Book Review: Petu Pumpkin: Tooth Troubles
In a new addition to the hOle series, a universal experience set hilariously in an urban context
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Seven-year-old Pushkin and his friends are worried. The class II students have challenged the bullies in class IV to a football match. The losers will be branded crybabies. To have even a slim chance of winning, the boys desperately need a practice ball. This is the premise of Petu Pumpkin: Tooth Troubles by Arundhati Venkatesh, the latest book in Duckbill publishing house’s hOle series for younger readers.
The hOle books—they literally have a hole in the right-hand corner, to set them apart visibly—were launched in April 2013, for children who have outgrown picture books and are yet to grow into the lengthier “middle grade” novels. The short and simple stories centre on problems that readers aged 7-10 might identify with. The protagonists across the nine books in the series so far are themselves children, like the vampire boy Kris, who is friendless; Abhay and Nitya, who are out to prove the existence of monsters hiding under beds everywhere; Timmi, who has trouble fitting in because she comes from an unconventional family; and Pushkin, who is always hungry and has been given the moniker “Petu Pumpkin” by an unkind teacher.
In Tiffin Thief, Venkatesh seemed to doff her hat to writers like Enid Blyton: Kiran, an avid reader, forms a secret society modelled on The Famous Five and Secret Seven. It’s an idea that is carried forward in Tooth Troubles, where the boys form a Gap Club of those who have lost a milk tooth or two. It’s perhaps a sign of maturity that Indian children’s books writers are no longer distancing themselves from, and not marketing themselves as alternatives to, children’s books by foreign authors. Instead, there’s an acceptance that children might read some of the classics by Blyton and Roald Dahl (The Minpins finds a mention in Horrid High by Payal Kapadia)—perhaps the Indian authors could even steer children to pick up the books they themselves read, and loved, as young ones.
The Petu books are great fun to read because Venkatesh takes the boys seriously: To them, skipping lunch and the prospect of losing a challenge are gargantuan issues. And Venkatesh’s writing takes cognizance of that—the language is simple, yet dramatic. In one instance, she goes so far as to brand the class IV children “villains”, for that is how they seem to Pushkin and friends. They’ve been practising for 2 hours daily and seem to have a stellar goalie, while the younger boys are forced to kick around a “baby ball”.
Venkatesh builds up the tension, and works through the problems in a way a child might. The Petu books tell simple, and essentially sweet, stories. Readers of Tooth Troubles might be reminded of an episode in the popular Tom Sawyer story where the boy hero struggles with a loose tooth. Here, this universal story gets an urban Indian setting.
A final word about the illustrations by Shilpa Ranade: The detailed black and white sketches stylize the ferociousness of dogs and the rosiness of Pushkin’s cheeks. They capture a sense of movement, like when Pushkin slips on a banana peel or when the boys climb a drainpipe to escape the dogs that are chasing them. The pictures add to the story; you could read a page and still look at the illustration and laugh again.
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