As a child I spent many happy hours in the world defined by those comics – a world inhabited by sagacious monkeys, rueful snakes and scatterbrained crocodiles (drawn with zigzag lines on the sides of their faces, an illustrator’s shorthand for dumbness). An improbably all-encompassing forest, with perhaps a village on its outskirts, was the usual setting, and though the savage laws of the jungle sometimes prevailed, it was essentially comforting to see so many creatures mingling in this space – forming friendships, counseling, bickering, conniving.
One of the reasons I so enjoyed Scarless Face & Other Stories is that it was a throwback to those Amar Chitra Katha days. Many of those familiar tales show up in this compilation of stories drawn from Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim traditions. A large number come from the beloved Jataka legends, about the previous lives of the Buddha. These are morality tales all right but what is sometimes forgotten is that they are also full of delicate humour – while the underlying lessons are seriously meant, the actual structure of the stories is wry and self-effacing (just as well, given that they involve talking animals). Much of the success of these retellings comes from the authors’ recognition of this. Leading writers from Sri Lanka and Canada have, in most cases, embellished the tales with their own voices and imaginative powers, while retaining the spirit of the originals.
Graeme Macqueen’s “Just like the Rest”, about a king’s encounter with the Boddhisatva “pre-incarnated” as a stag, is enthralling in its depiction of the bewildered animal coming to terms with what he is:
“The first time around the thicket he was afraid, for it is the nature of deer to fear those who pursue them. The second time he was confused, for it seemed to him that he was destined for something higher than to be hunted. The third time around he remembered who he was. He was the Great Being, the one who would become the Teacher, the one who would help the world to lay down its burden, the one who would dry the world’s tears. And with memory came courage, for he thought, ‘This is not the way I shall die’.”Michael Ondaatje’s lively account of a group of vultures trying to help a merchant is another of the highlights – complete with an illustration of a vulture-trap (almost certainly a modern incorporation) and a delightfully open-ended conclusion. And there are other, slightly less familiar stories – like the title one, a fine allegory, about the over-sheltered elephant Scarless Face and his king, who must step out into the world and see suffering before they can be truly happy. It’s written by Griffin Ondaatje, the editor of this collection, and his retellings are among the most evocative – notably “The Camel Who Cried in the Sun”, from a legend about the Prophet Mohammed, and “The Resting Hill”, from a Tamil folktale.
M G Vassanji brings his trademark elegance to “The Cycle of Revenge”. Ernest MacIntyre’s “How the Gods and Demons Learned to Play Together”, my pick for the best story in this collection, comes from the Natyasastra’s myth about the birth of theatre – but it is equally about empathy and perception, about how quick we are to pass judgement on those who are different from us. And Linda Spalding’s “The Great Journey” takes an oft-told story from the Mahabharata (the tortuous journey of the Pandavas and Draupadi to heaven) and gives it resonance by adding what it lacks in most translations – a sense of humour. (The passage where the dog accompanying Yudhisthira is revealed as Dharma is distinctly unlike any other translation I’ve seen.)
The retellings that don’t work are the shortest ones (some barely two pages), which are workmanlike. It’s difficult to see the sense, for instance, in including vapid, joyless versions of “The Monkey and the Crocodile” and “The Deer, the Tortoise and the Kaerala Bird” – reading these, you’ll be crying out for the Amar Chitra Katha versions complete with colourful drawings. But such missteps are few and far between, and for the most part this collection demonstrates the truth of what Macqueen says in his foreword: “When we retell and read these stories we become part of a community stretching back in time and reaching forward into the future.”
(Wrote a shorter version of this for a review that appeared in today’s Indian Express.)