What was that joke again?

Do adults still believe that there is something like true love?
In the age of breaking up on text message! In the age of right swiping your future-ex! Yes, God, yes, I do, perhaps not the lifelong sort of love, but love, free from the measure of time, free from raiment of gender and age and skin colour; love, the thing in itself, the das ding an sich. I do.

This is your first book After The Lost Flamingoes of Bombay (2009); what was it like to resume writing especially with such a contrasting template?
It's like nothing I've ever done. Even as I write this, I can imagine my critics going: And thank God for that!

Stina Wirsen
Stina Wirsen

How did you work with Stina Wirsén to illustrate this fable — one that bears life-like resemblance to a modern-day story of love, loss and friendships? Stina is Sweden's foremost illustrator and children's book writer. Her genius is formidable and pure. I have collected her work, and have had the honour to showcase it at Sunaparanta in Goa. What I admire most is how she entered this story as if she wrote it; her illustrations are crafted from the same bolt of loss and ecstasy that compose both characters. I am lucky and privileged to call her, and her husband Pompe Hedengren — the book's art director — my close friends.

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