Supriya Sehgal’s new book on animals of India, is short yet a delightful piece of work
Animal tales have been a staple diet of our collective human existence since the beginning of time. Whether it is the ‘thirsty crow’ story or the legendary race between the tortoise and the hare, stories about animals have always enthralled kids and adults alike. In most Indian families, including mine, generations of kids, have been raised on the strict moral messaging of Panchatantra, Aesop’s fables and the loyal dog who followed Yudhisthira to the gates of heaven at the end of mythological epic Mahabharata. But what then, sets apart this new book by Supriya Sehgal?
The answer lies in the fact, that this book is not just another “collection of animal stories.” In ‘A Tigress called Macchli and other True Animal Stories from India’, Seghal brings together a delightful collection of 30 real-life short stories of animals collected from the forests, cities, rescue missions and her own travels across India. Each chapter, extensively researched, is part quirky, part bizarre and part fascinating.
Refreshingly told, each story is enlivened with charming illustrations by Jit Chowdhury, whose lovely work have previously embraced other children’s books such as Bonda and Devi, The Children of Destruction and SuperZero.
A brief introduction on Sehgal’s childhood growing up in Dehradun sets the tone of the book and explains her affinity towards the furry world. She also explains how her career as a travel writer prompted her to write this book. The book begins with the unorthodox ‘Babiya’, a rice eating crocodile in the Ananthapura lake temple in Kasargod, although ‘Macchli’ the queen of Ranathambore still remains the star highlight of the book. These stories are interspersed and followed by some light –hearted humorous stories of storks showering the village of Kokkare Bellur with white poo, the Karni Mata temple in Bikaner dedicated to rats and a family who adopted Tembu- the tiger. Then off-course, there are the 5000 curious punctual parrots and the dogs traveling in a first-class train compartment.
My personal favorite story is that of ‘Pedongi’, a mule employed by the Indian Army. One of the earliest superhero of the 1971 India-Pakistan war, ‘Pedongi’ was named after a town in Sikkim and was felicitated with a blue velvet ceremonial rug, for his service and bravery.
Sehgal’s writing is rich in detail with emotive power, that is fun and yet relatable. It doesn’t take much time for you to be convinced that these stories are real, yet weird and wonderful at the same time. As we progress through the book, you get a sense of the author’s deep understanding of human-animal interactions and what it means to different people.
An avid traveler, Sehgal beautifully brings together her love for travel and love for animals by weaving heartwarming anecdotes of people and their relationship with the animal ecosystem around them. These are riveting narratives about the common animals you see on a daily basis- the dogs, sparrows along with the lesser known gems of the Donkey Sanctuary of Ladakh and therapy dogs at the Mumbai airport.
Unlike the usual children’s story format, each chapter in here ends with lovely trivia which when put together can give a complete picture and help further a kid’s understanding, compassion, love for the animal kingdom, while at the same time, fostering a love for travel. Then, there are the easy to-do- it-yourself’ project suggestions, that take the reading experience to a new level, beyond the book.
The book also reserves notable space to some of India’s renowned naturalists, wildlife conservationists and rescue organizations who provide an elaborate and insightful look on varied facets of the animal life. The stories also hat-tips several unsung heroes such as the ‘Dolphin Man of India’ and Ashok from Varanasi who calls Julie monkey- his daughter!
But not all stories are happy stories. There are a few stories that describe everything that puts the human-animal conflict into the spotlight- whether it is ‘Kabootarbazi ’ in Agra, a 6 day championship to fly pigeons, unethical breeding and curious superstitions around animals that have evolved into long standing cultural traditions.
All in all, Seghal offers a refreshing take on the diverse animal ecosystem of India. On a recent phone conversation about the book, Sehgal summed it up for me, “My travels have taught me India is huge and diverse. Unfortunately, there is no appetite to take cultural differences. Traveling, therefore becomes a great connector to bring the diversity together and so does sharing stories around these human-animal interactions that helps bridge the differences, especially with the young audiences who are open to new ideas. It’s a great way to introduce kids to be mindful of our environment and reinforce how we can co-exist peacefully with other species with kindness and compassion.”