You could be a hypocrite and read books for children, claiming parental authority, censorship or any number of silly adult excuses for indulging in one of the happiest activities still left on earth – reading a children’s book. Or you could simply come clean. Who said there has to be an age restriction for being a child?
The holidays are over and schools are in full swing. Homes are empty of children – those real-life mischief-makers – for a few hours at least, until the weekend. Maybe this is the best time to remind yourself that you were really no better, and how many years ago was that? Never mind. When bodies turn brittle and minds start to crackle with responsibilities, well then, perhaps that is the right time to get into Prankenstein?
It will do you good. It will remind you of who you used to be once upon a time. No need to explain to the children why they should read the book. It’s a book cut out for them. They will know it anyway the minute they lay their eyes on it. Children don’t need any excuse or reason to enjoy a good bout of mischief.
My mischief-makers have grown up. My house is quiet, too quiet. This book was the perfect pick-me-up. And since reading it, I have lent my copy to a few children, neighbours’ kids, and listened to some lively gossip too. And no, the parents were not paying attention, busy as they were with grown-up talk, which is just as well.
Going by the stories in the book, mischief has many avatars. Just like the mischief-makers who wrote them. The many, many mischief-makers, the whole lot of them, young, old and not so old, from times of yore and modern days. The book is thus broadly divided into “Mischief in School,” “Uncles, Aunts and Other Mischief-makers,” “Mischief Among Friends,” “Mischievous Animals” and “Mischief-making Floating Ghosts.” Each section is introduced by a page depicting pranksters, delightfully illustrated by Lavanya Naidu. The editors, Ruskin Bond and Jerry Pinto, have selected stories that reflect as wide a spectrum from the theme as possible, including an unusual graphic tale.
The first story that I read, “The Things They Shouldn’t Ask You” by Jerry Pinto, has since remained my favourite from this collection. Written in the voice of a boy in middle school who answers questions parents, the mother specifically, should not ask, this charming story is guaranteed to transform any old curmudgeon into a school-kid all over again. Not to speak of appreciating the importance of having “foldy” arms, and dividers and protractors for modern day Arjun-Arjuns and Krishna-Krishnas! Sample this passage, for example:
“What did you learn in school today?
There is this wild plant in the graveyard, very nice. It has these white flowers and funny seeds like maces and if you eat any part of it you go mad. Really. I asked Mr Kazi and he said, ‘Yes, datura is like that.’ Datura. That’s the name I was thinking, so much fun to put datura in everyone’s tea in the staffroom, then they would all go mad and say they were Napoleon or King George the Something.”
In RK Narayan’s “Helping Hand” I went back to the time when everybody walked to school. For those with headaches, like Swaminathan in the story, a helpful mother would perhaps suggest going to school in a jutka. In Swaminathan’s case he has only his imagination to rely on for reasons not to attend classes. He does manage to impress his father though about the violent tactics used by his teacher Mr Samuel, unfortunately for him, much more than he had originally intended to.
In the classic story, “Crackers” by Sukumar Ray, the characters had me in splits. Set in the Bengal of a hundred years ago, the story is narrated by a classmate of the protagonist, Pagla Dashu, who is eccentric and wilful. However he is not the only crackpot. Their class teacher, Pondit Mohashoy, is little better. But all said and done, Dashu’s ability to create explosive mayhem finds no equal.
We have another eccentric student-teacher duo in Vinayak Varma’s story “The Headmaster and the Horse.” The headmaster loves his bondas, which makes him late for school once or twice a week. The girl in class III B loves her animals equally, including a feral rat. And, she is also responsible for the horse in the library. It’s definitely a punishable offence. But the headmaster is helpless, for she knows too much. And is smart enough to strike a deal to boot!
In the family
Mischief in the school comes to an end, and the next series begins with “Uncles, Aunts and Other Mischief Makers.”
