How Animalia Indica echoes voices from past and present with Sumana Roy


Book Review by Namrata

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Title: Animalia Indica –The Finest Animal Stories in Indian Literature

 Editor: Sumana Roy

Publisher: Aleph Book Company (2019)

Edited by Sumana Roy, Animalia Indica is a first of its kind collection of animal stories in Indian literature. From classic story tellers like R.K.Narayan, Premchand, Rudyard Kipling to the most recent maestros like Kanishk Tharoor, Perumal Murugan, and Nilanjana Roy, this collection features them all.

Sumana Roy is a Siliguri based author whose previous works include a non-fiction title (How I became a tree), a fiction novel (Missing) and a poetry collection (Out of Syllabus). She went on to win the Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize and the Tata Literature Live! First Book Award in 2017 for her debut book How I became a tree.

This anthology, with its beautiful cover, has twenty-one stories about humans and animals. It can easily be called a collector’s edition with the who’s who of Indian literature featured within. Not all of the collection is made of short stories. There are some poems; excerpts; two are novellas and one is an entire novel in its own. The selection is classic! It includes stories translated from regional languages and from Indian writing in English, with interesting end-notes about the narrative, authors and translators.  The magic of the stories makes something written in 1981 an equally intriguing read as one written recently. What makes the book even more eye catching and unique, are the sketches by Rohan Dahotre before each story (he has also done the stunning cover). Depicting the animal/s featured in each story, these black and white sketches set the tone for every tale that follows.

Starting with Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Rikki-Tikki-Tavi’, each and every story in this is immensely powerful with exceptional narration. R. K. Narayan. Arunava Sinha’s translation, Shanta Gokhale’s translation, Ruskin Bond — there are too many personal favorites featured to select only one as the best. Woven across themes like social issues, alienation, superstitions and human behavior, it is difficult to categorize the stories.  They cover various facets of human nature in a poignant manner to depict life, as it is. We have depended on animals since time immemorial, be it for work or for sheer companionship. And yet, the way we treat them at times, is despicable.

While ‘Jumman’ by Shripad Narayan Pendse talks about a lonely farmer who begins to treat his goat like his son to overcome loneliness, ‘Elephant at Sea’ by Kanishk Tharoor talks about an elephant’s migration to a foreign land. Not to forget the classic story by Premchand,A Tale of Two Bullocks’,  a touching tale about a pair of oxen whose master has loaned them to his in-laws. Like children who long to go back home when away from parents, this pair of oxen have their own share of misadventures before being reunited with their loving master.

It is interesting to note a lot of stories in this collection explore anthropomorphism that is the attribution of human traits and emotions to God, animals or objects so that they are empathetic with human beings, typically seen in the poem, ‘The Crocodile and the Monkey’ by Vikram Seth.

One day, Mrs. Crocodile,

Gorged on mangoes, with a smile

-Sad, yet tender – turned and said…

This atypical take on a classic story of the monkey and the crocodile is an enthralling read, tempting one to almost recite it aloud, in a sing-along manner. The collection ends with a perfect finale in the form of ‘And then laughed the Hyena’ by Syed Muhammad Ashraf, impeccably translated from Urdu by M. Asaduddin which tells us about an unforgettable day in the life of a family.

Though the voices might have belonged to the animals in the stories, one cannot ignore the fact that they have been written by humans and hence, tend to be biased towards their own species largely.  Through this, Roy clearly steers away from religious and folk takes making it a contemporary collection which appeals across age-groups.  However, Roy mentions in the introduction (very aptly titled – ‘An Animal on Animals’) why she believes this collection is primarily for adults.

Drawing this unavoidable lineage between the folktales and this anthology also reminds me of something inescapable about our passage into modernity – the Panchatantra, for all we know, wasn’t meant to be stories for children in the way Gita wasn’t just meant to be a ‘Holy’ book once. That the stories in these folktales were not restricted to a young age group as they are today tell us, too, why the stories in Animalia Indica are meant primarily for adults.’ (Pg. xviii)

By stringing together these gems, Sumana Roy raises some relevant questions about the current times, where the mere existence of climate change and its looming threat over environment is being challenged. Flipping through these stories, it is difficult not to compare them with folktales from varied cultures and wonder if all of these stories have a hidden message for us.

With lucid language which varies from story to story, this book is a brilliant masterpiece which needs to be devoured at leisure to be felt and understood. Indian literature is full of animal tales across languages ranging from Hitopadesha, Panchatantra to the Jataka Tales and this is a perfect ode to the beautiful bond we share with animals.

 

Reviewer’s Bio: Namrata is a lost wanderer who loves travelling the length and breadth of the world. She lives amidst sepia toned walls, fuchsia curtains, fairy lights and shelves full of books. When not buried between the pages of a book, she loves blowing soap bubbles. A published author, she enjoys capturing the magic of life in her words and is always in pursuit of a new country and a new story. She can be reached at privytrifles@gmail.com.

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