Sunday, March 03, 2019

From my bookshelves: The Jackal and the Elephant

[I have started a “My Bookshelves” column for First Post — reflections on some of the key books in my life – and here’s the opening piece, about a fondly remembered but morbid Amar Chitra Katha]

Two questions, not self-evidently linked:

“What was the first book in your life?”

“But how am I to get to the flesh of this elephant?”

The first of these is reductive, unanswerable, even pointless if you direct it at anyone who has been a greedy reader from an early age, having been encouraged by a parent to read as widely as possible. Even without taking into account all the colouring books that one must have sullied as an infant, how to be certain of the very first book one read?

Where do I place my Ladybird books (with their different grades, from Reading Level 2 all the way up to Reading Level 5) compared to the Tinkle comics and Enid Blyton’s Noddy series? There was so much overlapping in the reading experience. (And this isn’t restricted to early childhood. When I read my first Somerset Maughams and John Steinbecks around age 12, I was also still reading the Hardy Boys Casefiles.)

Yet a cover image does come into my mind when I hear the words “first book”. It’s an illustration of a very large dead creature lying on the ground in a jungle, while a smaller creature stands disrespectfully on the corpse, looking pensive. Reader, meet Amar Chitra Katha title number 163: Panchatantra – How the Jackal Ate the Elephant, and Other Stories.

This could be a manufactured memory, but I’m almost sure it’s true: we are parked outside the disordered Malviya Nagar market in south Delhi, I’m sitting in the car, waiting (possibly because it is raining outside –in my mind, it was always raining and dark and muddy in Malviya Nagar’s back-lanes), and my mother comes across and hands me a comic – or a bunch of comics, among which is the jackal-elephant one. I think I remember blinking at that cover for the first time sitting in the back seat in the dim evening light.

So, an image of death straight away, but there’s more to come. Turn the page, ye inquisitive tot, and find that here, in a comic book created for the delight and edification of children, is a story about a jackal coming across an elephant carcass (“All this meat! All for myself! I need not look for food for weeks”) but needing the help of an animal with sharper teeth to help him make a tear in the thick hide – so he can feast on the delicious, juicy gore within.

Enter a lion, a tiger, a leopard and another jackal, in that order, and we see how our hero gets them all away from his food while also achieving his purpose. As he settles down to eat, there is a heartwarming moral for all of us “Mighty brawn is no match against nimble brain.”


When I recovered the jackal-and-elephant comic from an ancient closet recently, I realised that this was one of the more unaesthetic Amar Chitra Kathas. The colours run into each other, or spill outside the lines, which could be a printing problem (I don’t see it in online images from a newer edition of the comic), but there is also something careless and ungainly about the actual drawings, done by Ram Waeerkar, who also illustrated a great deal for Tinkle. The jackal, when he stands on two legs, looks disproportionate, like a very gangly human – the anthropomorphizing is too in-your-face. Other images, such as a tiger bounding away in fright, are tacky.

Taking out a few other ACK comics, I noted clear variances in the quality of the artwork. Hitopadesha: Choice of Friends and Other Stories, for instance, is packed with much more detailed illustrations – by Jeffrey Fowler – while Ashok Dongre’s work on another Hitopadesha (How Friends are Parted, and Other Stories) has a distinct, quirky character. Since many of these stories feature the same animals and similar incidents  – including a distressing number of donkeys getting mercilessly beaten – the comparisons become easier.

I briefly wondered if the casual artwork in How the Jackal Ate the Elephant was deliberate, given the inherent unpleasantness of the tale: perhaps they wanted to avoid making things too realistic? But that can’t be it: we see blood flowing from the elephant’s hide only
in two panels, and there were other, better-drawn ACK comics around the same time with grislier content. Consider Vishnu’s avatar Narasimha tearing open the chest of the asura Hiranyakashipu in the 88-page bumper issue Dasha Avatar: The Ten Incarnations of Vishnu, drawn by the celebrated Pratap Mulick.

I don’t know what the parents of my strictly vegetarian friends – the ones who were traumatized when they realized that the jelly their kids had tasted at a birthday party had animal bones as an ingredient – thought of the jackal’s culinary adventure. But looking back, this may have been one of the books that helped me refine an already-existing taste for morbidity and gore. In years to come, I would enthusiastically watch horror films and also develop a special interest in gruesome real-life crime cases. A psychiatrist with enough time on his hands and a facility for making oddball connections might see something promising there. “Jackal the Ripper? Could that be where it all began?”


[And a related piece: Tinkle tinkle, little store, about Tinkle comics and the first “bookstore” in my life]


  1. Nice piece. I also enjoyed the nostalgic 'tinkle tinkle little store' article u have linked. The ‘Amar Chitra Katha’ comics are actually a really good resource for adults as well. They serve as a great introduction to any particular historical or mythological figure you want to learn about. The content is engaging, the comics cover a huge range of subjects and they are affordable. Whoever came up with the idea had a real stroke of genius. The nearest equivalent I can think of (even though they aren’t comics) are the ‘Horrible Histories’ series. Both series are directed at kids, but adults can get a lot out of them as well, and the ‘Horrible Histories’ succeed in being funny and entertaining as well. The latter series also attracts kids by relaying grotesque facts; (e.g. Apparently Queen Elizabeth I took a bath three times a year and was known for being a cleanliness freak).

    U read ‘Of Human Bondage’ when u were twelve? Wow. I had never even heard of Somerset Maugham until a few years ago, when someone randomly recommended the book. The novel’s limited appeal to contemporary literary critics leaves me incredulous. Even calling the book a masterpiece seems like an understatement. Apparently, 40-50 years he was one of the most widely read authors across the globe, and now so few people have read him or even heard of him.

    1. Thanks. I have a very vivid memory of reading Of Human Bondage as a child -- partly because I read at least 100-150 pages during a long and boring day that had to be spent in an aunt's house because there was some sort of family function, and I found a spot on a sofa away from it all. Odd how the memory of that house is inextricable from the memory of reading about Philip.

    2. You should definitely read it again. It's a book that deserves to be read by everyone and 'Of Human Bondage' obviously isn't the only worthy in Maugham's store. Once one starts exploring, there's a real treasure trove to be discovered there. Just emphasising the point because I think he's generally so criminally under-read.

  2. Lovely post!

    On Ram Waeerkar's artwork - while I don't remember this particular comic, his art was always a little reckless. That made him my favourite illustrator - I preferred his madness to the staid classicism of a Pratap Mullick or a Dilip Kadam, both star artists with ACK.

    I really enjoyed the distinctiveness of the characters he created: Pyarelal, Hodja, even Suppandi. Also, LOVED the illustrations in (the ACK) Savitri.

    His brother Sanjeev was arguably a more globally palatable illustrator - his artwork was clearly distinguishable for it's Disney-like character. I never thought too highly of their sister Archana (Waeerkar/Amberkar), but she seems to have stayed on the longest with Tinkle!

    Apparently, Ram died suddenly, just as he was on the cusp of producing some new art styles. There's a website floating around in Google that details some of this.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Sharan. I actually understand what you mean about the recklessness (one might in some cases think of it as abstractness, or free-flowing-ness) of RW's work -- and also about other sorts of illustrations that are more globally palatable. (There is an analogy that might be made there with the apparent carelessness of old Hindi cinema compared to the sharply defined organic preciseness of internationally acclaimed films.)
      I really need to go back and look at some Tinkles again. I was such a fan of them.