Book review: Akshay Manwani's The Tiger, The Bear and the Battle of Mahovann is a contemporary fable for all

Despite making the characters contemporary, Akshay Manwani has maintained the simplicity of Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book, the drama of Ruskin Bond's writings, and the morals of Ishop's fables.

Sayantan Ghosh January 26, 2022 10:42:29 IST
Book review: Akshay Manwani's The Tiger, The Bear and the Battle of Mahovann is a contemporary fable for all

Book cover of The Tiger, The Bear and the Battle of Mahovann

Around five years ago, my father and I went to a discussion over children books held at the iconic Calcutta Club of Kolkata. The key speaker of the event was my favourite author Ruskin Bond. During the event, he said, “Writing a children’s book is the toughest work because the attention span of the children is very less, and if you fail to grab their attention on the very first page then they will never read that book.”

Author of The Tiger, The Bear and the Battle of Mahovann, Akshay Manwani passes this test with 10 out of 10. His book is attention-grabbing from the very first page.

Earlier, during my visits to Kolkata during winters, my grandmother and I used to sit at the balcony and watch kids playing at the field. The sheer joy on her face, her voice under the winter afternoon sun are now just fond memories. My grandmother is no more, and due to COVID-19, the children of our neighbourhood have stopped coming to the field. The pandemic has caused havoc in the lives of children. They cannot go out, go to school, make friends, or play on the ground. They are stuck at home, in front of a gadget for an online class or to distract themselves from the monotony. At the end of the day, the parents do realise that the imagination power of these children is not growing. And it is dangerous indeed.

Amid this disturbing time for the children, Manwani comes as a farishta (angel). Along with his book, he brings Devashree Damodare's exquisite black-and-white illustrations across the book. Manwani is a father to 11-year-old Naina and two-year-old Noorie. He is also a wildlife enthusiast. But you must not miss that Manwani has a special attraction towards Bollywood and its stories. On every page of this book, we see empathy. The compassion to understand the minds of children. For an adult, that is not an easy task. With his affection and empathy for the children, he brings his knowledge of the diverse Indian wildlife. Now, when he joins these two plots with the humour and darkness of Bollywood then the book becomes the one which you cannot put aside without finishing in one go.

The plot of Manwani‘s book is set in a jungle. Veera, the old tiger, is the king of the jungle Mahovann. Veera is a gracious, justice-loving king, who is respected by everyone in the jungle. The authors put tremendous thought into developing these characters. For example, Veera's commander is the sloth bear Bhairav. His interactions with the wolves, why he became angry with them, and why a fight started are the questions that will engross any child, and also the child in you. Every depiction of the characters and the place are very precise and well thought out.

Readers like me who have grown up reading Ishop, Rudyard Kipling, and Ruskin Bond will witness that Manwani has brought the characters out of traditional fables. His characters are new-age or contemporary. They go to schools, and speak a modern language. This feature of the book helps to catch the attention of the readers very easily. The children can relate to these characters much better.

Despite making the characters contemporary, Manwani has maintained the simplicity of Kipling's The Jungle Book, the drama of Ruskin Bond's writings, and the morals of Ishop's fables.

The book has 13 chapters with a story that has retaliation, commitment, companionship, forgiveness, and more. Manwani's own understanding of the wildlife is visible in every chapter. He depicts the life inside the jungle that is unknown to the readers. And only a wildlife enthusiast can do this without making it superficial at all.

In one of the chapters he writes, "Mahadeb was angry but he was also very worried, a young rhino-like Goondi was susceptible to many dangers, there were no tigers within the Maneri forest, but leopards could attack her. They may not be able to kill her but they could injure her. There were big bull elephants who could charge at and scare his young daughter..." From these lines, it becomes clear how much in-depth understanding of the jungle Manwani has. This book is a treat for wildlife lovers.

Manwani has also done a great job with the names of these animals, and in depicting their characters. He writes the backstories of these characters with much compassion. Tiger king Veera's confidante Bhairav, his son Taranath, the clever fox Dagga, Veera's son Ustaad, and mate Sultana are of Manwani's some of the well-thought and beautifully depicted characters from this book.

The story revolves around the plight of Veera. Before his retirement, he will have to decide on sending his warrior friend, the bear Bhairav. While Taranath, the son of Bhairav, wants to take revenge, Veera's son Ustaad is soft-hearted and vulnerable. How will Sultana, the mate of Veera, save her kids amid this turmoil and storm of revenge? How will Dagga the fox guide Ustad to break free, and what is there at the end of the tunnel of this revenge game?

Fables are very crucial parts of the literature, and that is why Manwani's book is not only an important one in the time of a pandemic but also in the modern Indian history of fables. The illustrations could have been in colours, and at times, these animals might just look very human, which could have been avoided. Overall, Manwani's book is a treasure for both children and young adults.

The Tiger, The Bear and the Battle of Mahovann is published by Westland Books.

Sayantan Ghosh is an independent journalist based in Kolkata, and former policy research fellow at Delhi Assembly Research Center. He tweets as @sayantan_gh.

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