Kaveri and Korran is an absolutely absorbing and delightful story. It has everything that makes up a perfect fantasy tale – magic, intrigue, wonder, drama and an overarching paradigm of the triumph of goodness. Although the book states that it is suitable for ten-year-olds, there are many nuances in the story that might excite older readers as well. Vaswani has done a fine job of retelling an ancient folktale, retaining the original forms of address as well as the names of trees and flowers, which is informative as it is important to maintaining the integrity of the story.
Vaswani begins the tale in a sort of Puck of Pook’s Hill fashion, where a group of children meet and decide to dramatize A Midsummer Night’s Dream on a midsummer’s eve. In Kaveri and Korran, we are introduced to the stunning landscape of the Nilgiris through the children’s eyes. K.R. Raji, the illustrator, shows us a remarkably beautiful and delicate-featured group of girls silently watching a noisy set of city kids, who have come on a camping trip to the Nilgiris. In a scuffle that ensues between them, we learn that the Nari-Koravar girls have mistaken a laptop for a devourer of souls. This results in a predictable skirmish between the owner of the laptop, Aakash (a slightly insufferable, strutting sort of boy), and the Nari-Koravar girls, Gauri, Singamma and their friends. The camp-instructor decides that the only way to resolve this dispute is through an appropriate story. He asks the children to act out the story in a clever move of role-play and conflict resolution and that is how we learn the story of Kaveri and Korran.
The plot is a simple one. Korran is a rich, arrogant and selfish hunter, heir to the ‘blue hill’ and a feudal lord. He is an insensitive bully, demanding exactly what he pleases, never paying for things and never thinking to help the people who work his land. Kaveri, on the other hand, is a magician’s daughter, beautifully detailed by Raji’s brush. Kaveri is feisty, fearless, but most importantly, exceedingly compassionate. One day, at the market, she stands up to Korran’s bullying and then proceeds to set up an elaborate scheme to dupe the great hunter into being kind. She uses her beautiful golden eagle as bait to capture Korran’s attention and desire. She also uses her conjuring skills, the aid of needy villagers and Korran’s childhood fear of ghosts and the forest spirit (believed to take the form of a golden eagle) in order to fashion her scheme. Fear and desire for the golden eagle soon turn Korran into a perfectly reasonable, even kindly man. He adopts the villagers who can help him learn about the forest and its birds, his heart having moved away from the desire to capture and kill. This is an important moment in the story because it shows Korran to be an amiable sort of man, who is fully capable of kindness, rather than as the negative, monstrous, obnoxious person that Vaswani portrays him as at the beginning. This kind of ambiguity is what really makes Kaveri and Korran a delightful read. Vaswani cleverly weaves in moments of tension and genuine admiration between Kaveri and Korran. In fact, one suspects that to a young adult or adult reader, these moments of tension and sweetness, irritation and admiration might even contain the possibilities of a romance!
In due course, however, because kindness can neither be bought nor paid for with trickery, Kaveri’s dupe is discovered, shattering Korran’s new-found kindness and faith in the forest spirit. Indeed, this is one of the moments when we see the consequences of Kaveri’s deceit, well-intentioned though it was. The story tells us an important thing: people can change, they do change, but we must always remember that kindness and trust take a lifetime to build and only a few moments to destroy.
The story is then suddenly consumed by magic, as the village elders decide to send Korran and Kaveri on a mission to master and tame the legendary winged horse and be declared ‘kattuman’ or horseman, who will be vested with the power to resolve the dispute as she or he deems fit. By this time, the last vestiges of Korran’s niceties have vanished and he once again dons the mantle of a pompous, insufferable hunter-master. However, Vaswani is careful to show us snatches of Korran’s sweeter side, his obvious draw towards Kaveri, his ability to replicate birdsong on a bamboo flute, lest we come to dislike him too much. Ultimately though, Korran acts out of selfish impulses and greed, and it is Kaveri who instinctively recognises the deep magic that surrounds her. She is the unquestioned heroine of the story who discovers the malaise that ails the magic land, finally freeing the place from its prison. The breaker of evil spells in this story is compassion, something Kaveri has in abundance. At this point, Vaswani brings us back to the play-acting children, and in a light-hearted burst of creativity, she hands over the ending of the story to the children, who take turns to bring the tale to a sweet, undramatic finish. No attention is paid to winning or losing the competition of being declared ‘kattuman’ as the horse itself disappears, much like magical beings are wont to do.
Kaveri and Korran, on the whole, is a very satisfying, engaging read. The introduction gives us details about the Nari-Koravar tribes and about the victimisation and marginalisation of tribal populations in general. K.R. Raji’s illustrations are truly beautiful, soft and sometimes ethereal. The pages are sprinkled with sprigs of brightly coloured autumn leaves, making the book even more pretty to look at. The language is a little cumbersome in some instances, but the only real thing that bothers is the way in which the author pits the city children against the Nari-Koravar children. It is not an explicit sense of inequality, but is certainly an uncomfortable one. Vaswani has made clear indications of a sequel, so perhaps we will have to wait and see how she positions her rhetoric of binary between the urban and the tribal. That said, however, this book is definitely a keeper!
By Anjana Raghavan
Author: Anjana Vaswani
Illustrator: K.R. Raji
Mango Books, 2011
Subject category: Fantasy/Folktale