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The title signals bestiaries and Latin compendiums so that the subhead ‘the finest animal stories in Indian literature’ comes as a slight shock. From the cover and its yellow-eyed tiger, the expectations aroused are old world, and certainly, the stories span a century or more beginning with John Lockwood Kipling and matched by Ruskin Bond’s tiger novella—what you might call two markers of English origin for the entire collection.
Sumana Roy has put together an eclectic selection, which, she writes, expresses the uneasy relationship between Indians and their animals—not just domestic ones, but the animals of the forest as well. This underscores what Kipling once wrote in a foreword to his The Elephant in the Temple, which attempted to do much the same thing as Animalia Indica—cover tales of man and beast in India. His theory matches Roy’s—that the Indian relationship with animals is an uneasy one.
Domestic animals may or may not be tolerated. Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s story of Mahesh is sad, since it puts self before animal needs as people tend to do in times of crisis. It also highlights the hypocrisy of a priest, who refuses to help a Muslim despite much ranting about the fact that the buffalo is sacred.
There is also the mahout in Kanishk Tharoor’s Elephant at Sea, who calmly abandons his charge without a trace as his journey’s end draws near. This is despite the fact that he appears to be worried about the creature’s welfare in a land far from others of his clan, even though Africa, and not Morocco, is elephant country.
Some of the stories chosen are well-known, and have passed into school textbooks, like R.K. Narayan’s tale of cross purposes and George Orwell’s Shooting the Elephant which is a commentary on colonialism and the jackboot. What makes the anthology different is the fact that it contains translations from different parts of India like Perumal Murugan’s Poonachi. These are stories which had previously not entered the canons of animal literature, since they were not available for English readers.
Of course, there are issues such as who looks at snakes in what light—whether as a holy symbol or a sudden death strike. The collection will offer something new for animal lovers because of the translations that have been added to allow access to hitherto un-encountered worlds. For the most part though, the stories are brooding ones, commentaries on scenarios that go beyond the animal world. The animals are often metaphors for the world of man the way the copper skink represents the single childless woman. Animal lovers looking for encounters with well loved creatures may find that not every story is of the Rikki Tikki Tavi variety. The book is an exploration of man through the animal, and a study of that Indian animal: the human being.
The title is of course academic—inviting the reader to stand back and survey this somewhat didactic collection of curiosities much in the same way as a bestiary did in medieval times.
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