Wednesday, July 9, 2008


I mean 'tales written with animal characters'. Like Tuntuni, Peter Rabbit, or Winnie-the-Pooh, or Wind in the Willows. Or Aesop's fables and other such morality tales. What every child in the pre-television age (and hopefully many in the Post-TV age, too) grew up on.

But my favourite-st as a child was a tattered copy of LALKALO (Red-Black) by Girindrashekhar Basu. This book had originally belonged to some hoary ancestor and had, according to family legend, travelled across seven seas (the river Ganga, really) with the family when they shifted from what-would-soon-become-Bangladesh to Barrackpore (which was safely and securely in Indian territory). I don't know if this was true at all, but the book looked ancient enough. I could easily smell the fertile soil of Balubhara (Full of sand), our original village home, in its yellowing pages, and trace the waters traversed by my father and his family in the faint smudges between the lines.

The legend of the book fascinated me as much as the story it told. An epic battle between the aggresive red ants and the peace-loving black ants. Like so much of heroic literature, a woman (or wo-ant) is at the bottom of it all: the luscious-bottomed black beauty, the queen's hand-maiden, who is eve-teased by a rascally red ruffian. She cries to the black queen, who complains to the black king, who reluctantly declares war to save honour.

The reds are the fighter-ants, determined to win by force or guile. But many dramatic reversals and suspense-filled moments, the black ants win. Providence, good friends like the ant-swallowing toad and chameleon, and a timely interpretation of the scriptures (which says that the red ants will subvert the order of nature and grow wings, but this will bring death to them) save the lives and honour of the black ants. The epic battle suitably ends on the battlefield, with the conquering heroes and their loyal friends gathered together for the celebratory feast, merry-making and singing lustily (with a chorus of chirping crickets) of glory.

It's a delightful mock-heroic, wonderfully narrated. Recently I saw a reprint (the original being long lost), thanked my lucky stars, and bought it for my daughters. The new version has already travelled from Kolkata to Mumbai. Maybe that's the beginning of an epic odyssey, who knows?



Sage said...

Black Beauty by Anna Sewell - a story of just how cruel we humans can be or were to working animals. Kindness begets more than cruelty, I just wish that we could be more considerate even today.

Aleta said...

One of my favorite childhood animal tales is: "Charlotte's Web." It's about family and doing whatever it takes to save the life of a pig named Wilbur.

Thanks for bringing back those happy childhood memories of reading.

Peter Rozovsky said...

I suppose that when I was a child, my favorite animals were the fictional ones created by Dr. Seuss, such as the Chippendale mup or the star-bellied sneetches or the very small bug by the name of Van Vleck who is yawning so wide you can look down its neck.

More recently I have read and, to my surprise, greatly enjoyed A Dog Among Diplomats, whose narrator and protagonist is a dog. There is no cute, sentimental anthropomorphism in the book. Instead, the author, J.F. Englert, does an entertaining job of imagining a dog’s consciousness. It’s an impressive piece of work.
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lopamudra said...

I loved 'jatak katha'.I loved the stories of antelopes in particular.