Karthika Naïr released her children’s book The Honey Hunter along with illustrator and co-author Joëlle Jolivet

Ostensibly a children’s book, The Honey Hunter is in fact a cautionary tale that could appeal to adults as well. This dramatically illustrated and poetically told tale talks about the importance of balance in our ecology and unfurls the myths and history, etched in the heart of the subcontinent. Co-authored by poet Karthika Naïr and illustrator Joëlle Jolivet, the book is an Indo-French collaboration, with Young Zubaan releasing the English version of the book in India this month while Hélium/ActesSud published the French version called Le Tigre De Miel last year in October. The English version was launched here at an event organised by Prakriti Foundation and the Alliance Française of Madras.

The story is adapted from a small portion of the award-winning Akram Khan dance drama Desh, which was co-written by Karthika. The story is woven from the founding myth of the Goddess of the Forest and the Bees, Bonbibi and a fearsome demon who dwells in the Sunderban mangroves, He Whose Name Must Not Be Taken, aka Dakkhin Rai, who often appears as a Royal Bengal Tiger. A young boy named Shonu whose parents gather honey for a living, develops a craving for the sweet stuff one autumn. Honey has been scarce that year because a cyclone disrupted the natural cycle of seasons. He ventures into the forests despite the warnings of his parents to satiate his hunger for honey, and encounters Bonbibi and DakkhinRai in his tiger avatar.

Karthika says, the original tale was inspired by Akram’s nephew who refused to learn Bangla as it was not spoken by any of his friends at school in UK. While writing for Desh, Karthika devised the idea of using this anecdote in the performance, by fabricating a story on this myth and stopping it mid-way so that the child would have to learn the language to know more. In Akram’s dance drama the character was turned into a niece who confuses the Sundarbans for Wimbledon Park and Bonbibi for Lady Gaga. Anita Roy, the senior commissioning editor at Zubaan, had the serendipitous realisation that there was potential here for a standalone book when she read the story and goaded Karthika into writing the Honey Hunter.

That was two years back. Then the hunt for an illustrator took almost a year while Karthika worked on the text. She says, “The search was like an ancient quest. I was looking for someone who could recreate the story in a phantasmagoric, lush yet not orderly way, basically someone who wasn’t afraid to colour beyond the lines.” She chanced upon Joëlle’s website and by sheer happenstance, saw just what she was looking for in a colouring book full of animals.

Joëlle then researched the story for another half a year, from pictures of the Sundarbans to Patachitra Kathas, a Bengali and Oriya form of painting, that tell the stories of ancient myths and modern evils in a comic book format using vibrant colours and bold paint strokes. In fact Joëlle says when she read the story for the very first time it reminded her of the Japanese anime film Princess Mononoke, with its Forest Spirits and environmental themes. She tried to stick to an Indian colour palette too by using Indian pink and navy, and golden yellow. She says, “But I felt the pink was too in your face, I wanted something more subtle, and at that time neon pink was the fashion on the street, and neon can hardly be called subtle but it worked on dark matte surfaces and I decided to use it.” She also decided to enlarge the book, and let the text dominate the centre of the book while the illustrations gathered around the text.

At the book launch Karthika read out from the book while Joëlle sketched the scene out in tandem to create a wonderful tapestry of the most dramatic scene of the book. Karthika also spoke about the deep political resonances in the book, be it the appearance of Bonbibi as part Hindu and part Muslim in a scene, showing the syncretism and harmony of our myths or the end which is neither neat nor happy. Instead it shows us the true cost of restoring balance in nature. As Karthika says, it is a book that wasn’t written as a children’s book, it is political in its ecological themes but it’s not propaganda. So while the kids will find the story of Shonu fascinating, the parents can engage with themes like environmental harmony, and the idea of Bangladesh brought out by the language and the culture referenced in the book.