Book review: Jakarta Tails by Pallavi Aiyar
Soyabean and Tofu, the feline fascinators we last met in Beijing, have relocated to Jakarta now
It`s no use me telling you about Soyabean and Tofu`s adventures in Jakarta without filling you a bit on their origin story. The two felines, Soyabean who rejoices in a deep orange colour and Tofu who is black of fur, first came to our notice a decade ago in Pallavi Aiyar`s Chinese Whiskers. Soyabean lived in the backyard of an elderly man`s house and Tofu was a `dustbin cat` but both were lucky enough to be adopted by the A family, and loved to bits.
Just as life settles down for the cats, the adventures begin. Soyabean, undoubtedly a gorgeous cat, is invited to become the model for a new Chinese brand of cat food. Tofu is picked up by the white van people when a pandemic surges through China and cats are blamed for the spread of the virus. Eventually, Tofu makes a dramatic return to the A residence, and Soyabean actually exposes the cat food scam…don`t ask how, just read the fun tale. The humour and charm that underpins the story balances out the less than savoury doings.
In Jakarta Tails, the A family have relocated to Indonesia and live in a tony residential area of Jakarta, where the boys Ishaan and Nico go to school while Mr A goes off to work, and Mrs A, a journalist, chases up stories. The house is run smoothly by a small army of staff. All in all, it seems a good life, with Mrs A repeatedly singing the praises of a country that seems to wear its pluralistic ethos proudly on its silken sleeve.
`Seems,` of course, is the operative word here. As in Chinese Whiskers, where we caught an incisive glimpse of the way things worked in the inscrutable Middle Kingdom, here too all is not what it seems, and just below the serene calm of life (terrible traffic notwithstanding) lies a host of disquieting and seething matters, like the Warriors of God, sundry gatekeepers of morality, young boys being recruited to work at a fake news farm, the distrust and suspicion of those who don’t follow one`s religion, speak one`s language.
As in the first book, the narrative shifts between Soyabean`s, Tofu`s and Mrs A`s points of view. Soyabean continues to be a Little Emperor cat, his main concerns being eating and snoozing. Tofu the cat with a conscience, has brought all her inherent insecurities with her to Indonesia, and is still jumpy in the company of human beings. Mrs A comes off as rather naïve and ready to settle for first impressions of the place she is in now, till the scales drop from her eyes sharply.
The focus of attention here is the house next door with its mysterious residents and all sorts of funny goings-on. When things come to a head, Tofu is snatched by a fanatic kiai (imam) and taken next door. Then begins Op Rescue, planned and put into action by Soyabean and Tofu`s improbable friend Tikus the rat, quite the most captivating character in this book.
Under oodles of feline appeal, this is a story of distrust, othering, fanaticism, prejudice. As also the flip side of the coin: basic decency, kindness and optimism.
As for those charm magnets Soyabean and Tofu, we can`t wait to read of their adventures in yet another new city, country.
Jakarta Tails by Pallavi Aiyar, HarperCollins Books, Rs 399, 262 pages.
Chinese Whiskers by Pallavi Aiyar, HarperCollins Books, Rs 399, 238 pages.
This review appeared in the Sunday Express magazine of 21 March 2021.