Parul Bajaj
THE DOG WITH TWO NAMES by By Nandita Da Cunha Talking Cub, an imprint of Speaking Tiger, 2023, 195 pp., INR 299.00
November 2023, volume 47, No 11

While Nandita’s short stories have been published in collections like Talking Cub’s Dance, Nani, Dance, this is a first book which is entirely a collection of her short stories. Her previous children’s books include The Miracle on Sunderbaag Street, Pedru and the Big Boom, Who Clicked that Pic, My Trip toLa La Land, and Just Like Papa. Her earlier books have won recognition, and she is often at schools and literature festivals engaging children in sessions around her books. This book is a collection of twelve short stories, as the byline to the title says, that celebrate diversity. Publisher’s classification tags it as a fiction book for middle grade readers and ages 9+. The main characters in each story are of similar age too. Stories are 8-14 pages each with appropriate titles. Illustrations are minimalist in line with being a chapter book. Each story’s cover page has a small illustration representing something key to the story. Illustration of the cover page brings alive the story titled ‘The Dog with Two Names’.
The book lives up to being a collection of stories that ‘celebrate diversity’ and does it well. The story ‘Uniformity in Uniforms’ is a good example of the same. No wonder it was a story Nandita chose in a session she did to engage children with the book at the Neev Literature Festival 2023. The story is about the efforts of two school-going girls and best friends, Naisha and Ayesha, to fight in their own ways, against the uniformity being enforced by the new school Principal Miss Bhoopalan. What finally wins over Miss Bhoopalan is the response they initiate and catalyse the new weekly project in art class ‘Uniformity in Art’. The teacher’s call for standardized thumbkins is responded by many students with thumbkins that are uniquely each child’s, and this celebration of diversity wins over uniformity.
The outlook in the stories is of hope and belief in a world that is made more beautiful because of our diversity, there is interest in the other and respect for the other, and yet joy and pride in who one is. The characters in the stories embody these qualities. And, yet the treatment is very subtle. The qualities are felt and not told. The challenges are acknowledged too, and there is a process of discovery that unfolds in the stories. The three boys in ‘The Three S’s’ are of different religions and inhabit a society where these differences make the lives richer and coexist harmoniously, and it is a story about the falling apart and coming together that characterize deep friendships, especially in school years of any kind, including this. In the story ‘The Nose Knows’ one gets to know intimately the world that Moin lives in—a cluster of shanties—and also journey with him in his changing perceptions about his world as he encounters how children who come from much affluent settings experience it. In the story ‘Of Salaams and a Slap’, the reader enters the world of a child on the other side. Though the two stories have their own characters and plots, the humanness of children on both sides is brought out in a very natural way through good storytelling.
Even though all stories are by the same author, there is enough variation from one story to the other. The variation is not only in the characters and plots, but also in the writing style. The start of some stories takes a little more effort for the reader to enter into the new story, and that is something on the craft that author can work on. Each story told from the perspectives of the particular child or children takes on the language and tone that define their unique characters. The other strength of the stories lies in being very relatable in urban Indian contexts and shows how children think and function. The book is a useful addition to home and school libraries especially as well written stories for children that celebrate diversity are much needed in the world we live in today.