“May you live in interesting times” is an old saying, popularly known as a ‘Chinese curse.’ The times in which Pallavi Aiyar sets her novel were certainly interesting for Beijing and its inhabitants. In the wake of an outbreak of SARS, people wandered the streets in surgical masks. Stray animals were rounded up and killed in a bid to stem the epidemic. It was also a time of construction and corruption, as the city raced to rebuild itself in time for the Olympics with little regard for human rights—let alone those of animals. A familiar scenario for anyone who lived in Delhi in the run-up to the Commonwealth Games last year.
Against this backdrop, Pallavi Aiyar tells the story of two cats: Tofu—a clever and resourceful ‘dustbin cat’—and Soyabean, a lovable but rather vain tom, who are adopted by a foreign couple, Mr and Mrs A.
Life is good until Xiao Xu, an unscrupulous young man with a sharp eye for a quick buck, offers Soyabean a starring role in an ad for Maomi Deluxe, a new brand of Chinese cat food that the cats later realise is tainted. Meanwhile, Tofu, accidentally locked out one night, is rounded up by the animal catchers and has to escape.
Chinese Whiskers is an unusual book in several senses. A novel for ‘young adults’ is a rare phenomenon in India, and one set in China is unique. The author has spoken of her difficulty in finding a publisher willing to risk a book that defied pigeonholing, particularly since ‘animal stories’—with notable exceptions like Watership Down and Shardik (by Richard Adams) or The Life and Times of Altu-Faltu (by Ranjit Lal)—tend to be aimed at younger readers.
Having lived in—and reported from—Beijing, Aiyar brings to the story a vivid sense of life in the city—and Gerolf Van de Perre’s evocative pencil sketches are a perfect match. The plot points leading up to the denouement—in which the cats save the day and the baddies are brought to book—look wobbly in places. But for all that it’s an easy and enjoyable read, and affords us Ren (humans) an unusual cat’s-eye view of human life in modern China.
Outlook Traveller, March 2011