I started off reading Shalini Srinivasan’s Vanamala and the Cephalopod with my seven-year-old daughter, who thought it’d be great fun for us to review a book together, though I realised that this was probably not a great idea when I had to stop repeatedly to explain words like “radical,” “contemptuously,” “bumptious,” and “tumultuous” in just the first few pages to a child who was slowly losing interest in the story because of the pedantic explanations Mama had to provide. The premise behind the story was interesting to her, but not as much as after we had to discuss just what a “cephalopod” was and why couldn’t it just be called a squid? Valid point, I thought, though of course to a person older than seven, "cephalopod" is both more fun and more intriguing.
And Vanamala and the Cephalopod is indeed fun, if your vocabulary level isn’t that of my seven-year-old. Ten-year-old Vanamala has had just about enough of her little sister Pingu and wants very much to be rid of her. So she puts up a “for sale” sign in Thambi’s local general store, not realising that the store has a connection to another world via a magical (though always damp) trough. She’s obviously horrified when her sister vanishes the next day, and though no one believes that Vanamala’s sign had anything to do with Pingu’s disappearance, Vanamala herself knows the note in the trough explaining that the Cephalopod has taken her sister must be true. When she encounters a magical zebu known as the Basavan who has lost his kingdom, they join forces and set off to the Basavan’s kingdom to get back what they have lost. Meanwhile, a strange creature lies in the deepest ocean, a great beast of many tentacles, with many origin stories, and dozens of minions polishing the nagamani stones that flash "with the souls of the sea serpents."
Vanamala and the Cephalopod is made up in part of short fables about where this mysterious Cephalopod came from, who or what it is, and what it wants. These fables are interleaved with the more traditional adventure story, of Vanamala and the Basavan’s attempt to rescue Pingu from the Cephalopod’s wet clutches. The multiple origin fables offer various possibilities—the creature was once a man who wanted to be big in “every damn dimension” (p. 94); it was once a tribe of monkeys that drank the water of the mangroves, huddled together in fear and woke one day to find they had fused to form a big mass that “never seemed to age or die” and was “endlessly hungry” (p. 121); or perhaps it was a squid who grew and grew on the prayers of people, “swelling in all kinds of direction with their power” (p. 154). Ultimately, it is a complete enigma and will probably remain one, though its need for power is great—it has recently taken over Basavan's kingdom. As the Basavan tells Vanamala, there are a “variety of myths to explain how it got here, but none of them is entirely satisfactory: it still comes across as someone who really shouldn’t exist at all, if you know what I mean? Some people just seem like that” (p. 23).
The fables of the Cephalopod are each interesting, some more so than others. At times it does feel like there are a few too many, especially when reading them takes away from Vanamala’s adventure. Vanamala’s story is charming and funny, if sometimes a little twee (probably not to the book’s intended ten-year-old readers). Vanamala herself is a wonderful protagonist: a feisty little girl with a great sense of humour, a bright, curious mind and a strong moral compass—she wants to do the right thing. While protagonists with wavering moral compasses are very interesting, it’s easy enough to see why Vanamala needed to be who she is—there is a lesson to be learnt here, though it isn’t about wishing your annoying sister away and it isn’t about frightening young children into societal submission.
It’s not certain what young readers should be afraid of here, since there is no clichéd “be good or a monster will take you away” factor, given the Cephalopod’s personality. It’s just not that scary a monster, albeit seen as a threat by all the children working for it. It is, in fact, a bit incongruent to the myths told about it, because it is really quite silly quite often. While it makes threats to eat many children and has clearly been expanding its empire, it is hoodwinked pretty fast and doesn’t ever actually do more than wave its tentacles around and shout things like “Insufficient inkpots!” and “Belligerent Bivalves!” and “Valueless vampyromorphida” at those around it. While this is all amusing and fun, it isn’t frightening—from all we’ve heard about this mysterious, powerful monstrosity that is taking over other kingdoms, I was expecting something a little less bumbling, a little less silly, and a lot harder to defeat. I’d venture that a ten-year-old may have enjoyed a few bigger scares when she finally met the creature she had read so many elaborate (and quite seriously told) fables about. Of course, there’s some indication in the evil gleam of its eye that we may not have seen the last of the Cephalopod just yet, but that gleam is too little too late.
