A new anthology of Indian stories about animals aspires to give back the creatures their voices
While the diversity of the selection is commendable, it doesn’t always manage to succeed in its intention
I have always been wary of reading stories about animals. Because they almost invariably die. And, as a reader, that isn’t something I have the stomach for. And they don’t just perish. Their affection or camaraderie for human beings in the story inevitably leads to an emotional betrayal and then death. So it was with some trepidation that I picked up Animalia Indica: The Finest Animal Stories In Indian Literature, edited by the poet and writer Sumana Roy.
The fairly slim anthology covers a hundred years of animal stories set in India, in English and in translation, and many of them, both from the vernacular languages and in English, will be familiar to readers. Stories like Rudyard Kipling’s Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s Mahesh and Khushwant Singh’s The Mark Of Vishnu have been part of school syllabi for decades.
However, it’s the book’s juxtaposition of the stories, some very familiar, others not so much, that creates a sense of frisson. The very different writers of the 21 stories that feature in the anthology treat their subjects differently, though entirely sympathetically. And although the aim of Animalia Indica is to turn the reader’s focus towards the lives of animals, this isn’t always successful. Ruskin Bond’s delightful The Last Tiger works in this regard, as it’s told in the form of a folk tale, with constantly shifting points of view, with the tiger as the central protagonist. The story’s setting, presumably in the Rajaji National Park in the Uttarakhand foothills, and its deep dive into the rhythms of the forest resemble a dramatized documentary. This makes The Last Tiger an effective peek into the workings of an ecosystem that includes both tigers and humans.
Many of the other stories are more of a commentary on human social realities rather than the animals caught in an uncaring human order. Chattopadhyay’s Mahesh and Shripad Narayan Pendse’s Jumman, both very famous stories in Bengali and Marathi, respectively, are prime examples of this. In Mahesh, the eponymous bull is a cipher. He has intense love for his master, the Muslim tenant farmer Gafoor, but by way of personality, that’s it. The bull suffers Gafoor’s poverty and the village’s famine-like conditions in silence, goes hungry and thirsty for days on end and occasionally wanders off to other people’s private land to graze. But do we really know if the bull is close to tears, as the narrative suggests at a couple of points? The real story is about Gafoor and the terrible injustices that he suffers at the hands of the Brahmin zamindar (landowner) and the unjust economic system of pre-independence India.
Jumman, similarly, isn’t about the goat of the same name but about his master, Jotya, a tanner—another poor man at the bottom of the pyramid in rural India. The loving goat suffers the changeable whims of humans driven by superstition, from being deified to sacrificed, when all it probably wants to do is just be. An extract from Perumal Murugan’s Poonachi is about the small baby goat lighting up the life of an old woman, when it comes to live with her. Again, it isn’t about the goat, but about the humans around it.
Achyutananda Pati’s Odia story, The Owlet Who Craved The Sun, is different in this regard. It’s told from the point of view of a young and rebellious owlet who is impatient with his mother’s caution and resentful of the other birds that can fly about in the daylight. He too wants to be a denizen of the sunlit world, and, due to his hot-headed pursuit of this dream, dies a miserable death. And yet, like most folk tales, this story is clearly a parable.
And that’s the basic problem with anthropomorphic projections. However good the story, and the intent, it’s still a marker of the overweening ego of human beings.
Animalia Indica is filled with marvellous stories that I am sure I will keep returning to, like Kanishk Tharoor’s Elephant At Sea, about an elephant being shipped to Morocco from India as a present for a princess, or R.K. Narayan’s A Horse And Two Goats. But the one story I will always approach with zero trepidation and an open heart is Munshi Premchand’s A Tale Of Two Bullocks. It shamelessly anthropomorphizes the eponymous bullocks, but their sheer optimism, chutzpah and wit (and the fact that no animal dies) elevate the story into a rip-roaring yarn.
Taken as a whole, while the anthology tries to do justice to its premise, it falls just short of its stated goal, since none of these stories are really about animals. Told by human beings, they could never be.