HomeArts & EntertainmentBooksReview: My Illegitimate Son by Sanjay Jha

Review: My Illegitimate Son by Sanjay Jha

My Illegitimate Son is the rip-roaring story of a dog adopted by the author and his family. Told from the point of view of Louis, a jet-black miniature dachshund, the book follows his birth, entry and integration into the Jha family that comprises the daughters Mo and Missy, the author, who is referred to as Beard, his wife, Big Mama. Apart from his human family, Louis’ constant companion is Olly, a white Lhasa Apso. From playing catch to going on car rides the canines have a perfect life. Louis’ morning routine includes changing laps from Big Mama to Beard and tolerating the latter’s attempts to annoy him by transforming into a Rafale jet, one that is properly accounted for. Highlights from his life include peeing on Big Mama’s niece’s brand-new laptop, interrupting Beard’s TV interviews and battling a mid-life crisis by sinking his teeth into brand-new tennis balls. Especially lovely are the descriptions of trips to the family’s Pune home where the dogs have a garden to run around in and can be free from the narrow confines of their Mumbai residence.

Sassy sausage – This could be Louis! (Eric Isselee/Shutterstock)

Louis and Olly’s idyllic existence is shaken when the family decides to foster an indie named Pablo. Fights break out over dominance of the household as Pablo launches unprovoked attacks on both Louis and Olly from time to time. These attacks serve to bring them closer and also prove to each other and the family that they have each other’s backs and that any attempt to take over will be met with united resistance. After one such attack, Olly’s condition is precarious, and a fog of gloom descends on the family. Jha’s writing is measured throughout the book but it truly shines in the sections where Louis expresses concern for his brother’s health and in the depiction of the family through the Covid period.

200pp, ₹495; Rupa Publications
200pp, ₹495; Rupa Publications

The pandemic period told from Louis’ point of view is a hilarious account of the lockdown and work-from-home routine. Humans not stepping out of the house is the dream that Louis has been praying for. When it is granted, the only wrench in the works is, well, they have to actually work from home and can’t give him their full attention. But a tiny screen is no match for Louis and his companions as the reader soon finds out. Talking about human capriciousness in the wake of Covid, Louis offers this gem: “They neuter us to contain our erotic fury when we are in our best reproductive phase, but instead of getting themselves castrated, they go seek out some expensive guru who then gives them sermons on anger management. Level playing field, anyone?”

The novel ends with letters that Louis writes to each member of the family with Jha reserving his emotional punches for the very end. These letters serve as an emotional salve for the sections that come before them and truly represent the best of the human-companion animal relationship. Filled with love and forgiveness for all, Louis’ letters are a beautiful snapshot of the great rollercoaster of a life that he’s had with his family.

Lhasa-Apsolutely lovely: And this could be Olly! (Ricantimages/Shutterstock)
Lhasa-Apsolutely lovely: And this could be Olly! (Ricantimages/Shutterstock)

Unsurprisingly, given that the author is a politician and a former Congress spokesperson, many humourous political metaphors and analogies pop up in the unlikeliest of scenarios. These range from the concealment of character names to prevent caste and religious polarization and the appearance of weapons of mass dislocation! Family huddles are compared to a G4 summit and Olly is presented as a devout, transparent liberal who runs a charitable trust. At one point, Louis and Olly use satyagraha as a political weapon and go on an indefinite fast until they are given the food they love. A trip to the vet is compared to asymmetrical warfare, similar to Norway playing nuke games with North Korea.

Hilariously, Jha leverages Louis’ voice to point out human hypocrisies and foibles. It’s a bit like Nathan Pyle’s Strange Planet cartoons. While Pyle uses aliens and hyperliteralism to point out the absurdity of the human experience, Jha uses Louis’ life to put our own into perspective, which often leads to hilarious conclusions. When Big Mama admonishes Olly for humping a visitor, Louis launches into a passionate defence. He points out that while humans indulge in sex behind closed doors with anyone of their choice, dogs are forbidden from hanging out with members of the opposite sex with their only outlet being preapproved mating sessions. They are expected to abstain even as their humans go about their business, choosing to apply such Gandhian principles only to their pets. Also, even as the family is fast asleep, Olly and Louis are hustled out for early morning walks every day.

Author Sanjay Jha (Courtesy the publisher)
Author Sanjay Jha (Courtesy the publisher)

In many ways, My Illegitimate Son is a memory-holding device, a series of tiny snapshots of one family’s time with their beloved pet. It is hard not to be moved by Jha’s prose, which holds true and comes from a deeply personal place. The road from Bombay to Pune, now and forever belongs to Louis. Bhavya’s illustrations are a wonderful addition to this story and do much to capture the cuteness of Louis’ little sausage body and his adorable shenanigans. Much like the op-ed piece that the author puts on hold in memory of a son who has taught him to love like no one else, the end of this book will also move the reader and render them incapable of doing much else for a while.

Percy Bharucha is a freelance writer and illustrator with two biweekly comics, The Adult Manual and Cats Over Coffee. Instagram: @percybharucha

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