THE CASE OF THE CANDY BANDIT.
Text and illustrations: Archit Taneja.
Cover illustration and design: Kaveri Gopalakrishnan.
Duckbill. 2014. Paperback. Rs. 150. 130 pages.
I have been addicted to child detectives and spies since I was about seven. When I am bored today, my daydreams are often packed with Holly Short and Harriet the Spy, the Famous Five and Nancy Drew and, more recently, Andreas Steinhofel’s The Spaghetti Detectives. I am seriously tracking down The Great Cake Mystery, Precious Ramotswe’s first case as a schoolchild. Maybe with a detour via Anushka Ravishankar’s Captain Coconut and the Case of the Missing Bananas.
I am puzzled by the dearth of captivating child detectives amidst the tidal wave of Indian children's fiction across the last twenty years. That is why my pulse quickened when I read about Archit Taneja’s Superlative Supersleuths. Who are they? The talkative, logic-wired narrator Rachita and her on-and-off sidekick Aarti, both aged about eleven or twelve. While Aarti is in week-long candy exile, following a root canal procedure, cupcakes, laddoos and candy go missing from classroom lunchbox treats. A promising start to an action-packed narrative, I think to myself.
The assorted dramatis personae have everyday charm. This is as true of Rachita’s parents, totally in sync with their resident private eye, as of a dental evangelist who urges the children to quit their sugar fix. The motley classroom cast includes Arjun, who loves food beyond reason, and Mrs. Dutta, who teaches maths through thermocol-rich charts. The four-footed stars – a dog and a pet rat.
Duckbill has packaged Taneja’s debut novel perfectly. Its aqua-blue cover with funky lettering has some key elements sprinkled on it. The illustrations within are a smart match. Sleuth notebook jottings. Diagrammatic desk settings. Suspect footprints. Mrs. Dutta’s maths chart. Cool chapter titles. And the irresistible fingerprint page numbers.
Taneja’s writerly mind has a logical, playful quirkiness. I imagine him being a hit at sleuthing workshops or investigative quizzes that lead children up the garden path to a giggle-and-guffaw finale. But this plot lets Taneja down. It has too little pace or tension, too many meanderings, too meagre a scattering of clues. It trips over extended detailing – Rachita’s plethora of sheep dreams, a favorite sandwich recipe, or mundane thanks for a proffered guava.
On an extended revisit after my first reading, I scout for reasons why. Could it be because the detective duo are not on the same page? Rachita is immersed in real-time facts, letting her mind roam irrationally only in her dreams. Of Aarti, she writes: “Aarti hates detective books. She doesn’t even share the table with me because she detests them so much. I convinced her once, to read one of them. After reading a few chapters, she threw it back at me in disgust… She’s into fantasy books.” Rachita’s voice – whether she is writing or dreaming, speaking or thinking – could have been delineated with more sparkle and conviction. The mix does not benefit from the excess of colloquial “aghhhs” and “ugghs” either. Even the clues lack surprise after the initial chapters. As a reader, I was upset that I could spot the culprit early on.
It is not easy to get the Indian child's voice absolutely right in print and I admire writers who have perfected it – Anushka Ravishankar, Sigrun Srivastav, Asha Nehemiah, Poile Sengupta, Subhadra Sen Gupta and Uma Krishnaswami, among them.
I now face a maze of pesky questions. Could the Superlative Supersleuths have been honed to a smoother finish with guidance from the editor/s? Perhaps a few drafts more? A sleuthing duo less reliant on adult help? More action, less sluggish thoughts? But I live in hope. Perhaps there’s a Superlative Supersleuths sequel in the pipeline. I’m sure that will live up to Taneja’s latent potential, with a guiding hand from Duckbill.
To me, Duckbill remains one of my favorite Indian imprints for children. This book could have been a winner, but misses by more than a whisker. I wish…
(Originally published in GoodBooks online at: http://goodbooks.in/node/6874)