“If you go out in the night on the streets of any city, you will see these large bandicoots that look even bigger in the dark. The cats look much smaller and so, maybe they are of the same size. But when a rat runs across the street and a shadow of it is cast on the wall (as shown on the book cover), it looks huge and scary,” says Bengaluru-based Adrija Ghosh, the illustrator of Rats Bigger Than Cats written by Maegan Dobson Sippy.
Written in playful verse and illustrated in mixed media, the story is of two unlikely groups coming together. One of the main points that Adrija had to keep in mind while illustrating was the size of the rats and making sure that they were, in fact, bigger than the cats. “That was a very important thing. I got feedback multiple times from the publisher (Karadi Tales) saying that the rats on this page are not big enough, they have to be larger,” she laughs.
“But also not completely real, it is not realistic. It can be a possibility but also if you give way to imagination, which is, I think, a very important part of children’s books or picture books, you can actually have anything. You can have a giant rat in front of a cat and it will still make sense,” she adds.
Born in Kolkata, the 26-year-old decided to bring her love for the city to the page. “When I went through the manuscript I realised it could be placed in a particular geographical location that I was very familiar with. Because it is such an old city, you see cats and rats going about. That was the starting point. I researched by checking old photographs of the city. The visual memories I had were not enough because I wanted a particular kind of perspective and images. Anyone who has grown up in Calcutta or has any knowledge of the city would recognise it, I hope.”
Additionally, since the story begins at twilight and ends in the morning, that too informed the colour palette. Says Adrija, “Another thing about the lighting was that in Calcutta, it is mostly yellow tungsten bulbs; the really old ones that you don’t see in other metros much. There is a particular kind of colour palette in Calcutta at night, which is mostly browns and yellows and maybe a fluorescent coming in from somewhere.”
As for the theme running through the book and what drew her to the story, she says, “As children we would see, especially with Tom and Jerry on TV, that rats are always chased by cats and they are not friends. You even have the phrase cat-and-mouse game. That is where Maegan’s writing is so beautiful. You think that the rats and cats are going to fight a lot, but in the end, it is a good resolution.
“Also, in a time like this when there is so much hatred around, it is nice to see that even if you are warring, you can still be cordial or friendly with each other and learn to accept differences. In the text, you see that the cats get all the good treatment, and the rats are mostly eating out of garbage. I wouldn’t say it has a deeper, political meaning but it is a nice thing to read to children these days. So that way the narrative feels wholesome.”
Rats Bigger Than Cats is priced at ₹250 and is available online