In the first story, “Mischief Managed,” by Paro Anand, a pair of Harry Potter fans discover that their loving grandparents have turned into querulous cranks. So they get to work to turn them back to their original loving selves. In the next story, Ruskin Bond introduces his grandfather in “Grandfather’s Many Faces.” Grandfather Bond turns out to be an experienced mischief-maker, so much so that his own grandson doesn’t recognise him when he decides to behave!
In “The Boy Who Couldn’t Wait,” by Shruthi Rao, Raghu, having arrived earlier than his cousins at the village where his grandparents live, becomes a handful as he waits impatiently for them. Rao creates very relatable scenes about holidays spent with cousins and grandparents in the seventies. “Granny Two” is an endearingly funny story by Khyrunnisa A, in which some boys get to meet their friend’s mysterious granny two! There is another story by Ruskin Bond (or perhaps I should say Bunskin Rond!), which is about making beds and staying away from wrong beds. Not sure why this was included though; the story is off the mark as far as children’s pranks go.
From mischief with relatives, the book moves on to “Mischief Among Friends.” The more the mayhem, the merrier. The first, “Eau de Cologne”, is an anecdotal tale about his own childhood, written by Ruskin Bond. Ranjit Lal paints a convincing picture about a young drama king in hospital and his very concerned, but not necessarily blind friend in “The Recovery.” Subhadra Sen Gupta’s “What a Fantastic Show” is a belly-splitting account of a play during Durga Puja celebrations put up by a bunch of friends, helped by their dog, and egged on by an enthusiastic audience.
“Mohan, The Mendicant and The Moo” is a funny and tender story of a little boy and his bovine friends. The characters in this story and its setting presents an India that is as colourful and eccentric as it is emotional and generous. An India that still lives on in smaller towns. Another story by Pinto follows, and it convinces me that he ought to write a whole book on boyish pranksters. I had barely recovered from “What a Fantastic Show” when I found myself holding my sides again thanks to Pinto’s “The Substitooth.” Only this time the pranksters are out-pranked by their new teacher! It would be a lovely exercise to have this story read out to school children. Or perhaps even turned into a play for them to enact!
Prankensteins of the furry and feathery kind follow with five stories in “Mischievous Animals.” The first, “Friends or Enemies” by Kavitha Mandana tackles a cat and dog issue, which gets resolved in the end at the expense of a third party, another dog. In Gillian Wright’s story, “Misty plays with Fire,” Misty, a golden Labrador literally plays with fire, and nearly brings the house down! Ruskin Bond goes travelling with his grandparents and their menagerie in “Travelling with Grandfather’s Zoo,” and a delicious picnic lunch mysteriously gets replaced by a snake.
The best story in this section is the last, a graphic story – “Bringing up Momee” – by artist and writer Vandana Bist, about a girl who becomes a sloth. The graphic part of the narrative is something to be savoured. Words are not enough to bring out the emotional appeal of “Bringing up Momee.”
No book about mischief-makers can be complete without their spirit counterparts, real or fake. And the last section of the book has “Mischief-making Floating Ghosts.” There are only three stories here, which was disappointing. The best of the three, “The Long and Short of It” by Bijal Vachharajani would have fitted in better with the stories grouped under “Mischief Among Friends.” It was not short on entertainment though. Bulbul Sharma’s “The Spook” would make for a beautiful illustrated book for younger children. It also evoked memories of the comic book about Casper the friendly ghost I had read as a child. In a good way, like a new acquaintance who reminds you of an old friend.
While not all stories hit the right spot with me, Prankenstein did peel away the years, at least for one afternoon. I was glad to become a child again, loafing underneath a guava tree with a book (this one) in my hand. Except that the guava and other trees were memories from my childhood, as I lay on a bean bag inside four walls. But I forget myself. This book is for children. And that makes me wonder, what did the editors have in mind when they put together the stories? Kids after all are kids, and will be up to mischief anyway. Why give them more ideas? Which makes me wonder again, who exactly are the biggest mischief-makers here?
Prankenstein: The Book of Crazy Mischief, edited by Ruskin Bond and Jerry Pinto, illustrated by Lavanya Naidu, Talking Cub.