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A8out a 8oy and a cat

Priyanka Kotamraju | Updated on January 24, 2018

Th3 8OY WHO5P3AK5 1N NUM83R5Mike MasilamaniArt: Matthew FrameTara Books₹450

The Case Filesof P.I. PojoThe Killing ofMr HeathcoteMeghna SingheePuffin₹199

A first-rate book that deals with the dark side of war through numbers; and a detective who smells something fishy

Numbers don’t lie. They reveal more than they hide. Numbers are “polite and well mannered”, they don’t overpower you with emotions. Take the case of the Sri Lankan civil war — it raged on for 26 years, resulting in one lakh casualties and nearly one lakh Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). The economic costs of the war? The island-nation’s military spending climbed from 1.3 per cent of the GDP in 1983 to 3.5 by 2008. The number of military personnel increased 10 times, from 22,000 to 2,13,000. The effects of the war have been estimated at annual average of nine per cent of the GDP. Numbers spell out the horrors of war too.

But that’s not our story, not entirely. Mike Masilamani’s debut novel, Th3 8oy who 5p3ak5 1n num83r5 (that is not a typo), is a darkly comic tale about the war seen through the eyes of a young lad. The Boy grows up in the shadow of the Civil War of Lies, fleeing his Small Village of Fat Hopes, finding a temporary home at the Innocent and Deceived Persons (IDPs) camp. In a land where everyone speaks in colour — “yellow and loud” — the boy knows only the language of numbers. He digs his nose when he thinks, and he is always thinking. He makes friends with the Constantly Complaining Cow. “Dried fish 980 Rupees! Amoo! Sugar 300 Rupees! Chilli powder 100 Rupees,” the cow incessantly whines about the rising prices, “from the grip of the war”. In his world, teashops have been replaced by checkpoints. The vocabulary of boisterous colours has given way to a single word — Impossible. Impossible to speak, question or play. Told lightly and even humorously, it is still a withering account of the “wholesale” business of war.

Th3 8oy who 5p3ak5 1n Num83r5, which was seven years in the making, started out as a short story and then grew into a play. Now, it is a superbly illustrated 92-page novel. Early in the book, Masilamani issues a warning to his readers, “If at any point in the following story you are to feel dizzy, out of breath, light-headed, disoriented, and of the growing suspicion that you are lost, it’s probably true.”

The novel is set in a terrifying world, painted in vivid yellows and reds, and echoing with uncomfortable questions no one wants to answer. The Island of Short Memories and the Small Village of Fat Hopes are not distant places in an imagined land; they are close to home in Sri Lanka and Jaffna. The Little Tin Soldiers are the fighters of LTTE, on the lookout for new recruits. The Kettle Camp is the country’s army, ruthlessly running the war and the camps. The Reducing Roll Call at the camps is a bitter truth, as are the White Van Widows and Tricky Traders, who turn deprivation into opportunity.

We tend to forget that children are often the most vulnerable in conflict. But they are also some of the most important observers in times of war. Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl is not only a poignant coming-of-age tale, but it is also a tragic account of a Jewish person hiding from Nazi persecution. In Aamir Bashir’s film Harud, young Rafiq constantly wonders about the omnipresence of the army in his life in Kashmir. The Boy in Masilamani’s tale is also a haunting voice of his generation. It is telling that the author originally wrote the story for his children, Kethaki and Mandeep. Curious and confused, the Boy wades through life under war, whose motive remains unclear to him. As his Island trudges towards peace, a realisation dawns on the Boy: The numbers never add up in a war, no matter which side is counting. But in the Island of Short Memories, an ugly old tree is flowering again, with a “bittersweet and long-forgotten scent”. It is blooming with questions.

The Case Files of PI Pojo

What do you get when you combine the grey cells of Hercule Poirot, the energy of Sherlock Holmes, the cheek of Frederick Algernon Trotteville aka Fatty and the snooping skills of Harriet the Spy? A super-detective, obviously. Well, you also get Private Investigator Pojo aka Pratap Pande. What do you need to know about PI Pojo? He loves pancakes and puzzles. He has just moved to the prestigious, Hogwarts-like school Heathcote International. He has few friends, but carries secret dossiers on the entire school — juniors, seniors, teachers and gardeners. He has a trusty backpack and a lifelong (okay, 13 years) experience in detection (his mom and dad make detective shows!). He has oodles of curiosity but no sidekick. His case file is full, but his payments are due — bags of bananas, chips and baked goodies. If you are in trouble, head straight to his makeshift office. Visiting hours: 2pm to 4.30pm.

When the precious school cat Mr Heathcote — really the symbol of everything Heathcote stands for — mysteriously dies, Pojo smells something fishy. This was a murder. And the game is afoot. Pojo flaunts a substantial arsenal of detection — from acquiring sidekicks and climbing walls to eavesdropping and breaking in. The ensuing journey takes him to every corner of the vast school, into the charming town of Panchgani and even to a godman’s holy ashram. Was there even a murder? Is Mr Heathcote alive?

This novel is packed with plucky kids, surly gardeners and absent-minded teachers. In Pratap Pojo Pande, we get a fine detective with a penchant for solving mysteries. Not like a discerning Feluda but a more refined Tenida. Only wish the book was 50 pages shorter.

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Published on June 19, 2015
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