This master craftsman has transformed well known stories into brilliant, vivacious verse.
With a long, hot summer looming ahead there is nothing much we can do but crib about the heat and sweat it out. But in the case of Vikram Seth, when it gets too hot, he decides to pen a summer story. That’s neat, don’t you think?
In the Introduction to his book Beastly Tales From Here and There, he says he began by writing the well-known story of the crocodile and the monkey in verse. That was the beginning. Having written one, it was like a tap had been opened and before he knew it he had penned ten rhymes. The book has two stories each from India, China, Greece and Ukraine and two, rather brilliant ones from “Land of Gup” as Seth himself says.
Nuggets of truth
The animal fables are set in verse and the humour in every line keeps you smiling as you read. Crocodiles and monkeys, the cock and the rabbit, elephants and tragopans…all come alive with Seth’s magical touch. The protagonists are animals and the fables familiar, but the strange twists and turns that his poems take keep you in suspense till the very end. The story of the hare and the tortoise has been heard and heard again, however, with Seth’s skilful strokes it achieves new and totally unexpected heights.
The speciality of Seth’s poems is that you read it once and you enjoy a good laugh. You read it again and then you understand it at a different level. Once again, and you unravel yet another layer. Every reading is a discovery as you get familiar with his flair and delight in words. The spontaneity and exuberance hide the tiny seeds of advice he plants in your mind.
Though eight of the tales have been retold, you can never say, “Ah! This is a story I know!” His lyrical verse is mesmerising making for compelling reading.
In The Louse and the Mosquito, he writes:
“Finally the louse agreed.
‘Right!’ she said, ‘but pay close heed.
Wait till wine, fatigue, or deep
Dream-enriched unbroken sleep
Has enveloped him. Then go:
Lightly nip his little toe.’
‘Yes, yes, yes. That’s all old hat.’
Said Sir Leap; ‘I know all that,
Keep your stale advice.’ He smiled:
‘Seriously – I’m not a child.’
The protagonists take on human characteristics thus highlighting human failure and emotion. This is most hilariously portrayed in the story “The Hare and the Tortoise”. It is the same traditional race that is run and it is the tortoise that wins. But with Seth’s handling it does not end there. For after the race, the hare had lost…
“Suddenly she was everywhere.
Stories of her quotes and capers
Made front page in all the papers —
And the sleepy BBC
– Beastly Broadcast Company –
Beamed a feature with the news:
‘All the World Lost for a Snooze’.”
And the poem ends:
“Thus, the hare was pampered rotten
And the tortoise was forgotten.”
But perhaps the most telling is Seth’s own poem “The Elephant and the Tragopan”. This is a satire on ministerial functioning and the unconcern not only for the environment but for the people the rulers profess to serve. This is one tale that has no definite ending as Seth ends with, “The resolution of their plight
Is for the world, not me, to write.”
It leaves the reader cold with the responsibility it places upon him.
This is essentially a children’s book, but then again it is a book for all ages, for all seasons and for all time.
BEASTLY TALES FROM HERE AND THERE by Vikram Seth, Penguin, Rs. 599