Book review: The Hundred Names of Darkness by Nilanjana Roy
The Hundred Names of Darkness, writer Nilanjana Roy’s second book in the cat series, makes a pitch for animals and humans to live peacefully together.
Any sequel to a critically acclaimed novel comes with its own baggage, but Nilanjana Roy manages to manoeuvre her way through the inevitable obstacle path of expectations, to tell a fresh new tale with all the old characters from The Wildings, as well as a handful of new ones. The Bigfeet (humans in animal-speak) remain the same, Mara’s owners, and continue to play a muted, supporting role, as the couple that feeds, cuddles, plays with their orange cat, who, unbeknownst to them, is actually the powerful Sender of Nizamuddin.
The Wildings, which won the Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize last year, introduced us to the somewhat bedraggled but adorable kitten Mara, who, through inherited powers, is one of the most dominant Senders in all of Delhi. Mara can link with other Sender cats; she can even, through telekinesis, summon a full-grown tiger (in this case, a tiger named Ozzy), which she does to great effect in the battle the wildings have with the feral cats. At that point, though, Mara preferred to stay within the safe confines of her Bigfeet’s house rather than roam with others of her kind, out in the gallis of Nizamuddin.
The Hundred Names… begins with Mara still reticent about stepping out to interact with the other cats of her clan (a Sender, we find, is head of a clan and has her own responsibilities) or give much thought to their well-being. Cocooned in her comforts, Mara continues to link with other Senders, giving them a clear idea of her formidable powers (she can easily link by telepathic communication to Senders in states as far from Delhi as Goa). However, life is not getting any easier for the cats, stray canines, the cheels, and other birds and animals of Nizamuddin.
We find the blame for that laid directly at the Bigfoot’s door: constant pulling down of old houses, putting up of ugly new structures, blocking and building over the old water bodies and parks, clogging the drains, cutting down trees, filling the air with fumes from noxious vehicles, tar and needless fires, making sure their surroundings are ‘sanitised’ of cats, dogs and other creatures.
Things indeed look desperate and the Sender of Nizamuddin will have to step up to the plate and deliver them of their distress. Which Mara does eventually, of course.All the old felines walk these pages: Beraal, Miao, Southpaw, Hulo and Katar, as do the cheels Tooth and Claw, the squirrel scamps Aao and Jaao, and even Kirri, the sinister mongoose. The Hundred Names… also introduces us to a new cast of delightfully named critters: Umrrow Jaan from the Qutab Minar area. The peacocks, Thomas, Henry, Noah, Much and Any Mor.
A small mouse named Jethro Tail, who makes an all too fleeting appearance. The Golf Course cats Mulligan, Niblick and Mashie. And above all, Doginder, Mara’s new canine buddy, the dog that looks like an Alsatian from the front and like a lot of things from behind. Doginder starts out as a Ferocious Attack Dog, then switches to being GOD — Guard (Official) Dog — of the Nizamuddin dhaba. And finally, the marauding, encroaching bandicoots headed by Moonch, along with his sulky sidekick Poonch, short for Chota Poonch. You register the names and you want to roll your eyes; instead, you find you are grinning.
Prabha Mallya’s illustrations have all the evocative appeal of the ones in The Wildings, but many of these also have a faint air of menace attached to them. This is not entirely inappropriate, considering the ominous title of the book. The artwork is a perfect complement to the unfolding story, though, never overshadowing the saga.
So, there are touches of humour, there is more cat psychology, the magical process of ‘sending’ is delightfully simplified, there is even a raptor bird with a fear of flying. There are life lessons for those who look for it. If the antagonism against human beings is more pronounced here than in the first book, hope also runs like a strong skein through the second book.
Roy no longer has the novelty factor working for her, and it shows at times. The story does tend to meander, gathering in its wide loop other smaller stories, entertaining bits of flotsam and jetsam. Also, one is not quite sure if the animals talking quite so much doesn’t tend to take something off their mystique.
The Hundred Names… does beg the question: is this a story for children, or can adults take away something from it, too? One thing’s for sure, though: this is a book for readers. And it does bring the tale of the wildings to a satisfactory conclusion.
The Hundred Names of Darkness by Nilanjana Roy/Aleph Books.
This ran in DECCAN HERALD of 5 Jan 2014.