’Nani,’ Deepu said. ‘I want to watch my show.’
‘Nani! Please. It’s just an hour. Your show repeats all day long.’
‘Close your mouth, boy, before you swallow a fly.’
Who’d have thought the daily tussle Nani and Deepu have over Ninja Dragon Morimori and Chef Dalmakhni would metamorphose the cranky old grandmother into a cane-wielding superhero straight out of her grandson’s favourite TV show? Who’d have thought the old woman who watches an oily chef say—‘Remember not to over fry your yams,’ all day long, who snaps that cartoons will rot Deepu’s bones and ruin his teeth, would acquire said cartoon’s powers? Not Deepu, certainly.
The Ninja Nani series is set of three books that rocket the reader from adventure to adventure. The pace that Lavanya Karthik sets is perfect for upper-middle class, mainstream school-going eight to nine-year-olds, which, I assume, is what publisher Duckbill intends as its middle-reader category. Each narrative is tight, jumping to the plot within the first few pages. Set in a sleepy little town called Gadbadnagar (probably in Maharashtra), Ninja Nani and the Bumbling Burglars introduces the audience to Nani’s powers, just as Nani herself comes by them. Ninja Nani and the Zapped Zombie Kids shadows Deepu as he’s ensnared—with the rest of Mrs Godbole’s tuition class—by the wiles of Morimori’s deadly enemy, the Green Gecko. Ninja Nani and the Mad Mummy Mix-up takes on a lighter note, as our protagonist—for Deepu is the protagonist of each of these stories, not Nani—and his classmates uncover the truth behind Gadbadnagar museum’s own mummy-come-to-life.
The format that the books are constructed around is quite unconventional. Karthik, as writer-illustrator, has exploited her talents through intermittent graphic strips between the written story. On one side is a written description of Mrs Godbole’s living room, as the Green Gecko prepares to vanish into the television set that he’s come out of; on the next, Nani’s dentures fly halfway across the page, catching the Gecko squarely in the forehead. The books’ onomatopoeic quality lends itself well to this format. ‘Slappity! Whackity! hissssss! SCREEEEEECH! OW! BONNNG!’ spring at the reader through the strips and in bolder font amidst paragraphs wherever sounds speak better than words.
In the first book, Karthik’s use of language contains just the right amount of spice and complexity to keep the reader on her toes. Neighbour Pammi Aunty’s alliterative ‘Pongo, my pudding,’ ‘Pongo, my pickle,’ and ‘Pongo, my pineapple’ as she calls out to her pug, coupled with the situational humour in Thambe Hawaldar’s ‘Madam, control your pickle! I will throw him in the doggies’ jail! I will throw you in the aunties’ jail!’ would pirouette any self-respecting eight-year-old into giggle fits. In addition, the descriptions of Deepu’s heart as he imagines it skittering around the living room as he fights over the TV remote with Nani serves as a great introduction to good writing for any child.
The second and third books are less impressive, however. Except for a couple of quips about Mrs Godbole’s tuition advertisement, The Zapped Zombie Kids has very little wordplay or humour, although the plot is given much attention. The Mad Mummy Mix-up does slightly worse—it tries too hard to be creative and funny. Somewhere in the middle of the third book, Pongo the pug finds he suddenly has a three-headed serpent to battle, only to realize, a page ahead, that he’s daydreaming. This even has a misleading mention in the blurb, although it takes up no more than a page of the book. The reader then finds that Deepu, on his way to the museum at night, steps out of the shadows and is ‘promptly eaten by zombies,’ discovering through the ‘Just kidding’ in the next line that this is the author’s idea of breaking the fourth wall (spoiler alert). This gimmicky treatment is a pity because The Mad Mummy Mix-up actually has a storyline that flows well when left to its own devices.
There’s no doubt that Karthik’s writing provides entertainment value, and that the experiments she’s carried out with structure are noteworthy. What strong literary value can the series claim, though? Amongst other stories written about little boys, where would this stand? Can it be compared to Roald Dahl’s The Witches, which arguably extolls the 20th century’s most beloved grandmother-grandson story? Can it be set against Anushka Ravishankar’s Moin and the Monster, whose overlay of words would send any middle-reader into a tizzy?
Ninja Nani’s strongest point is its ability to spring from one event to the next in quick succession, but in her hurry to create the perfect pace, Karthik forgets to layer characters and tropes. The relationship between grandmother and grandson, for instance, doesn’t evolve as smoothly as expected. From a tiff-over-the-TV affinity, Karthik indicates a growth in the bond between Nani and Deepu by the end of the first book. What is disappointing here is that all the power in this connection seems to lie with Deepu. When he deems her unworthy of Ninja powers, Nani promptly loses them, and they’re revived only when she receives validation from her grandson again. Additionally, the following two books showcase no real progress in their relationship; Deepu and Nani work well together, but apart from sharing their secret about the identity of Gadbadnagar’s Mystery Hero, there’s no further in-depth interaction between them.
The Ninja Nani series is a good choice for a parent or teacher to make for her children’s collection. The books are fun, relatable and will keep the reader engaged with their word-illustration-narrative interplay. Yet, just as a magic-realism enthusiast can’t replace Amitav Ghosh with Gabriel Garcia Marquez, a children’s literature buff couldn’t pass Lavanya Karthik over for Roald Dahl.
When she’s not obsessively listening to Harry Potter audio books, Maitri Vasudev teaches critical reading and academic writing at the School of Liberal Studies, Azim Premji University. She’s deeply interested in children’s books, which she swallows by the dozen every month.