But a reader can accept a slightly bumbling villainous creature, especially one that is amusing. What is harder to accept is why the Cephalopod needed to capture dozens of children, drag them down to his underwater lair, turn them into sea creatures and make them polish nagamani stones in what is basically a sweatshop situation, when it is king of the realm and could just as easily command the actual sea creatures that serve it to do this? Why human children, especially when they turn to some variant of sea creature fairly soon after getting there anyway? An adult reader may leave with a slight feeling of dissatisfaction as I did, because the Cephalopod’s motives for kidnapping children seem a little illogical and of course, evil in children’s books really needs some logic—anyone having read to their child will tell you that a lot of questions can be asked about every tiny loophole!
But what is important and very easy to appreciate about Vanamala and the Cephalopod is that it is eventually about the environment, and the dangers of ruining our world—and perhaps other, hidden ones too. Towards the end of Vanamala’s adventure (no spoilers here, we’re given a briefer version of this much earlier too), when the split between the worlds is explained, we understand that our true concerns should be environmental ones. Because of the terrible things that happened to the land humans lived on (“Domestication, animal-and-bird hunting, animal-and-bird eating, burning, tree-cutting, pesticides, garbage everywhere”), the great sea serpents suggested that the world be split into three—“the oceans to be ruled by them, the land under the basavans, and the human bit to muddle along under sundry people. The humans got all the grubbier bits of ocean and land, since well, most of the filth was made by us” (p. 174). The environmental concerns don’t carry through the entire book, which could be a little disappointing if this explanation didn’t seem to fall fairly naturally when it does appear in the narrative. It is enough because we all know what we’ve been doing—even a ten-year-old knows “tree-cutting, pesticides, garbage everywhere” isn’t going to lead to anything good. But not all hope appears lost. Though it is indeed a sad situation it’s not one that seems to have reached its final conclusion. Vanamala knows something else may happen, something concerning the sea serpents' eventual and very possible return, though she isn’t certain which of the stories to believe—and neither are we. As the Basavan says, “Anyone can say anything in a story!” (p. 178).
Sebin Simon’s illustrations are quite delightful—pretty, quirky, fun, and laid out almost as little surprises along an equally entertaining journey. Vanamala herself is straight up adorable—and how fantastic for my daughter to see a little brown-skinned girl on the cover of a book! There are lots of neat little details in the drawings too, like the stray hair in Vanamala’s braid escaping like little tentacles and all the almost-hidden sea creatures nestled amongst the tentacular seaweed that decorates a border. The layout can, at times, feel a little random—you never know just when to expect the next illustration, or where it may appear on the page, though when they do appear, the drawings are charming. It is worth mentioning that I used a .pdf ebook for the purposes of this review and that perhaps the illustrations feel a little more organic in the hardcopy.
Vanamala and the Cephalopod isn’t the most earth-shattering of this particular Through the Looking Glass tradition of stories, but it is imaginative and funny and richly immersed in local myth and geography. Shalini Srinivasan’s language flows along easily enough and other than perhaps one little dip in the plot (meeting the Cephalopod really is a bit of a letdown at first), the narrative moves along just as easily too. I gave up expecting simpler language or shorter sentences (simply because this was a children’s book) very fast, as did my daughter, who didn’t make it very far even as a listener. Listening to or reading a story that makes you stop and attempt to understand unfamiliar large words or concepts frequently can be taxing, especially to a seven-year-old who isn’t necessarily constantly interested in increasing her vocabulary at bedtime. By the end of the prologue, this child declared “I better not review this book because I can’t understand a lot of it.” Perhaps the ten-year-olds Vanamala is targeting are better equipped—ask me in another three years.
Mahvesh Murad is a book critic & recovering radio show host living in Karachi, Pakistan. She currently hosts the podcast Midnight in Karachi on Tor.com and writes for multiple publications. You can find her on Twitter @mahveshm or at www.mahveshmurad.com.