Home >mint-lounge >mint-on-sunday >Fauna in fiction

When I was 10 years old, in Class V, I discovered Willard Price. I haven’t met too many people familiar with the name—Price used to write about animals; his book featured too-young men (boys, really, much like the Hardy Boys) whose father ran a zoo and who travelled the world collecting and capturing animals.

A few years ago, I found a Willard Price at the local bookstore and bought it for my son. He was around 10 then and hugely interested in birds and animals (and insects and fish). He must have read a couple of pages before he lost interest. “It’s all wrong, these animals aren’t found in these places." He was right—Price had got his habitats completely wrong.

It was the same with The Swiss Family Robinson, a minor classic I had enjoyed when I was young. The boy lost interest in it once he realized the writer knew nothing about animals—evident in the sheer diversity of animals the marooned family discovers on a remote island.

I have discovered similar mistakes closer home, in the Mahabharata story of Nala and Damayanti, for instance. Both Raja Ravi Varma and Amar Chitra Katha portray the magical talking bird in the tale as a swan. Only, there are no swans in India. The country has no indigenous swan species and no regular migrant species of the bird either. Sure, there’s the occasional vagrant, like the Whooper Swan that landed up in Himachal Pradesh a few years ago.

“What do you think that bird was?" I asked my son, of the Damayanti bird.

“Probably a Greylag Goose."

He is probably right.

Even if the Nala-Damayanti story is fiction, not fact, it is unlikely the writer would have seen swans.

I decided to push my luck with the boy.

“What of Garuda?"

“He was part man, but the bird part of him seems to be a Black Eagle."

“And Jatayu?"

“Long-billed or Slender-billed Vulture."

The son and I both decided it would be a good idea to identify the birds mentioned in Indian scriptures and myths. Some day.

And I am sure there will be some old Indian texts written by a bird-watcher. I have not encountered any but that doesn’t mean they aren’t out there. I am not convinced no one wrote an extensive book on Indian birds before A.O. Hume did.

R. Sukumar is editor, Mint.

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