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Truer than love

Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi's new illustrated book with artist Stina Wirsn is not for children

A watercolour illustration by Wirsén from the book.
A watercolour illustration by Wirsén from the book.

A title as innocuous as The Rabbit & The Squirrel ought to be issued with a warning. Something along the lines of what writer Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi tells me in an email: “This is not a children’s book." I ought to have taken a hint from its subtitle, “A Love Story About Friendship", but I am thrown off the scent by elegantly dressed furry animals. “But perhaps it is the sort of thing that might be read across ages, within reason," he adds.

He has collaborated with Swedish writer and artist Stina Wirsén for the book, which released last week. The collaboration puts together an anthropomorphic world drawn largely from children’s fables. However, here you meet a joint-rolling Squirrel dealing with an arranged marriage, and a loutish Count Boar who has no concept of consent. And, instead of Peter Rabbit, we have an intellectual fellow, naughty in the ways that adults tend to be.

Shanghvi is a familiar name among readers of Indian fiction. He has previously authored The Last Song Of Dusk (2004) and The Lost Flamingoes Of Bombay (2009), which was shortlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize. Since then, he has been writing mainly short fiction and opinion pieces from his Goan cottage while also holding the position of honorary director at arts foundation, Sunaparanta.

“I wrote The Rabbit & The Squirrel as a gift of friendship, and of love, for someone; it remains that for me—a small, private talisman," he says. How this personal tale found Wirsén is a story in itself. Wirsén is a prolific storyteller, and has illustrated more than 30 books for children, and illustrated 20 books for adults. After acquiring one of her artworks in 2011, Shanghvi presented an exhibition of her watercolours at Sunaparanta. Last year, Shanghvi was staying at Wirsén’s house in Sweden, while she and her husband, Pompe Hedengren, were travelling. “I came back one night to find the front door key did not work. The locksmith, in his desperation, burned down a part of the front door. I was mortified. When Stina and Pompe returned, the only thing I could do was distract them (with a story). This was The Rabbit & The Squirrel. Stina asked if she might illustrate this fable. I said yes, and how could I not?" recalls Shanghvi. This also led the book to be art directed by Hedengren, a graphic designer.

Wirsén uses bold splotches of watercolour and sketchy line-work resulting in a frankness, which readers are likely to appreciate. Her skyscapes and choice of colour palette are particularly stunning. In an email she writes, “Watercolour is a common choice for children’s books. The Rabbit & The Squirrel has the base in that tradition but then it moves away from it, in content and in visual style."

True to her words, in the book, the furry woodland creatures have grown up and struggle to occupy their place in an adult world, where they are forced to question established norms, only to find their peace outside the borders of conventional morality. At its core, this is a tale about friendship nurtured over the years between the feisty Squirrel and the debonair Rabbit, the kind of equation that confronts even many modern marriages. For, as we may have found in our childhoods, could our true loves be, in fact, our friends?

The Rabbit & The Squirrel is available for 399 from Penguin Books.

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