Swami on Rye: Max in India

Originally published in 1995, this picturebook, an exuberant, tongue-in-cheek search for the meaning of life, is one of four ‘Max the Dog’ books by New York artistic and literary phenomenon Maira Kalman. Kalman is well known in the USA for her New York Times columns, her magazine covers and contributions to The New Yorker, and she has exhibited widely, including at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The book opens with Max explaining that he has to go and get some herring to satisfy his opera composing pregnant wife’s craving for same. Thus starts a madcap, helter-skelter torrent of words and images as Max is whisked by a genie from an Indian restaurant to India where page by page the narrative threads through all sorts of asides (red herrings?) from a love poem inspired by the Taj Mahal to an explanation of the game of cricket (always good for a bit of humorous diversion). The whole is arch, witty and full of surreal nonsense and cultural references enjoyed by adults, while children will enjoy it if their accompanying adult reader enjoys it. A favourite page is the spread that shows an overview of an Indian city with things such as two golden temples, a giant shoe, and six people riding on a bicycle all calling out to be found by the child reader.

Kalman makes great use of the page, varying the pace of the story through placement and scale of her images and text. The slightly clichéd themes (cravings in pregnancy, India as the place to go to find the meaning of life) and the wife’s lack of agency are saved by Kalman’s vivid, warm and joyful stance. I like it the more I read it!