For over 2,000 years, the Jataka Tales have moved young and grown-up minds alike. Originating in the subcontinent, these stories about the Buddha’s past lives and teachings mostly feature protagonists from the animal kingdom. Like many fables, their message is at once simple and profound. What appears obvious at a glance seems like a riddle on further reflection. Handed down through generations, the tales have assumed different flavours in the renderings of different tellers. Great Jataka Tales collects 20 of the best-loved stories from the Pali canon, retold by Noor Inayat Khan in the 1930s. Born to an Indian father and an American mother, Khan was also known as Nora Baker, and believed to be a descendant from the line of Tipu Sultan. But it was as a special agent during World War II, fighting for Britain against the Nazis, that she is best remembered. In 1944, at the age of 30, she became the first woman wireless operator to be flown into occupied France. She was shot dead at the Dachau concentration camp later that year.

Coming from a syncretic background and reared on the Sufi beliefs of her father, Khan was deeply influenced by the gentle, compassionate path that the Buddha showed. In her retelling, we hear some of the iconic stories as well as the more obscure ones. The tortoise who couldn’t hold its tongue falls to its death from the sky while carried in flight by his geese friends. A flock of quarrelsome quails get their comeuppance. King Brahmadatta, who ruled over Benares, is smitten by the magical mango fruit and causes havoc in the world of monkeys. The beautiful deer Sarabha takes pity on its hunter and goes to rescue him as he falls into a chasm.

In spite of the didactic framework of these stories, the lessons are never laid down with a heavy hand. In several instances, the meaning is elusive enough to provoke questions in adults. Is this a tale that teaches us the virtue of rational thinking? I found myself asking as I read The End Of The World, a story about an anxiety-ridden hare that causes an uproar in the jungle. The soft beauty of Kalyani Ganapathy’s illustrations makes the reading experience immersive and joyful.


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