Friends Behind Walls book review - Harshikaa Udasi's little novel about Little and Big People

There’s something very delightful about holding a perfectly proportioned book. Harshikaa Udasi’s Friends Behind Walls is one such. Easy to hold whether sitting up or lying down and not too heavy on the wrists overworked with typing on computer keys! There’s also more delight tucked between its pages as it recounts the budding friendship between Innu and Putti. Yes, their actual names are Indrani and Neel, but those don’t really fit them and there is something about the rules of writing dinned into us that the propah names are always cited! This is one book that shows that, really, it was not needed.

The People in Friends Behind Walls

So, who are these kids? They’re neighbours in Deolali. But while Innu is a long time suffering resident, Putti is the newly bored one. They start off spying on each other across balconies and walls, then progress - mainly because of Putti’s persistence - to becoming tentative play mates before they shed their hostility and become friends. 

Their characters come alive in the writing, with Putti, for instance, riling up his parents all along the drive to Deolali and Innu testily trying to din sense into Putti’s head about matters like autorickshaw fares. 

Other characters in Friends Behind Walls pepper the narrative - forgetful old Om Namah; mysterious Tekdichi Mhatari; Bhalerao, the caretaker worn down by perennial quarrels and complaints; tchtching Shameem and her husband Cyrus who is given to making loose personal comments, and Dr Solanki, the vet who would rather talk of pets than people. And of course the eternally shouting parents of Putti, and Innu’s mother.

The Story of Friends Behind Walls

Barring Tekdichi Mhatari who, as her name goes, stays up a hill, the rest inhabit a society called Shanti Park, but the name is a misnomer for the current times when even a palm frond’s fall shatters more than the terracotta tiles of the roof. It sets Innu’s mother and Putti’s parents fighting. And they absolutely hate the idea of their kids socialising with each other and want it to stop pronto. Not that their kids listen. How Innu and Putti find out what lies behind the obvious bitterness between once peaceable neighbours, and how it all gets resolved, forms the heart of the story in Friends Behind Walls. One does wonder though who was originally residing in the abandoned house where the kids play. That’s a mystery waiting for Innu and Putti to clear up!

Magic in the Storytelling

Friends Behind Walls is a laugh-out-loud read, with the squabbling between kids, between kids and adults, and between adults brought out heart-warmingly. The dialogue between Innu and Putti never comes across as forced and the repeater game is great fun, too. There are sage glimpses into how adults behave with children and how children perceive adult behaviour. Friends Behind Walls also holds up a mirror to our times in how memories can have healing powers as much as being grounds for grudges. There’s also a political comment about walls that fits right in. The story also touches upon expectations based on gender and how it can create ripples right down to the next generation. The passing away of a loved one is spoken of without the self-consciousness that may creep in when dealing with such a subject. And just when you think the story’s over, there’s a surprise about Tekdichi Mhatari. Read it to see what that is!

The book is a must read because it does what books rarely do – breaks the wall between reader and the story. Again, read the book to know how author Harshikaa Udasi does it! It’s a lovely device enticing readers to go further. It also hints at what the author has mentioned in her interviews, that Friends Behind Walls was meant as a picture book, but was later expanded into a full-fledged novel. There’s also another brilliant device in explaining the words that may not be understood. And it’s done in a way that doesn’t draw attention to the felicity with which the words are penned. A hat tip to the author for these superb ideas and their flawless execution!




Some loopholes

Friends Behind Walls is great going as long as the focus remains on the kids trying to find out the history of the bad blood between their parents. They meet people they believe can provide them insight and finally hit the jackpot. But then this is where the story seems to forget that Innu and Putti are its main protagonists. Inexplicably, all the action shifts abruptly to the adults who are given more agency than Innu and Putti to resolve their differences. Given how lovely the kids are and they were cantering along by themselves quite fine, the adult intrusion is a major let-down. 

The Marathi poem by Mangesh Padgaonkar could have been better translated to convey its hilarity. The word dhadpade is not nervousness as much as being in a flurry, as the poem read in its entirety is about a guy who’s always in a tearing rush. It would have been good to have a translation of the Krishna lines, too. It’s kind of telling that it’s assumed that everyone will get their meaning. I didn’t. The brushing teeth hymn depends a lot on understanding the meaning and usage of the words Om Namah, which, again, everyone may not get.

