Browsing through that treasure trove of used books store Blossom Book House, I was not unlike Ali Baba wondering whether to choose between the emeralds or rubies. My eyes fell upon the slightly battered but otherwise intact copy of Victor Dragunsky’s book The Adventures of Dennis. It took me back to many, many happy hours of reading while nibbling on some munchie or the other as a child.
Dennis the protagonist narrates how he eats his food.
‘Mommy’d tell me stories while I ate.One day she told me the story of Little Red Riding Hood.” Once upon a time there was a girl named Little Red Riding Hood….Chew your food!”
I chewed. Mommy continued.
“Her mother gave her a basket of food to her grandmother.So Little Red Riding Hood set out…Come on chew!”
I chewed and Mommy continued.
“And then the wolf swallowed her grandmother…Come on,chew!Did you swallow it?And thn the wolf swallowed Little Red Riding Hood”.
I chewed obediently,
“Just then some hunters came to the cottage,” Mommy said.”Come on, chew!Did you swallow it?And they killed the big bad wolf.Then they slit open the wolf’s stomach and there were Little Red Riding Hood and her grandmother.They were both alive!”
That’s because the wolf didn’t chew them properly,” I said.’
I would chuckle amused by the wisdom of my fellow child in far away Russia, where the sky was blue and the cheeks rosy. Today as I write this as a mother of two I can relate to feeding my little one dumplings of rice and lentils between lines of stories and instructions to chew properly.
The Adventures of Dennis happened not in some faraway land of dragons and faitries, but in the apartment complex, or the trips he took with his parents and later his little sister. Dennis had many adventures at school with older children and around the building usually with his best friend Misha.
Forty six stories, interspersed with watercolour drawings translated from Russian by Fainna Glagoleva once read will never leave you, but prompt you to read them time and again.Dragunsky was born in the US of A, but later migrated to Russia with his parents. Apart from being a writer he worked as an actor, a screenplay writer ( a person who writes stories for movies) and a circus clown. He published stories about Dennis . They were compiled after his death into a book and published by Progress publishers.
The magic of the book lies in the fact that the author so ably captures young Dennis’s thoughts. In his story ‘If’ Dragunsky opens with Dennis thinking “ One day I was just sitting and thinking , and I suddenly thought of something that really surprised me. How wonderful everything would be if everything were topsy-turvy! For instance, if kids ran everything in the world and grownups had to obey them. I mean if grownups were like children and children were like grownups. It would really be great. And interesting”. This thought would clearly resonate with every child who dreams of sometimes if not always, of lording over their parents and other grown-ups who are always ordering them about!
The first time I read Top to Bottom, Back and forth I was quite shocked. The story details an afternoon with women house painters Sanya, Raya and Nellie. Women house painters! Really! The very thought of it. I had only encountered bearded men who reeked of beedis coming to paint our house once a year. It further shocked me that women painted houses in Russia. The chess grandmaster, the stuttering novelist and poet, the overbearing aunt, the captain of a ship all pull us into Dennis’ world and teaches us there are adventures to be had every minute and everyday.
My favourite story that has stayed with me after all these years is ‘Watermelon Lane’. Dennis and his mother argue over not finishing his lunch. His father recounts a story of a water melon that he got for free from a kind truck driver that he shared with his friends during the advance of the Germans during World War Two. The scarcity of food, the snow only highten his hope of getting another free water melon, but he waits in vain. Dennis finishes his food full of gratitude that day. The author without preaching speaks of hard times and the need to be grateful for every plate of food we receive. I remember appreciating my food and remembering my fathers own stories of the scarcity of food during drought and rain in his little village.
As is the case with all wonderful books The Adventures of Dennis crosses boundaries of countries and time to speak of the stories of human emotions.