Nandini Sengupta on how her childhood pets inspired her to write The Blue Horse, a collection of animal tales
The Blue Horse is filled with animals that can talk, think and feel in keeping with traditional storytelling cultures that attribute to animals their own distinct point of view.
Author Nandini Sengupta’s latest work, The Blue Horse and Other Amazing Animals from Indian History, is exactly what a book for children and young adults ought to be: endearing, conversational, informative and richly detailed. A collection of stories, these animal tales are born out of the author’s passion for history and animals, two subjects she regards worth fighting for. In fact, Sengupta describes herself as a ‘history evangelist’ who opines that the subject can be taught to children in fun, engaging ways. Imparting historical knowledge, she remarks, should mean "you are talking not 'to' somebody but 'with' somebody".
The author taking an interest in history and writing books like The Story of Kalidas: The Gem Among Poets or The Gupta Trilogy – a series of historical novels based on the mighty dynasty of Chandragupta Vikramaditya – was an accident, her love for animals on the other hand, a feeling nurtured throughout her childhood.
Hers is a family of dog lovers, she chuckles, explaining how there was always a dog at home from the time she was a little girl. Their first pup was an Indie named Rocky, a stray the Sengupta family had adopted.
“I was quite struck by how much that puppy craved my mother’s attention,” she says, because the intelligent pup had recognised her as the leader of the pack. Recalling the time when Rocky had a litter, she continues, “the first thing she did was she dropped all her pups one by one on my mom’s foot.” And then there was Snoopy – to whom she dedicates The Blue Horse – who would watch Sachin Tendulkar’s matches on TV and bark her head off when he hit a six. Such, and many other moments shared with her pets pushed the author to think about what goes on in animals’ minds and whether they experience the same emotions as human beings.
“We human beings seem to think that we are at the top of the food chain and that we are somehow very special,” the writer and journalist points out, “but that may not be true. In terms of empathy and friendship and being able to forge a bond, animals are no less than us.”
So, in order to ‘flip the perspective’ and give these creatures a voice, in her latest book Sengupta delves deep into the minds of the animals and birds who peopled the glorious courts and royal households of famous monarchs, beautiful queens and brave warriors to pull them out of the obscure corners of history. And Akbar’s favourite cheetah, Samand Manik, Alexander the Great's hound Peritas and his pony, Bucephalus, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj’s dog Waghya and the titular Blue Horse, Raja Rana Pratap’s Chetak all pick up a pen to write their autobiographies.
Courageous and cowardly, possessive and jealous but fiercely loyal, in each of these animals, the author infuses familiar, human emotions found in the beloved stories from the Panchatantra or the Aesop’s Fables. Her collection is filled with animals that can talk, think and feel in keeping with traditional storytelling cultures that attribute to animals their own distinct point of view. To emphasise this, Sengupta invokes the Ramayana in which jatayu, the vulture falls to his death fighting Ravana. With this act, one of the most valiant and heroic characters to emerge in the story becomes that of a bird.
But with her book the question Sengupta raises is this: “What happens when you flip the perspective on its head and look at the same scenario from the point of view of an animal, who mind you, is being asked to give his life probably, and does not have a say in it?”
In the historical context, for human beings, most relationships with animals started out as relationships of convenience, the author explains. For instance, Bucephalus, Alexander’s favourite mount was very important for the conqueror because in ancient or medieval battles, "those really bare knuckled, hand-to-hand, close combat things", an animal had to be a part of the fighter, one who would understand a command without the rider having to spend any energy on it.
“So, obviously for somebody like Alexander, he has to know, understand and be completely confident that his horse will carry out every small instruction of his to the last detail.”
So too, Raja Rana Pratap had trained Chetak to jump right up to the forehead of an elephant without risking the life of the horse or the rider. But rather than casting a spotlight on these illustrious warriors and their heroic moments like Shivaji’s coronation or the Battle at Haldighati, Sengupta focuses on the camaraderie that developed between the man and the animal after fighting side by side and surviving tumultuous times and tough situations. This, according to her is at the heart of each of the stories in the book.
However, hard to ignore is the fact that while a feeling of love and mutual respect existed between the animals and their royal masters, most kings and their courtiers enjoyed hunting. With no compunction this blood sport continued for centuries thereby endangering numerous species of wild animals.
When asked how these two fragments of the conjoined history of man and animal can be reconciled, Sengupta responds that back then, hunting implied somewhat of a machismo.
“A lot of these ancient and medieval societies gave these animals certain mythical powers,” she elaborates, therefore for the mighty king, hunting them became a symbol of power and machismo.
“Right up until the mid-19th century, just before the 1857 uprising, lions were freely available, commonly sighted outside cities like Jabalpur and Allahabad,” she notes. “The leopard is a similar case. Leopards were so easily available and they abounded in the jungles of north, west and central India.”
But as the years went on, hunting became a sport, a mindless game and kings, queens and the British royalty hunted these animals to extinction. “As a result, today they have become museum showpieces.”
“The history of blood sport is one of irony,” the author quips, the biggest one of them all being the teddy bear which was named thus because of the American president Theodore Roosevelt, who would hunt bears. She states: “The teddy bear which we think is all cute and cuddly is actually a symbol of a blood sport.”
Similar are the times we live in, and just as there exists genuine friendship and affection between humans and their pets prevalent too is what the author refers to as “unbelievable wanton cruelty” where in it is absolutely normal, even encouraged for a two or three-year-old to chuck a pebble at a harmless puppy.
Today, Sengupta is a part of several communities of animal shelters fighting against cruelty and injustice towards animals. She has three children, she laughs, her human daughter and her two pups, Snug and Cuddly on whom she bases much of the imagined eccentricities of the royal pets featured in The Blue Horse. Bobby Mongrol, the beau of Princess Roshanhara, the pet of the Nawab of Junagadh, for instance “behaves in the same demented way” as Snug, she says fondly.
In the book, Sengupta manages to augment animals from being instinct driven beings to showcase their deepest emotions and through the course of each story aims to invoke in a young reader feelings of kindness, empathy and love for these beings. To that effect, she uses short sentences and simple language, adopts a conversational tone and turns history and its animals into a vibrant and communicative experience.
Much of our immediate world, the author observes, including our architecture and furniture is divorced from the natural world and is instead filled with straight lines or circular patterns. It is devoid of embellishments or animal motifs which were present in our designs up until the 20th century. The Blue Horse then acts as a corrective to this and bypasses the mythical, fabled or cartoony depictions of animals to narrate to children the heroic feats performed by majestic creatures that have been recorded and celebrated by history.
She asserts, “We human beings are being short sighted. Because if this pandemic has taught us anything, it is that we have to exist in consonance with the flora and fauna around us. We can’t exist in isolation.”
Nandini Sengupta's The Blue Horse and Other Amazing Animals from Indian History has been published by Hachette India
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