Sudarshan Purohit Oct 1 2017, 0:06 IST
It’s an impulse many of us have known as kids: you see an animal suffering by the roadside, and you want to go pick it up, comfort it, and take it home to keep as a pet. We may have done it, too, for a puppy or kitten. So when Mr. B., the hero of this charming story, does the same thing, we understand the emotion.
But Mr. B. is different in two ways from you and me: he happens to be 50-odd years old when he sees the suffering animal, and the animal that captures his heart is a baby donkey with long, trembling legs. Also, Mr. B., an Englishman, is a long way away from home. The incident happens in Peshawar in Pakistan, where Mr. B. has arrived with a news crew to shoot a documentary. Mr. B. makes the spot decision to abandon his job and trek back from Pakistan to his home in England, the donkey in tow. He estimates the journey will take a year if he’s lucky. Along the way, he bonds with the baby donkey — named Pavlova for its long legs and delicate gait — and meets all sorts of people.
The White Umbrella is a kind of fable for our times, eschewing the horror and chaos of the modern world for the sweetness of affection for a pet, and the unexpected kindness of multiple strangers. For that reason alone, it makes for a good read. But Mr. B. is also a traveller at heart, and the areas he passes through — Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey, Germany and France — are described with affection and an eye for historical significance.
Mr. B. knows of the stops along the ancient Silk Route, as also the route of Alexander the Great’s army. He understands the weave and patterns of Turkish carpets, as also the right cheeses to buy from France. You find yourself longing to visit these places, never mind the myriad discomforts. Towards the end, when Mr. B. has (as we always knew he would) arrived at his home in England, we see that Pavlova is just one of his pets, and indeed, the way Pavlova makes her place among the domestic menagerie is interesting in itself.
As fun as the travelogue aspect is, it’s the people that make the book. A vegetable seller in Pakistan, a bookseller in France, a carpet seller in Turkey, and more, including rogues and monks — the set of people on the way is varied, but all are humane, intriguing and supportive of his kindly mission. The book has no real villains. Pavlova should probably be counted as a person here, too, since her nature adds that extra texture to the book. She isn’t humanised in any way — she throws up in buses, brays at border guards, and wolfs down fruits like you’d expect any donkey to do. But seen through Mr. B.’s eyes, she’s never a mere beast of burden, but a loved pet.
Sewell never forces any moralistic tone on the reader here. Nevertheless, the book brings along with it some gentle teachings. Mr. B.’s affection for Pavlova underlines the need for empathy in the world where people increasingly think only of themselves. And though he has to struggle to get back to his native England, the thought of abandoning Pavlova never crosses his mind. Adopting an animal is a responsibility, not just a hobby, and it’s something to be taken seriously.
If there’s a drawback to the book, it’s the predictability of the plot — there are no real sparks of tension or danger anywhere. This may sound like a strange complaint for a children’s book. Consider, though, that even The Cat in the Hat had an element of suspense to it. The smooth linear flow is more suited to a travelogue, actually. Let this not take away anything from all that has been achieved, but know that it’s a very specific kind of ‘row row row your boat/gently down the stream’ kind of book.
Sewell’s writing style suits the content of the book to a T — it’s the typically British style reminiscent of Enid Blyton and Gerald Durrell, with a gentle humour but completely grounded and realistic. Indeed, one would imagine that Sewell has been writing animal books all his life. He’s actually an art critic specialising in modern art in Britain. Diagnosed with cancer, he took up this project as a way to keep writing in spite of his failing health. The text is enhanced by excellent line illustrations by Sally Ann Lasson, who is a celebrated cartoonist in her own right. The White Umbrella is a good, calming read for all ages, a testament to the undercurrent of humanity in today’s fractured world.