A cat caught in a puppy act

Bonda, the friendly cat, in the new book by illustrator Niveditha Subramaniam, depicts behaviour far removed from that we perceive as traditionally cat-like

Bonda, the cat, possesses all the physical characteristics of any self-respecting feline: a long, swishy tail; a splendid pair of whiskers, multi-functional paws; a fluffy tawny coat; large, luminous eyes. But Bonda doesn’t quite behave like a cat: bounding around gaily, licking its canine friend, Soda and (almost) wagging its tail. In short, Bonda’s behaviour is far removed from those we perceive as traditionally cat-like: a snooty aloofness punctuated by swishing tail, an occasional leg-rub and plaintive mews.

On the surface, Soda and Bonda (Tulika Books), Chennai-based author and illustrator Niveditha Subramaniam’s latest book, is a simple one: the story of a two friends, Soda, the dog, who looks and feels like one and Bonda, the cat, who looks like a cat but feels like a dog.

But it also raises questions about identity, self-perception and acceptance. “I don’t like thrusting issues into books, children are too intelligent anyway,” says the author , adding that she has stayed true to its core —the relationship between the two friends.

“But I am glad that it can be used as an entry point to talk about a number of things.” Soda and Bonda are both modelled after real life animals. Bonda, for instance is based on a childhood memory of a relative who had a number of cats including this one. “He was like a puppy,” smiles Subramaniam, pointing out that often our depiction of animals is very stereotyped. “Cats are fetishised for their independence, which is untrue. Cats are as capable of affection as dogs are; it is expressed in different ways,” she says.

Soda, on the other hand, is inspired by Barney, a border collie that belonged to a former professor. “It began as part of my Master’s Project,” says Subramaniam, who has recently completed an MA in Children’s Book Illustration from the Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge.

She first tried to observe and sketch dogs by visiting a park near her home but, “they were running around too much.” Then her professor, who lived with both a cat and a dog, invited her home.

“I started off by doing a lot of observational work,” she says.

This translated into a number of sketches, “whole bunches of unfinished ones. I would try to draw him and he would come and sit on my sketchbook,” she laughs. But it taught her to understand how the animal moved and behaved, she says and helped her, “stay true to your idea of a writer and illustrator.”

Soda and Bonda is Subramaniam’s 14th book and the third one she has both written and illustrated for. Her repertoire is eclectic: her 2008 debut book, Jalebi Curls is about a raja who loves the syrupy sweet; her 2011, Mayil Will Not Be Quiet co-authored with writer, Sowmya Rajendran, explores gender, pop culture and growing up . Her 2015 Flutterfly is filled with lovely black-and-white sketches, pops of colour and no words at all. “I haven’t really thought or defined my style but I try to develop something authentic,” she says.

Attention to detail

The authenticity comes from getting the small things right, plenty of observation and multiple experiences. “I am inspired by everyday life and occurrences. Things that you don't think stories come from,” says Subramaniam. The self-taught illustrator describes her foray into the world of children’s literature as an instinctive one. As a student of literature at Chennai’s Stella Maris College, she remembers trawling large book fairs in search of good books to discover that she, “saw myself enjoying children’s books more than anything else.” Jalebi Curls , was inspired by a walk she took on a full moon night. “The moon that night was a cheesy, orange one. My friend looked at it and said it looked like a jalebi,” she says.

Six months later, when she went on to join Tulika publishers as an editorial assistant, this visual became a nice little story. “Every experience adds up,” says Subramaniam, who is working on a number of other projects, including the third part of her Mayil series.

On what makes writing for children special, she smiles and remarks, “People say that anyone can write for children, but that’s not true. It takes a lot of time and effort; you have to be critical and vigilant with yourself and work with a number of people,” she says.

Nearly a decade of being in the world of children’s publishing has convinced her of one thing, however. “Great children’s books are for everyone. At every stage of your life, you will be able to discover something in them.”

Jalebi mornings

No morning in Lucknow is complete without the specialdahi-jalebiandkhastacombination. The crispjalebisare best eaten with curd that has been set in clay pots, and thekhastais served with a dry preparation of potatoes laced with chilli, asafoetida, and dry mango powder.

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