This is a wonderfully imaginative retelling of the Panchatantra stories that many people of my generation first came across in the Amar Chitra Katha comics. Nyagrodha is coauthored by Kalpana Swaminathan and Ishrat Syed (who use the pseudonym Kalpish Ratna for their collaborative writings), and their framing device is an interesting one. What the authors have done here is to use one story – about Simha the young lion king, his friend Jeev the bull, and two crafty jackals Charak and Tarak, who conspire to turn the two against each other – as the anchoring narrative and to build the Panchatantra tales around it. The way this typically works is: one animal tells another a story in order to illustrate a point (about friendship and betrayal, for instance, or the importance of counselors, or how the weak can overcome the strong).
In places, the structure gets delightfully complicated. Sometimes the creatures in the stories-within-the-stories tell each other impromptu stories in turn, and so it goes – until the narrative approximates the Tree of Stories itself, with its gnarled roots and entwined branches. Interspersed with the text are charming little illustrations of the various creatures and of elements from each story.
But best of all is the authors’ treatment of the Panchatantra tales. They’ve spruced up the language, made it snappier and more irreverent. Some stories are presented in the form of clever little rhymes, the characters’ names are changed (a goat becomes Roghan Josh, a sweet-talking jackal is named Jalebi, an acid-tongued crow is Karela) and there’s plenty of neat wordplay (an astronomer owl discovers a red star and names it paan cheent, which translates into English as “betel juice” – but scientists will naturally want to spell it in a way that makes it look more learned, hence Betelgeuse!).
Revisionism has its own little snares; it’s easy to get carried away by your own cleverness and disregard the spirit of the original story. So it’s important that Swaminathan and Syed have retained the gist of the tales – their delicate humour, their ability to trade in morals without being cloyingly moralistic. I especially enjoyed the way the title of the story “The Nature of the Beast” comments not just on animal behaviour but on human whimsies as well. And the smartness of the exchanges between Jenny and Bosco Braganza, a pair of kingfishers whose eggs keep getting smashed by the wicked ocean.
There are also tongue-in-cheek asides about how seriously human beings take themselves. This dialogue between Simha and Jeev, for instance:
“What are they like? Humans?”
“Nice. But limited.”
“Limited to what?”
“When a thing is uncomfortable, they prefer not to think about it. They invent an explanation that makes them more comfortable.”
“Take the constellations. You’d think they’d be comfortable knowing there was a lion twinkling at them from the sky? Or a bull, for that matter? Not to mention a ram, a crab and a fish! But they can’t bear it. So they draw complicated pictures to tell themselves it’s all imaginary.”
“A stupid race,” Simha said dismissively.
The outermost story in this book – the one about the three children Aman, Lily and Vicky – is a little weak; I couldn’t work up much interest in their personal problems, which are sketchily dealt with anyway. The effort to make the Panchatantra tales relevant to youngsters who have serious real-world issues to deal with (parents getting divorced, the insecurity of moving to an unfamiliar country, the inadvertent betraying of a friend) becomes self-conscious in places. (This kind of thing was more successfully done in Swaminathan’s Ambrosia for Afters, where the Red Riding Hood tale was placed in the context of the sexual abuse of a young girl.) But fortunately the animals hold the stage for most part, and they make this one of the most enjoyable books you’ll read in a long while.
Note: Nyagrodha is not meant for very young children. Some of the content, like I mentioned, is clearly targeted at mature readers, words like “sybaritic”, “diaphanous” and “prescience” are scattered through the text, and there are some scary passages (e.g. a reference to a tigress eating her prey’s eyes for dessert – “popping them like grapes”). If I worked at Delhi Times I’d say something fancy like “Get this one for the tiny tots and for the child in you”. Instead I’ll make do with “get this just for yourself and don’t lend it to anyone, including your own children”.