This is a welcome addition to books that are available for young readers. It weaves fiction with facts about creatures – big and small. Elements of human nature such as bonds with parents and grandparents, siblings and friends, traits such as jealousy, revenge, love and learning are covered through human and animal characters.
The book has forewords by author Anushka Ravishankar and environmentalist Dr R K Pachauri, lending it credibility in both fields of literature and nature. Needless to say, a book of Nature Tales is bound to share lessons on environmental science, ecological balance and the need for humans to live in harmony with plants and animals. The author, Arefa Tehsin, writer, traveler, columnist, in addition to being the Wildlife Warden of Udaipur, seems to be in touch with today’s urban children, making the stories interesting and the lessons conveyed relevant. The simple line sketches of animals, by the author’s father, Raza Tehsin, add a special charm to the book.
Each of the eight stories in the collection is roughly 20 pages in length and deals with a specific living being, namely dung beetle, scorpion, hyena, langur, ratel and pangolin, horned owl, wild goat and cheetah. The author gives scientific facts related to the central animal character by way of an interesting story and not a dull biology lesson. Most stories are suitable to be read to children in the 6+ age group (with the adult deciding what facts to withhold to make it age appropriate). The older reader is sure to enjoy many characteristics of lesser known creatures, especially .
No creature is unworthy could be the message of the first story, The Land Of the Setting Sun. The role of hard work coupled with assistance from nature, is cleverly told. Six Riddles is a cleverly crafted quiz story, with elements of research built in. The author’s personal interests in nature and books are obvious from this particular story. There is a good mix of human protagonists and main characters as animals, throughout the book.
In the story, The Nectar Of Angels, an illustration of a ratel would have been helpful and welcome. I had to look it up in an encyclopedia, although, at the end of the story, the common name is shared. Perhaps a glossary at the end might have helped, too. (A solitary footnote in chapter 5 was the only translation since other Hindi words have been explained in the text). I am not sure if the author made the story up or is it popular folklore on how the ratel got its popular name or how the pangolin got its scales and why it eats red ants? Elements of jealousy, meanness, as well goodness and adaptation – all traits seen in humans – are well brought out in this story.
Finally, a humorous tale in The Steed Of Witches.. Lakkad Baggha is the Indian name for hyenas, but the author does not wish to share that fact, which might be useful for people whose mother tongues are different. She skillfully brings home the point that “steed of witches” can also be “league of scavengers”.
The Owl-Man Coin deals with the extremely relevant topic of superstitions involving animals and birds in our country. Unfortunately, some stereotypes are also reinforced, which is always tricky when dealing with children of impressionable age (for example, the Sadhu character in the story is dirty and smelly, reference is made to child lifting cases etc).
Hanu and Sheru has more time devoted to humans and leaves one somewhat dissatisfied with the limited information on monkeys that is shared. The plot seems unreal somehow and perhaps should carry the “do not try at home” warning lest readers try to take matters in their own hands, getting inspiration from this tale.
The Best Kept Secret is a dark story, from beginning to end. Why the female protagonist , one of the few in the book overpopulated with males, had to be lame and ugly, was not clear at all. In fact, to the author’s credit, most children in the book are quite real – whether rural or urban.
Any book with short stories can serve as fuel for plays. Teachers are always on the outlook for scripts for plays as schools want to encourage drama and theatre in their curriculum. Hence, a balance of male and female roles is more welcome for many reasons. Perhaps authors and editors could consciously keep this in mind to bring out a balance – not forced, but natural, wherever possible?
The Thousandth Cheetah makes for a good piece of story-telling. Word of caution – some gory details about hunting might be too graphic if the story is being read to young readers.
All in all – a wonderful book for Indian children, with facts and stories that teach and entertain (edutainment?) at the same time. The author’s note claims, “Wilderness has magic.” She has succeeded in bringing that magic to the city children reading the book rather well. Hope she continues to educate children in this fun style. Teachers would be delighted to use such books to encourage children to learn about plants and animals and perhaps give projects (including poetry and quizzing) based on such books.
By Rachna Dhir
Author: Arefa Tehsin
Illustrator: Raza H Tehsin
Subject Category: Story collection/anthology