Welcome to Pretty City, a place that defies its very name by being filthy and full of noxious fumes. It’s a city where garbage is used as decoration, cleanliness is illegal and citizens need to maintain an endless supply of rotten food for the garbage armies. Here, Trash Rajah reigns supreme—a dictator spreading his policies of filth.
This setting in Kungfu Aunty Versus Garbage Monsters, Shweta Taneja’s new book, might seem dystopian. Yet, when you read about children going to school in oxyhelms—or oxygen helmets—you can’t help but be reminded of children wheezing and coughing through their commutes when grey, toxic smog envelops parts of northern India every year. Could there soon be a day when kids need helmets powered by clean air when they are outdoors?
That’s when Taneja’s book acquires poignancy. She etches a future that doesn’t seem all that distant or unlikely. The author has in the past worked on science and science-fiction writing —in 2021 she wrote They Made What?/ They Found What? about the amazing scientists of India, and in 2020, her short story, The Daughter That Bleeds, was shortlisted for the prestigious Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire. With her latest, Taneja steps into the climate fiction genre—Kungfu Aunty Versus Garbage Monsters, published by Talking Cub, an imprint by Speaking Tiger, is being hailed as India’s first Ecopunk book.
An article by the writer Sarena Ulibarri in Grist, the independent media organisation that focuses on climate solutions and a just future, had in 2021 listed Ecopunk as one of the sub-genres within climate fiction: “Characters in Ecopunk fiction generally fight against environmental degradation using only tools and technology actually available in the real world,” writes Ulibarri, who has edited several Ecopunk anthologies. She adds that Ecopunk plot lines tend to focus on a specific ecological problem like, say, protecting a habitat.
Taneja’s book focuses on one such problem and tackles the complexity with ease. For children aged nine and above, Kungfu Aunty is an engaging read, even as it prompts them to question whether they, and their families, are making sustainable choices: Are their lifestyles hurting ecology; what are the immediate corrective measures needed to prevent a garbage-ridden future? Never preachy, the book takes youngsters, and their parents, on a flight of imagination.
Garbage monsters like Dogroaches, Monsterquitoes, Bloatrats and Plastocrocs plague Pretty City. Anyone who propagates or practises cleanliness is termed a “cleanorist” and taken away for interrogation. In this toxic environment, young Kabir, his younger sister, Lila, and their friends all rebel against the Trash Rajah and his minions. They do this using the inventions that the siblings’ mother, a scientist, had created in secret. Kungfu Aunty is one such weapon.
Both parents and children will chortle through the book. My daughter and I read the book in quick succession and we spent the entire weekend pointing out hilarious passages to each other. There is this particularly rib tickling one about Odious Ayurvedic Fart Tonic—a lethal concoction of Ayurvedic leftovers and toilet waste brewed overnight—which Lila offers to the Dogroaches. Kungfu Aunty Versus Garbage Monsters is a great conversation starter—about eco-consciousness, landfills, responsible garbage disposal, foaming lakes and rivers, and lots more.