Publication :Penguin India
Publishing Date: 1992 (first)
Fun with fables
I've never been much into verse, if you exclude that brilliant satire by Alaxander Pope, The Rape Of The Lock or Milton's Paradise Lost.
Barring these classic works, I haven't really bothered with verse, especially when it comes to modern writers. Which is why, this quite simply escaped me and in any case, I'm yet to really sink my teeth into any of Vikram Seth's works.
But a very heavy recommendation by a friend, who insisted that there was possibly no better writer of verse in India than Seth prompted me to check it out.
The book is a compilation of ten fables, retold and reinterpreted in the author's own inimitable style, lending it a lot wit and some clever twists. While two of the stories come from India, there are other fables taken from China, Ukraine and Greece. (The fact that Vikram Seth learnt Chinese poetry during his stay in the country might have had some bearing here).
Quite obviously, as Seth himself says, his decision to write this Jungle book fable was an impulsive one, prompted by a hot, sleepy day. He says."I decided to write a summer story involving mangoes and a river. By the time I had finished writing 'The Crocodile And the Monkey', another story and other animals had begun stirring in my mind. And so it went on until all ten of these beastly tales were born"
Among all the stories, at least four of them are extremely entertaining and Seth's rhyming scheme is a delight. I especially enjoyed The Hare And The Tortoise, which the author writes with much chutzpah and there's a nice little twist in the end.
"After the announcer’s gun
Had pronounced that he had won,
And the cheering if the crowd
Died at last, the tortoise bowed,
Clasped the cup with quiet pride,
And sat down, self-satisfied.
And he thought:: That silly hare!
So much for her charm and flair.
So much for her idle boast.
In her cup I’ll raise a toast
To hard work and regularity.
Silly creature! Such vulgarity!
Now she’ll learn that sure and slow
Is the only way to go---
That you can’t rise to the top
With a skip, a jump, a hop
But it was in fact the hare,
With a calm insouciant air
Like an unrepentant bounder,
Who allured the pressmen round her.
“Oh Miss Hare, you’re so appealing
When you’re sweating,” said one, squealing.
“You have tendered gold and booty
To the shrine of sleep and beauty,”
Or check out his verse in The Elephant and the Tragopan, where the animals describe mankind :
“He grasps our substance as of right
To quench and spur his appetite,
Nor will he grant us truce or grace
To rest secure in any place.”
Two other wonderfully told stories are, The Frog And The Nightingale and the first one, The Crocodile And the Monkey. I didn't care much for many of the other fables in the middle portion, which I thought were sort of violent and also repetitive. Make no mistake, this is not necessarily a lighthearted, feel-good read. Some of its stories are very much in the vein of George Orwell's Animal Farm, which we know was a hard-hitting political allegory.
Of course, there are fables here which offer plenty of personal lessons. If The Crocodile And The Monkey talks about the ugliness of greed, The Frog And The Nightingale (a personal favourite from the book) is a particularly moving story about a nightingale, who loses her voice and her audience, by heeding to the selfish frog's advice.
Vikram Seth displays mastery in poetry and this is especially a good book to read out aloud to children or anyone, so that the lyrical and rhyming quality of the words are effectively brought out.
So great repeat value.
Keep this for one of those rainy days (literally! if you must!). :-)