Collected Stories Books

‘Animalia Indica’ review: Rikki Tikki Tavi and friends

Animalia Indica is a beautifully produced book. A black-and-white illustration of a tiger with hypnotic yellow eyes stares out of the gold-highlighted dust jacket. Rohan Dahotre’s artwork holds promise for what’s to come.

The 20 compelling tales and one poem featuring Indian animals, spanning the past 100 years, is edited by Sumana Roy, poet, novelist and essayist. Ranging from domestic to wild, feathered to furred, creatures sometimes take centre stage or are relegated to mute foils whose destinies are dictated by humans. In a few stories, they are mere props, highlighting the characters of people.

Unflinching eyes

In her introduction, ‘An Animal on Animals’, Roy says that the anthology “does not aim to be representative — not of India and its languages” or its animals. For a volume showcasing “the finest animal stories in Indian literature,” it doesn’t seem to be representative of literature itself. Not one piece of non-fiction makes the cut, not M. Krishnan, James Sleeman, or even EHA (E.H. Aitken). The endnote, ‘Shooting an Elephant’, by George Orwell, offers a hint.

‘Animalia Indica’ review: Rikki Tikki Tavi and friends

Although the essay was long considered a sparkling example of non-fiction, Orwell’s biographer Bernard Crick suggested it “blurred the line between fiction and autobiography,” and thus its inclusion in this anthology. Nowhere else is the absence of non-fiction explained. This narrow definition of literature is puzzling since Roy herself is an essayist. This quibble aside, the anthology offers a sharp commentary on the human condition.

The first story is the all-time favourite ‘Rikki Tikki Tavi’ by Rudyard Kipling that left an indelible impression on earlier generations. This volume introduces it to the next.

Vikram Seth’s ‘The Crocodile and the Monkey’, a delightful retelling of the famous Panchatantra tale, is the sole poem in the anthology, excluding the one that concludes ‘Rikki Tikki Tavi’. R.K. Narayan’s comedy, ‘A Horse and Two Goats’, hasn’t lost its freshness despite the passage of five decades since its publication.

Orwell’s ‘Shooting an Elephant’ is a first-person narrative of a colonial police officer who feels cornered by his native subjects. The narrator senses the pressure from his audience, “their two thousand wills pressing me forward,” as he goes to look at the damage caused by a domestic bull elephant in musth. He regrets his subsequent actions but we leave him musing over the oppression of colonialism. The questions it raises about power remain relevant even today.

The inclusion of this story in a volume of Indian literature might seem misplaced since it is set in Burma. Although a sovereign country now, Burma was a province of British India then. Besides, the animal, an Asian elephant, is nominally Indian too.

Tales written originally in English make up half the volume, the rest being translations from Indian languages such as Marathi, Tamil and Bengali. Shripad Narayan Pendse’s ‘Jumman’, Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai’s ‘The Flood’, and Sujatha’s ‘Snake’ are all gems that owe much to their talented translators. Though not expressly translated for this volume, they introduce English readers to the diversity of faunal fiction in other languages.

Although there’s a general impression that writings with animal characters must be for children, it’s doubtful if the authors of many of these tales envisaged readers among the younger age groups.

The savagery that people prejudiced by religion, caste, and class inflict upon the powerless, human and animal, in many of these stories wrings the reader emotionally dry. For example, in Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s ‘Mahesh’, it’s hard to tell who is worse off, the poor humans or the animals they own. Arguably, both are victims of a cruel society that deifies the bovine in name but does nothing to give the animals (or less-privileged humans) a better life.

Dahotre’s illustrations of animal characters that punctuate the stories are a welcome relief from the stories’ pathos. Most of them are head-on portraits whose unflinching eyes are so remarkable that readers may even catch their own reflections. His work here marks him as one of India’s rising stars to watch in the field of wildlife art.

Animalia Indica, the first of its kind published in the subcontinent, holds promise for many more such anthologies to come. Perhaps one of them will include Saadat Hasan Manto’s masterful ‘The Dog of Tithwal’ and non-fiction essays.

The book is available in Kindle but go for the physical copy. It’s an article of beauty, made for the shelves of collectors and readers alike.

The writer is the author of My Husband and Other Animals.

Animalia Indica; Edited by Sumana Roy, Aleph Book Company, ₹699


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Printable version | Nov 30, 2021 7:05:01 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/animalia-indica-edited-by-sumana-roy-reviewed-by-janaki-lenin-rikki-tikki-tavi-and-friends/article29230563.ece

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