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Published on: 05/16/21 4:41 AM

Book review: The White Umbrella By Brian Sewell

Travels with a donkey

Some books are a delight to read and Brian Sewell’s novella The White Umbrella:  The Englishman and the Donkey of Peshawar  falls fair and square in this category. A  quaint and charming  yarn, it`s a good read in these trying times.

The late Sewell, famous art critic/ columnist/ author/ media personality, was  clearly a lover of animals, with  his dogs playing a starring role in his memoir. In this book, that privilege goes to a long-legged young donkey  named Pavlova… yes, named after the renowned Russian ballet dancer, in case you were wondering.

The main character, Mr B,  is a whimsical Englishman who rescues a baby donkey from the streets of Peshawar. To the understandable  irritation of his colleagues, who are on the point of returning home, Mr B refuses to part ways with the donkey. He insists he will walk back to England from Peshawar, and that is how Mr B and Pavlova embark on their  incredible,  rollicking journey.

They  make their way through some fascinating places on their long voyage home, and both Pavlova and the reader are given a potted history of the places visited, places Mr B is already familiar with.  Zahedan and the  house with  the most exquisite tiles, Isfahan where Pavlova is introduced to the craftsmanship of the world famous carpets, Dogubayazit where Mr B climbs Mount Ararat and tells Pavlova the story of Noah’s Ark,  are just some of the interesting  story stops they make.

In actual fact, Mr B and Pavlova travel to all these places by different kinds of transport and therefore there is minimal walking, which is convenient because as Mr B informs us,  young donkeys cannot walk long distances. The transport varies from `people carriers,` a dusty beat- up truck, a Mercedes Benz van and finally an old Rolls Royce,  all of which is described with much wit.

In a time where the minority community is being othered, it is heartwarming to read a book that does quite the opposite. From a wise pharmacist in Peshawar to a poet who is a singer and doubles up as a driver, or a helpful carpet seller, the characters have all been drawn with a compassionate eye. In this book, even the rogues are not outright villains.

And what of the white umbrella of the title? It was a favourite possession of Mr B,  a sturdy feat of engineering, a brolly veritably for all seasons. The book benefits immensely from Sally  Ann Lasson’s simple but striking black and white illustrations.

A mixture of fable/ travelogue/ history lesson all packaged most engagingly, this book is a little gem.

The White Umbrella,  The Englishman and the Donkey of Peshawar/By Brian Sewell/Illustrations by Sally Ann Lasson/Speaking Tiger/175 pages/Rs 299.

This ran in the Sunday Express magazine of 16 May 2021.

book reviewBrian SewellThe White Umbrellatraveloguetravels with a donkey

Sheila Kumar • May 16, 2021

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