Most kids want to become adults fast. What happens when you try to speed up that process?
The narrator-hero of Musharraf Ali Farooqi’s new book for young readers is preoccupied with Time and wastes none of it in letting us know what the central peeve of his existence is.
“There was one gigantic, colossal fault with our species which trumped all the advantages,” says Tik-Tik — a boy from the planet Nopter — on the opening page. “Our species was slow to grow up. Very slow.” In case you’re wondering, “growing up” isn’t code for a people collectively becoming wiser, or something else abstract or allegorical; it is literally about the movement from childhood to adulthood. Hankering after the many freedoms available to adults, and impatient to become one of their rank, the single-minded Tik-Tik decides that “this state of affairs should not be allowed to continue unchallenged and uncured”.
In fact he continues to make such self-important proclamations throughout the book, for he is an endearingly deluded fellow. He gives himself heaps of credit along with many grand-sounding designations, but he constantly misreads situations and overestimates the worth of his own initiatives — which means much salvaging work has to be done by other people, notably his unruffled friend Nib-Nib, with whom he shares a love-hate relationship (and whose cat Dum-Dum is a personal nemesis). This brings a bumbling charm to Tik-Tik’s narrative, which serves the book well, especially when he makes a proud announcement only to have the wind taken out of his sails a few sentences later. Or when he indulges in quasi-philosophical asides (“I realised that all planets have their Dum-Dums. One cannot escape them”) or over-dramatises his problems: “With Dum-Dum prowling on the land mass, and the penguins underwater, this planet had now become for me the single most dangerous place in the whole cosmos [...] I hoped to find their military training camp, fitted out with rope ladders, horizontal beams and swings.”
Even when he casts himself as an Evil Scientist driven to nefarious means for his survival, the effect is funny, not least because we know that little will come of his schemes.
This winsome book begins slowly, with a series of developments that culminate in Tik-Tik setting off on an inter-galactic journey in a space egg with his grandpa, but the pace lifts once they land on Earth and start figuring out “high science” methods to remedy the planet’s construction flaws. Hanging a giant comet from the “bottom” of Earth, for instance, would stabilise it and do away with the menace of changing seasons. A huge propeller fixed to the North Pole would be a nice way to speed up rotation and make time pass more quickly. And a polarity device is a neat method for keeping unwanted things and creatures as far away from you as possible (though this can, like anything else, backfire).
Sprinkled at irregular intervals through this story are illustrations by Michelle Farooqi — the author’s wife — and the best of them do a valuable job of enhancing the text and clarifying the things described. For example, it wasn’t until I saw the lovely drawing on page 61, a depiction of what Earth looks like after the propeller and the comet have been attached, that I felt I had a real sense of what Tik-Tik had been up to. The drawing is non-realist in that it shows Tik-Tik, his grandpa and five waddling penguins as abnormally large figures occupying a sizable part of the planet’s surface, both on the “top” and the “bottom” (the effect is similar to the famous images of Saint-Exupéry’s Little Prince on his tiny asteroid) but it is an instant mood-establisher, affectionate and quaint while also making the familiar seem unfamiliar.
Tik-Tik, The Master of Time is a breezy, humorous adventure story — with some very rudimentary science for young readers — but it has a self-evidently serious side too. Tik-Tik’s impatience is a version of a paranoia many of us have experienced as children: suspecting that Adulthood is an exclusive, privileged club floating unreachably in the misty distance; wondering when (or if!) we will be admitted to this fellowship and what deep secrets we might learn when that happens.
The irony is that, for a grown-up reader, a book such as this one can both create and fulfil the opposite sort of yearning. And this may be why the climax, though a bit laboured in its spelling out of ideas, is so affecting — Tik-Tik’s sense of loss and disorientation when he finally gets his wish and then realises that there is no going back is easy to relate to.
For those of us with limited access to space eggs and giant propellers, revisiting our favourite children’s books — and discovering new ones — is a good practical way of bridging time’s great divide.
Tik-Tik: The Master of Time; Musharraf Ali Farooqi, Rupa/Red Turtle, Rs.250.