Some weeks ago, a friend of mine shared a poster bearing a poem and an illustration of an elephant. The eight line ‘simple’ poem, and the ‘evocatively’ done elephant in watercolour, touched me like few posters had done. It told me something about elephants, their actions and emotions, and, in a way, enabled me to connect with the species more than I had on encountering any other such poster before. It got me and my friend talking about how stories and poetry can effectively connect readers to animals, in manners that statistics and technical reports cannot. Animalia Indica: The Finest Animal Stories in Indian Literature, edited by Sumana Roy and published by Aleph Book Company, holds that potential.
While majority of such posters only highlight the pachyderm’s weight, age, height and other statistics, including difference between two species – African and Asian, said poster chose to strike a different cord. Similarly, Animalia Indica is not just another book on animals, it is a collection of 21 stories from different parts of the subcontinent, "written in the last one hundred years or so". Most of these stories focus on human-animal interactions, though there are a few devoted solely to the animal world as well. The latter include stories by Moti Lal Khemmu and Paul Zacharia. Similarly, most of the stories are in prose, besides a couple of poems by Vikram Seth and Rudyard Kipling. One of the stories, by Habib Kamran, lucidly describes the natural history of bulbuls in great detail.
The book also has stories by the 'big names' in Indian writing, including R K Narayan, Perumal Murugun, and Premchand. One realises how writing about the society back then also included writing about animals, for animals then were an integral part of it.
These stories boast of a diversity that comes with culture and language. They talk of a time when human and animal worlds were far more intertwined, and not as distant as they are today. The tales hark back to a period when humans had ample time on hand, shared spaces with animals, and observed and respected them. As a result, the book reads like a culmination of all these factors, successfully touching a range of emotions. It also serves as a good reminder of perhaps better days left behind. These stories, in other words, are not just about animals, but also about the humans they depict, the worlds they live in.
The delightfully detailed introduction is creatively titled ‘An Animal on Animals’. In How I Became a Tree, Sumana Roy does not leave room for people to doubt the fact that she has her way with words, or that she's comfortable taking risks. Here, she sets up an eloquent platform for the collection to blossom on — a platform which does justice to the stories that follow.
She describes the collection in the following manner: "These stories by modern Indian writers, about goats and cows, birds and dogs, horses and snakes, and various other animals, give us unexpected pleasure in the discovery of a self within us of whose existence we are mostly unaware or even forgetful."
One line, however, did make me wonder: "Animalia Indica: The Finest Animal Stories in Indian Literature is the first anthology of its kind in the Indian subcontinent". Given the vastness of the subcontinent, diversity of the languages it boasts of, and the sheer scale of literature available, the usage of ‘finest’ and ‘first’ here left me surprised.
Illustrations are of high quality and they do what the stories do — entice the reader into investing more time with the book. If the idea was to move away from heavily edited colour photographs and computer sketches that one frequently comes across these days, and yet, touch the reader, the team has succeeded, and how. Saying that each of the full-page black-and-white illustrations adds value to the text is an understatement. The stunning depth and realness imparted to the eyes of the various species mentioned in the book is testament to the illustrator's brilliance. Each story begins with an illustration, barring a few in which illustrations have been skipped completely. I wish that hadn't been the case.
The editing is crisp and production values are high. Towards the end, space has been devoted to additional information on the stories, authors and translators, besides acknowledgements. This is a book for your collection, that you can pick up once in a while when you want to read about animals, or even when you are not sure about what to read.
Of course, elephants have been granted due space in the book as well. Both stories on them — one by George Orwell and another by Kanishk Tharoor — warrant multiple reads, to say the least.
Updated Date: Aug 25, 2019 11:01:55 IST