Sunday, July 05, 2015

Cuckoo and the Escape of the Little Elephant - on the wrong side of the border

book review

Sajjad Haider's novella revolves around a pachyderm trying to get back home before the Pak-India boundaries are drawn on the day of the partition

Book: Cuckoo and the Escape of the Little Elephant
Author: Sajjad Haider

With the rapid increase in the number of books self-published by authors around the world every year, it is becoming fairly obvious that the boom in self-publishing has been a mixed blessing. The practice has given novice writers and emerging voices — literally anyone who has a story to tell — a chance to air their ideas while retaining their creative control and artistic independence. But the removal of filters has also resulted in works of diminished quality making their way to (both online and traditional) bookstores, swamping the market with poorly-written or badly-edited tomes.

Sajjad Haider’s novella Cuckoo and the Escape of the Little Elephant simultaneously exhibits some of the pros and cons of self-publishing.

The book that was issued in the form of a limited print edition in 2014 revolves around a group of animals, spinning a charming yarn set against the historical backdrop of the Indo-Pak Partition. The story centres on the pursuits of a notorious cuckoo, who begins by relaying a peculiar tale to a “prim-looking, stiff-necked and cheerless” myna. It’s the summer of 1947, and a varied set of animals in Lahore find themselves on an unusual adventure. A young elephant has escaped from captivity and is running for her life while being chased by her human master. Helping her evade capture is a motley posse which includes a set of sparrow quintuplets and a skinny, brown rat. Despite their efforts, the elephant eventually ends up in the custody of the Lahore Zoo. But the Karachi Zoo, which is preparing to inaugurate itself as the Capital Zoo of Pakistan on Aug 14 wants custody of the pachyderm, leaving it up to the animals to hustle and help their friend go back to where she belongs.

With an engaging plot populated by interesting characters, Cuckoo and the Escape of the Little Elephant makes for an enjoyable read. Younger readers in particular are likely to be amused by this oddball odyssey, while rooting for the animals and connecting with the mischievous protagonist of the book; the human characters, though, aren’t always cast under a positive light and won’t draw as much sympathy, as they often end up causing problems for the animals in one way or the other.

But despite being fairly well-written overall, the book also ends up highlighting the importance of editing. The occasional typos, improper syntactical choices, and other small mistakes in its text don’t leave you in any doubt that this isn’t a traditionally published work. Not proofing the manuscript thoroughly before publishing it is a common mistake among self-publishers, and Cuckoo falls prey to the same problem. The lack of finesse and refinement doesn’t make a good first impression on the readers, a problem that could have easily been avoided by getting the manuscript proofed by someone with decent editing skills.

Still, it is delightful to have a children’s novella set in Pakistan. While some of its prose could have been more elegant, this first instalment in what is expected to become a series is amusing and enjoyable. Its short length makes it a quick read, and while its story may not seem exceptional to jaded, older readers, it is quite likely to appeal to a younger audience. If the author can seek the help of an editor and come up with sharper allegories as he adds more tales to the series, Cuckoo’s adventures could potentially have a promising future. 

- By Sameen Amer

Books & Authors, Dawn - 5th July, 2015 *

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