I resolved to like M. Krishnan’s Book of Beasts: An A to Z Rhyming Bestiary even before I held a copy in my hands. You would too, if you’re familiar with some of Krishnan’s work.
M. Krishnan was one of India’s greatest naturalists, a pioneer in black and white photography. He wrote prolifically on a wide range of topics in both English and Tamil, and his writings on Indian wildlife are legendary. A diverse sampling of his essays, published in many newspapers all over the country, but primarily in The Statesman, can be savoured in Nature’s Spokesman (published by Penguin India) where you will also find some of the verse featured in the volume under review.
As someone skilled in the art of observation, Krishnan lamented, as far back as 1947, that school education did little to encourage an interest in one’s immediate surroundings. “The average educated adult knows little or nothing of the teeming plant and animal life of the country, and cares less. Livestock does not interest him, and the world is to him a place which holds only human beings. He can never make friends with a hill or a dog, and if he has no one to talk to, no book to read and no gadget to turn and unturn, he is quite lost. School education is solidly to blame for all this – children are not taught to know and appreciate nature at first hand, only terms and explanations from books. They think of nature as something necessary for passing examinations, as something unfortunately necessary. And when they are grown they are unaware that they have missed half the joy of life.” What would he have said about contemporary education, where even token attempts at keeping nature studies as part of any curriculum have been abandoned. And what would he say about the abundance of gadgets that has made many of us turn away from reading altogether.
However, to get back to this review, a new or young reader of his works should also know that Krishnan was a keen artist, evidence of which you will find in this delightful book of poetry, illustrated by the great man himself. He gifted the poems in this slim volume to his granddaughter and we are lucky she decided to share them with us.
So what kind of animals will you find in this A-Z book of verse? You’ll find the tiger, the jackal, the python, the sloth bear, and the kangaroo, yes, but you’ll also find obscure or endangered species – the binturong, the eland, the ratel, and the urial, almost as if Krishnan deliberately chose the lesser known beasts to pique a reader’s curiosity. His words are evocative, as when the sloth bear
“goes shambling past the trees
on bent, misshapen legs, with a blank bewildered air—”
and the ratel is spotted
“playing, tumbling and turning somersaults and swaying
in a fantastic jig—”
There’s humour too. The kangaroo is not one you’ll see
“waiting forlornly at a bus stop,
waiting for Number 22
to reach an office, home or shop.”
“But python, when you’re past
your epidermal cast,
they’ll kill you by an extra special process;
they’ll stuff your mortal skin
with choicest pads within
set you up in the best of life like poses.”
This uncommon book of uncommon beasts is definitely one for all ages. Helpful short notes at the bottom of the page tell you a little about the animal protagonist of the poem you’re reading. The illustrations are special, the background colours sometimes muted (I wish they’d been a little brighter, but frankly I’m nitpicking), the font size large and comfortable. While the language is not always simple, it shouldn’t stop you from picking up a copy because this is a great book to read with your child or grandchild. Who knows, you might just make a naturalist out of her.
By Revathi Suresh
Author: M. Krishnan
Illustrator: M. Krishnan
Subject Category: Contemporary/Poetry