Once there was Only One

Last year Zubaan, the publishing house, took on quite a challenge by trying to compile a list of the choicest children’s books in English by Indian authors. Of course, works by writers like Anushka Ravishankar and Ranjit Lal made it to the 101 Indian Children’s Books We Love! But the list also threw up lesser-known names like Natasha Sharma, whose Icky YuckyMucky about a king with sloppy manners is a sensory buffet of slurping, squishing and burping sounds, and is liberally littered with snot, goo and poo.

Sharma’s latest book, Raja Raja And The Swapped Sacks, is similarly packed with sounds and scenes young children might enjoy. A fast-paced story peopled by hapless courtiers, kindly pirates and a moronic super sleuth, Raja Raja is the third in a series of History Mystery series in which Sharma concocts fictional riddles around real emperors—Raja Raja is centred on the Chola king Kesari Varman. As always, Sharma adroitly mixes fact and fiction.

In the opening scene, for example, Raja Raja is busy pondering the details of bronze statues for the Rajarajeshwara temple—now a Unesco World Heritage site—when two traders walk in complaining that their pepper shipments had been switched on the way to China with goat droppings (the fictional mystery part). Raja Raja calls upon his trusted detective, Only One.

Only One seems to be an heir of literary detectives like Pink Panther and the inspectors Thomson and Thompson. His style is eccentric—he sits down to enjoy fish curry just when you expect him to get down to the business of solving the mystery, gets incarcerated and alternatively entertains and drives people up the wall with his knock-knock jokes (“Knock knock./Who’s There?/Goat./Goat Who?/Goat to the door and open it.").

Raja Raja is written in much the same vein as the first two History Mystery books—Ashoka And The Muddled Messages and Akbar And The Tricky Traitor. A particularly enjoyable thread running through the books is the characterization of the bodyguards/detectives.

One thing that has changed across the books is the illustrators. Raja Raja, illustrated by Nilomee Jesrani, has the best drawings of the three books. While Ashoka has some interesting drawings, like when the Tremendous Ten bodyguards’ disguises fail miserably, the fun sours slightly in Akbar, where the drawings also imagine the locals’, and perhaps the readers’, mirth at the Super Six’s misfortunes. In Raja Raja, the drawings are more refined: The king looks quite kingly, bejewelled as he is in intricate braces and crown, and Only One looks buffoonish in his coconut-coir beard disguise.

There are some cringeworthy elements in this book too. Parents might frown at the depiction of the Chinese in the book: Sharma makes them talk in gibberish (“Chikbe efiuqe ynduh chiie ciwuehf huhe wewd qjdbe fehfue ehe iuqwh qih dbi fbk gduy peppppp jwbef nfiwef j chi adh chedd kjf ckjewfh"). While performing such lines might be fun for children, it could also be seen as politically incorrect.

Sharma’s books are performance pieces—meant to be read out loud to children, and ideal for curing parents of the view that children’s books must toe a careful line.

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