I read ‘The Wildlings’ a few years too late. I was present on that evening at the Mumbai Lit Fest in 2012 (I think) when Nilanjana Roy didn’t win the award for the best book of that year. I sat there, a few rows behind, and watched her reaction to the announcement. Did her body tighten a bit? Did she already know or was she surprised? Was there disappointment on her face? No, I wasn’t stalking her. It was the first literature festival that I’d attended and the last award ceremony. (Guess attending it reeks of newbie-hood.) I sat there dreaming of being a writer one day, and watched all the authors who didn’t win and wondered how it must have felt. Your life’s work, in a way, being judged and you’re hoping, against hope, that you win. I haven’t read the book by the author who did win that day, and that leaves me unqualified to have an opinion, but, well, I still have one. I think ‘The Wildlings’ deserved to be judged the best book of that year. I didn’t get hold of the book then, maybe because it didn’t win, or because it was so expensive, but came across it at my library and so grabbed it.
Fantasy fiction in India is often based on mythology; things are changing now slowly, but against that backdrop this fantasy fiction book stands miles apart. It delved deep into a world of cats, brought alive like no other author had; none to my knowledge at least. I’ve always thought of myself as a dog person—though it’s not like I get dogs that completely—but cats, I definitely do not get. Yet I was drawn into this alien world of cats, their lives and worries. I was affected by that world. I even considered adopting a cat the second I finished the book; maybe to keep the story going in my house?
I read this on Nilanjana Roy’s website:
“I waited impatiently for someone else, a real writer, to write the book I wanted to read, until it began to dawn on me that there might not be too many writers out there fascinated by the secret life of cats. Aliens, yes, vampires, yes, daemons and demons, absolutely. But cats had few champions. This seemed grossly unfair.”[Read more here]
I’ve only read book 1 in the series; book 2 arrived today. This book leads you, holding your hand for a bit, into the world of ‘bigfeet’ and ‘mara’,’ferals’, ‘wildlings’ and ‘senders’!. As a reader and lover of fantasy books, I like worlds that I can step into, with a few modifications and a few lessons learnt in order to know, as well as the author, the future action. For a writer, the hardest task possibly is to create a world that is believable, interesting, different enough from the one we live in yet similar so that it doesn’t seem like a textbook. (Some people do believe Samantha Shannon messed that bit in her book, Bone Order, in which you almost need to study a glossary of terms, but sometimes that level of geekdom works too!)
Nilanjana Roy’s world at Nizamuddin Delhi is strange. The perspective is different, literally, though the issues that plague this world are almost similar to those that plague ours. You see a democratic leadership on one side and an autocratic on the other…. with its myopic view drawn by the jaundiced eyes of its leader. There are struggles and difficulties in letting freedom truly reign but at the same time enforcing those boundaries that ensure it reigns without descending into anarchy.
The Wildlings have their set methods in going about their life, and they aren’t too open to outsides. So who is to judge the ferals and their dogged-mindedness? There are questions to ask, and arguments that might never finish. The setting has the harsh tones of the underbelly of a city and if I converted the story into a human one, it might just work too. Maybe. But it is this very setting that is Nilanjana Roy’s strength. She builds the world of these cats to perfection. It almost felt that if I reached out, I could touch that world.
Another aspect of this book that left me enamoured is the illustrations. I’ve never seen an adult book with illustrations. (That never was said quite confidently.) I opened The Wildlings expecting no illustrations beyond the cover. But the entire book is interspersed with images. But to have a book that has been illustrated so well added dimensions to the narrative. The visual landscape created by Prabha Mallya is no less in splendour and detail as compared to Nilanjana’s verbal one. Shades of grey bring alive a world of cats, shades of grey make you see the kind cats and also fear the vicious ones, and those same monotones are enough to dramatise to action…
The opening spread pulled me right in. And like a little kid I was searching for the cats… saw some gleaming eyes to the left, then looked to the right and saw a ferocious white cat almost jumping of the page. At that point, I didn’t know the characters and didn’t know I was fearing the right cat! This cacophony is followed by a plain black page just before the story begins, a pause, and then you begin.
The tiger makes a glorious entry on an entire spread of what could be tiger stripes or a forest or… Suggestion is probably this illustrator’s biggest strength as I kept encountering through the book. I love little Mara’s neck and try to picture her looking up at this big, huge mother of all cats… the Tiger!
The detailing is brilliant. The mangoose has an all over pattern like a Indian block printed cloth, and the shuttered house, the scariest part in the book, has words rises from above it. That image disturbs and evokes the eerie feeling flowing through the pages surrounding it so well. Multiple mediums, multiple styles come together to tell one story.
Scattered feathers suggest death. One crow in focus and the flock of hazy crows (though my picture poorly shows that). Those white eyes actually pierce yours as you look at it. And the irony of Queen of the Night, or the fragrant Raat Raani along with the title Fear in the Dark.
In some ways it’s like an analogy for the world around us today. There are ferals on the loose here in India and maybe we need the wildings, we need normal folk, to save the world. There are so many characters on those pages and in those illustrations, I do not want to divulge anymore or leak any other bits. I have only one more thing to say, this is one book you cannot read on the kindle. Get yourself a book-book, so that you can step into the illustrations as much as the text!