The Rabbit, the Squirrel and the Death of Traditional Romance

Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi’s latest offering is an adult fable that carries the unsettling weight of modern-day issues, relationships and grief.

by Pallavi Pundir
14 November 2018, 12:44pm

Credit: Penguin India

“Oh, Taily-boo, what will become of you?” he asked her.
“I’ll live high up in a tree, avoid everyone and drink in the afternoon.”

There’s a fair bit of whimsy in Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi’s latest offering, The Rabbit & The Squirrel. The fabled tale for adults about, well, Rabbit and Squirrel, sees two star-crossed friends/lovers (call it what you may; this postmodern romance has no name). And staying true to the form of this literary style, Shanghvi drops this effective element of whimsy upon us like a light feather, one that navigates through the mercurial wind, swinging and swerving, until it lands on your shoulder. You huff it, you puff it, and it stays put like a rock. But Shanghvi’s whimsy is no inconspicuous entity; it comes loaded with double entendres, social messages, and, above all, the shapeless thing we call love.

We’re acquainted with the joint-smoking Squirrel, who has rejected all her suitors—the Chipmunk, the “creepy as hell” Owl, and the Gazelle (for whom “playing the field is a survival tactic”). Her parents keep telling her, “Time you were married”. She only trusts Rabbit, with whom she links arms, goes for walks, and, sometimes, visits a secret place called The Rapture. All is well and good until she decides to marry Count Boar, after which—in a crescendo of ultra-dramatic plots—Rabbit joins the monastery, gives up, and ends up opening a florist’s store. Ya. Years later, Squirrel turns up at his doorsteps, but she’s not the same.

The Rabbit & The Squirrel is evocatively visualised by Swedish writer and artist Stina Wirsén, who gives an active voice to Shanghvi’s storyline. Her gentle sweeps of colour bring to life the internal expressions (was that a penis plant on page 34?) of the protagonists—the ecstasy, the agony and, finally, the unsettling finality of love. VICE caught up with Shanghvi and picked his brain on the book, its adult content, and why he prefers a story of friendship over traditional romance:

"She hated the phrase 'Time you were married'. It made her feel as if she were a can of beans with a sell-by date." Illustration: Stina Wirsen

VICE: What inspired this story?
Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi: At the heart of the book is the Hebrew prayer Hineni, which means “Here I am”. Hineni is the response Abraham gives when God calls on him to sacrifice his son Isaac; as a prayer, it recognises presence and offers submission. Leonard Cohen wrote and performed a song about the idea of Hineni. When asked what Hineni meant to him, he said it signaled ‘That declaration of readiness, no matter what the outcome, that’s a part of everyone’s soul’. When the Rabbit and the Squirrel are reunited, they are finally ready for each other, but by then it seems too late—or perhaps it is at exactly the right moment.

For more literal influences, I would say I love The Velveteen Rabbit and The Little Prince. Equally, I was inspired by artworks by Sol Lewitt, his particular style of minimalism; studying his practice, and his distinguished editing, allowed me to come to this book better prepared.

Why did you have the format of a children's book in mind for this story?
Well, this is definitely not a children’s book—there is too much reference to sex, even for the most progressive of parents! The form was new to me, and unexpected. Stina Wirsén—Sweden’s most acclaimed children’s book writer—offered to illustrate the fable, which resulted in our book. She drew out the characters with such deftness that the book became multidimensional, with many entry points, rather like one of Sol Lewitt’s conceptual works. The most important thing I learned is to step outside the work, in order for it to occur.

Could you talk about the theme of “A Love Story About Friendship”? What are the nuances and complex layers of this relationship that fascinate you?
The best love stories are great friendships. Perhaps it is the evidence of my age—aha!—that friendship is a more pleasurable thing than romance. Andrew Sullivan says that we neglect to give friendship its rightful credence as ‘an ennobling moral experience, as an immensely delicate but essential interplay of the virtues required to sustain a fully realised human being’. I agree with Sullivan because friendship is, indeed, the performance art of love.

"'Tell the Rabbit,' she murmured, 'I want to go back with him to the end of the earth.'" Illustration: Stina Wirsen

How has the complex understanding of friendship manifested in your book?
Well, it is also a larger recognition of how we live now. Let’s face it—marriage, as an institution, works now for few people. If our lives are to be lived alone if the future will hold more single people than coupled, the president relationship structure that nourishes us will be friendship. Rumi talks about letting ‘the winds of heaven’ dance between two people, and I see no relationship that encourages this as meaningfully as friendship. I prefer friendship over romance because friendship is fundamentally more equal and free of the disorienting mechanism of sexual attractions.

You've spoken earlier about your fascination for fables: their ability to be simple, allegorical and timeless...
The idea that simplicity might not make room for great profundities is misleading. The most beautiful stories, and certainly the most memorable ones in my memory, are fables like Beauty and the Beast or The Little Mermaid. Animated by enduring sorrow and wisdom, they reside in memory more vividly than more impressive or intellectual pieces of writing. I wanted to make something simple, clean, with a sense of enchanted hours.

Why did you assign certain animals to certain roles—like the rabbit, the squirrel, the pig or the boar? Do they signify certain character traits?
Count Boar, for instance, is also a play on words (Count Bore). Rabbits are charming, fragile, sexually charged, exactly as the book’s protagonist. Smaller characters such as the Rat, are based on people I know, and share many characteristics with their spirit animals. I must not elaborate!

Stina Wirsen

How did your life as an artist shape this concept?
Photography taught me to think more visually—Ansel Adams was right when he said photographs are not taken but made. With my photography practice, I came to curation at an arts foundation in Goa. This taught me how to leave things out of a space so only the essential comes to power. This knowledge, over seven years of curatorial practice, led up to The Rabbit & The Squirrel. In hindsight, one practice nourished the other.

Tell us about your association with Stina Wirsén [illustrator] and her role in bringing this work together.
The illustrations were entirely Stina’s private, compelling and singular realisation. Once she had the book in her hands, she conjured up the characters quickly, efficiently, with rivers of grace. I had only drawn up some things the characters might enjoy and I would email her about it, and she would create an illustration that seemed to inhabit that little sacred moment of time.

Why did you choose subjects such as arranged marriage, mental health, gender roles, and religion? Was it intentional, or did it stem from real-life experiences?
I’d say real-life experience—there is a great gulf between what we believe is right for us versus what we may live. The process was natural to the lives of the characters, and as the book’s author, I had to learn to step outside the narrative. The trick was never to think of a book for the themes that define it but to simply nourish your characters so that they can do that for you. For me, the themes you speak of became apparent after the book was written, and refined to its present form. Until then, I was thinking only of the characters, their particular kind of grief.

Of course, gender and sexuality are running themes in all my three books. When the Squirrel is put away in an asylum, I was thinking only of what the Irish writer Anne Enright once told me—that she had been institutionalised as a young woman, and how this had come to free her enough to write.

The Rabbit & The Squirrel (Penguin) is out in bookstores now.

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