As a reader, as a writer, as an editor, it seems difficult to empathetically read a book that is not in sync with our time, our mindset. One that is written with a readership eighty-nine years ago in mind. Yet, I admire the fact that Dhan Gopal Mukerji is the only Indian to have won the John Newbery medal, awarded by the American Library Association, in 1928.
Mukerji, who was initiated as an Indian purohit before he went to the US via Japan, chose an unusual subject in Gay-neck. Written after World War I by this former graduate and lecturer from Stanford University, he said of the book about a carrier pigeon that it is “a record of my experience with about forty pigeons and their leader… I had to go beyond my experiences, and had to draw upon those of the trainers of army pigeons. Anyway, the message implicit in the book is that man and the winged animals are brothers.”
The current volume, which teams Gay-neck with its sequel on Ghond the Hunter, focuses on Mukerji’s passion for wildlife, in which the protagonist meets up with a tiger, a cobra, a python, and other animals. He has referred to Ghond, the Hunter as “the most valuable juvenile book that I have written. … In it, I have sought to render the inmost things of Hindu life into English.”
The problem for today’s reader lies right there. Are these books about interpreting India to the west? A slice of history? An adventure story? A deep glimpse into rustic India? A nature-lover’s interpretation of life ages ago? The writing defies definition.
Not that writing necessarily needs definition by genre or watertight compartmentalization. But the archaic English between these pages, in an age where we have grown accustomed to fine storytelling about nature and more from, say, Ruskin Bond, takes some getting used to. I never quite did get into the right mood for “lanthorn” for a lantern, despite my best efforts.
When I did get past my mental blocks, there were some aspects of Mukerji’s tales that I found riveting. Such as his profound knowledge of birds and natural life. Such as the vignettes the hunter Ghond (who stars in the Gay-neck story as well) shares with the young protagonist as they search for Gay-neck in the shadow of Mt. Kanchenjunga. Such as the cadenced voice of Gay-neck as the narrator. Such as close encounters in the Himalayas with eaglets and tigers, elephants and monkeys. Such as their experience of hospitality in cells cut out of the hillside at the Buddhist lama serai, amidst monks deep in meditation.
Ghond is a stellar character in the story of Gay-neck, who steers the way through unfamiliar terrain while the hunt for the missing pigeon is on. But his story seems rather like an India-for-export narrative: outlining the path of dharma, describing Janmashtami as celebrating the “birth of India’s Christ”, and Ghond’s own education at the hands of the village priest. The only reprieve for the reader is through his journeys with his father’s elderly widowed sister, Kuri – through Agra, Delhi, Kashmir. What I found fascinating was the making of lightweight, extra-warm Tosa shawls from bird feathers; or even the villagers’ search for the were-tiger.
If I was into wandering through long-lost times, either as a nostalgia buff or for socio-anthropological reasons, this would be a perfect read. But since my mindset is rather different, this book left me puzzled, even irritable, as a reader. Maybe the time lapse left me at loggerheads with Mukerji’s achievement of long ago, which is why I am willing to be called out on this one.
About the Book
- Author Dhan Gopal Mukerji
- Illustrator Mistunee Chowdhury
- Year 2016
- Publisher Hachette India
- Language English
- Age Group 12+