A modern day take on Aesop’s Fables, European folk tales and jungle lore is the essence of the fairy-tale retelling of bedtime rhymes in this updated anthology edition of Vikram Seth’s classic book.
The new edition with colourful illustrations and mischievous and intelligent drawings by writer and comic book maker Prabha Mallya makes the poems more attractive.
‘Rhyme comes easily to me. It began as cat, mat stuff when I was around three years old. It has been going on, slowly developing...I think it happened to be a cat,’ says Seth.
His collection, first published in the 1990s, begins with the tale of a crafty crocodile and an intelligent monkey, who saves himself from being devoured by his friend crocodile’s wife can be compared to Christian homilies, Buddhist Jataka tales and George Orwell’s allegorical novella Animal Farm with candid messages to take home to.
The story speaks about the importance of being wise, keeping one’s wit about oneself, knowing the ways of the world, human frailties and even the shrinking green space on the planet.
Seth explores contemporary social realities through his jungle book of rhymes –seeing the world with the eyes of the inhabitants of the wild.
Seth describes one of his poems in the book, The Hare and the Tortoise as a new interpretation of Aesop’s Fable in which the hare, a seductive siren, wins a grand glamour deal in life despite losing the race to the tortoise.
Hidden between the lines of the hare and the tortoise – the shining tale from grandmother’s kitty in the collection – is the subtext that in this age of guile, artifice and preening bling, one has to tread with care and keep up with pretenses for the winning bargain.
It is the way the world works, the poet says.
The poem stuns with its colourful description of the characters – the glamorous gabby hare who is like a society butterfly and the slow sloth sown-to-earth tortoise.
The denouement comes towards the end of the poem when the hare has lost the race, but refuses to be embarrassed by the tortoise’s victory.
‘But it was in fact the hare/With a calm insouciant air/Like an unrepentant bounder/Who allured the pressmen round her/Oh, Miss Hare, You’re so appealing/When you’re swearing,’ said one squealing.
‘You have tendered gold and booty/To the shrine of sleep and beauty/Breathed another, overawed;/And Will Wolf, the great press lord/Filled a gold cup - on a whim/With huge rubies to the brim/-Gorgeous rubies, bold and bright/Red as cherries, rich with light/And with an inviting grin/Murmured: In my eyes, you win ...’
Seth has a flair for satire that combines seamlessly with his poetic metre breathing an other worldly colour to his poetry.
In The Elephant and the Tragopan, Seth narrates the story of India’s experiment with forest dams dredging up the war between development and concern for environment.
The beasts of Bingle Vale, a mythical game park, go in a delegation to meet ‘Bigshot’, the politician to protest a dam that the government is planning to build in the oasis.
The Tragopan dies in a melee and becomes a martyr.
The protest evokes the battle to save the Narmada river and the Himalayan streams being damned at random.
Each poem is like an aphorism. An eagle dies pining for its broken eggs in a war of nerves with the beetle, bent on vendetta in the ‘Eagle and the Beetle’ while a mouse’s heroic battle for life against a slithering snake is preserved for humanity in a poet’s verse - who writes her elegy in poetic metre. Seth says he writes for the joy of writing- rarely bothering about the market demands.
Markets are best forgotten in the flow of Seth’s beautiful rhyme. Poetry, contrary to popular publishing notions, is finding growing tribes of takers.