“Illustrations by the author” is always a promising credit line; wearing his other hat, the author is responding to his own ideas and language rather than someone else’s. This results in the sort of vigorous sketches that adorn Devdutt Pattanaik’s wonderful book. Whether it’s Jambavan or Nahusha or Sarama, the illustrations bring the stories alive in a unique way, and the bigger sketches and smaller details – a claw, a mouth, a tail – complement each other very well. The energy and panache of Garuda, Kamadhenu and indeed all the dev-log art, as well as the particular stories that Pattanaik has chosen to retell, make this book an important addition to any collection for youngsters, be it a school library or a bedside shelf.
As a teacher, I could immediately see interesting classroom possibilities. For instance, projecting random illustrations as debate-points about which myth or myths children might relate to. Another teacher (or parent) goody is the gently didactic language of, say, Rishi Astika, which is sadly relevant to our present political-social upheavals: “You will kill them. In retaliation, they will kill you. This will happen again and again unless one of you stops…” Sometimes, at effective and pivotal points such as the Pandavas’ destruction of Khandavaprastha, the author’s voice breaks through: “This story from the Mahabharata draws attention to the tenuous relationship between man and animal. Forests are invariably destroyed when man builds cities and cultivates fields. When forests are destroyed, animals die. If too many forests are destroyed and too many animals are killed, then the natural order will be toppled and the world will be destroyed.” Yahoo to that! We need as much of this explicit conservation lingo as we can get.
The book’s weight (light), size/shape (square; one adult hand-span) and organisation make it user-friendly and very accessible. There are eight sections, beginning with the birth of animals and ending with humans versus animals. The six middle sections deal with the swimming, flying, pawed, hoofed children of Surabhi, Sarama, Surasa and other rockstars of our mythology. The chapters and the sections within them are innovatively formatted, with a daring use of punctuation such as a bold fullstop after each dev-animal’s name. And why not.
Thanks to multi-talented writers like Devdutt Pattanaik, our children’s roots-books are no longer text-heavy, stodgy tomes that make young and old wince. This is an important development because root-linkage is becoming more and more relevant as we “globalize” and float off into cultural vacuums. And the child under discussion is not the Chicago- or London-based one, but the Chennaite or Mumbaite who watches hippos on Animal Planet, reads Stuart Little and negotiates Los Angeles’ highways on his game-set. A recent interview with one of our multicultural writers brought home the importance of gaining these home-linkages while growing up. He was speaking about the study of Sanskrit and how this propelled him into a feeling of Indianness. Familiarity with the goings-on in mythical places like Dandaka (the forest that Rama, Sita and Lakshmana lived in while in exile) or Dwaraka (the town that Lord Krishna is believed to have founded by reclaiming land from the sea) helps create that same feeling of identity and rootedness.
Hopefully Devdutt Pattanaik will give us many more such books; after all, as the cover says, he is India’s bestselling mythologist. The only suggestion I can offer for his forthcoming work is that sometimes his choice of word or phrase could be simplified to avoid heaviness. Once in a while, the dev-log sound a bit bureaucratic, such as when Janamejaya is told that he is reigniting the flames of vendetta or when Prithu pledges to institute dharma. Or when “the two brothers successfully dispatched all these animals”. “When this occurred” is better off in an official report, and “when this happened” may be better suited in a children’s book. Sentences like: “And this human side enabled him to understand the essential meaning…” are a mouthful (and earful) for a sleepy youngster listening to bedtime tales. But then, these are after all Indian dev-log, so a bit of bureaucratic parlance can be forgiven!
By Zai Whitaker
PASHU: ANIMAL TALES FROM INDIAN MYTHOLOGY
Author: Devdutt Pattanaik
Illustrator: Devdutt Pattanaik
Puffin Books, 2014
Subject category: Mythology/Story collection