Also, the Mhatari usage is a bit odd, in the sense, it’s made to sound cool, but actually isn’t. In Marathi, it’s a jibe that is closer to calling someone an old crackpot/crone. The aunt, Bharati Atya is someone one greatly looks forward to as Innu creates an image of someone terribly exciting. So, her late entry comes as a dampener because her personality does not get enough play. Nana and Nani being added to the mix don’t really contribute to the story in any way. The description of the society meeting also tries too hard to establish the new-found bonhomie with details of the food et al.

Artwork

Innu is my favourite sketch in Friends Behind Walls because it matches what the story says about her. Putti, on the other hand, comes across looking far older because the face looks more like an adult than his eight year old self in the story. Om Namah and Solanki are serviceable but lack the pizzazz of their narrative. Although wonderfully depicted, Tekdichi Mhatari does not seem to have a hunch when dancing or sitting, which is a bit strange given that it’s mentioned in the story that she walks with a hunch. Somehow, the characters are sketched very neatly, too neatly given how loud and rambunctious they all are. More than the sketches by Krishna Bala Shenoi, it’s the play with fonts that stands out. The yelling of their children’s names by the adults, for instance, or the way the chapter headings are shown makes one smile. The best image is where visual and text synchronise such as in the depiction of Putti’s incessant questions to his parents. The mother can even be seen gritting her teeth. It’s also lovely to see a lady at the wheel for a change!

The cover design of Friends Behind Walls by Devangana Dash has a pleasing colour palette. The logo of the publisher, namely, Penguin also fits right in, as if it’s part of the scene! 

The back cover book blurb is also interesting where the character names and the word wizadry are highlighted while giving the story synopsis.

The book’s theme is brought out by the front and back covers showing the children together and the adults pitted against one another respectively against the continuing motif of the wall. 

Publishing Details

The book is for the age group of 7+ and above including adults. Like all books published by Penguin, Friends Behind Walls is also certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), which promotes responsible management of the world's forests. So, buy it as a paperback instead of the e-book because, as mentioned at the outset, it is perfectly proportioned and it’s definitely lighter than a Kindle! The hard copy is available at independent book stores like FunkyRainbow and Kahani Tree.

Illustrators Note

Krishna Bala Shenoi is an artist, portraitist and illustrator of picture books for children. He is also a music composer, photographer, film maker and animator. He has also illustrated Chuchu Manthu’s Jar of Toffees authored by Adithi Rao and published by Pratham, who nominated him for the Publishing Next Awards 2020.

Devangana Dash is a book designer and illustrator. She designed the cover of The House That Spoke by Zuni Chopra and Masters on Masters by Amjad Ali Khan, both of which made it to the shortlist and longlist respectively of the Oxford Bookstore Book Cover Prize in 2018. She is the illustrator of Ayesha and the Firefish written by Ajay Chowdhury and published by Puffin in 2015. She is the author-illustrator of Jungle Radio: Bird Songs of India, 2019, which is also available as an audiobook.

Author Note

Harshikaa Udasi has been a journalist for nineteen years and now runs Book Trotters Club, a reading club for children. Her first children’s book, Kittu’s Very Mad Day published by Duckbill won the prestigious FICCI Publishing Award for Best Children’s Book in English in 2017. She has authored I Absolutely Totally Instantly Have to Have a Dog on Juggernaut and contributed short stories to On Your Marks: The Book of Crazy Exam Stories and Flipped: Adventure Stories/Ghost Stories and Thank God It’s Caturday! If you want a child to fall in love with reading and enjoy writing, enrol her/him in Book Trotters Club! It’s online now. Contact booktrottersclub@gmail.com

This book review has been written by Madhuri Kamat, author of Flying with Grandpa, Burial of The Dead - Mystery in a Mohalla, and Yudi Yudi Dharmasya: Mahabharat - Through the Eyes of Kunti.

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