For your bookshelf

Chintan Girish Modi

Are you a school teacher sourcing books for a unit on animals and birds? Are you a librarian looking for new titles to encourage young readers? Are you a nature club coordinator in search of engaging stories to tell? I have put together a set of three books that you might enjoy going through and sharing with the children you work with.

Bulbul Sharma’s book Birds in My Garden and Beyond (2020) is a delightful introduction to the winged and feathered creatures in our midst. Published by Talking Cub, an imprint of Speaking Tiger books, it is divided into three chapters. In the first chapter, Sharma invites us to meet the birds in her own garden in Delhi. In the second chapter, she takes us on an expedition to learn about water birds living in and around lakes. In the third chapter, she helps us learn about birds that have their homes in the forest.

The author has lovingly dedicated this book to her own grandchildren – Naina, Shivam, Samara, Prithvi and Shiv. What makes this book a pleasure to read is the affection with which the author treats her subject. If you take away that warmth from the writing, the book would be reduced to an uninspiring collection of facts. The joy she feels in observing the biodiversity on our planet rubs off on the reader.

Here is an example: “If you see two yellow eyes shining in the dark, then you can be sure the spotted owlet has come out to hunt. Most owls look for food at night and rest in tree hollows during daylight. These birds eat insects, mice and lizards by catching them in the dark. I have seen the owl quietly swooping down on a mouse that was scampering around in the garden. I am sure the mouse was told by its mother not to go out in the night but it did not listen. The owl swiftly made a dinner of it.”

Sharma keeps her readers involved, and asking for more. At no point does her book sound like a lesson trying too hard to be interesting. It ignites curiosity because she herself approaches the world with a spirit of wonder and enquiry. She writes, “Sometimes I have seen the snake-bird catch a fish that is too big for it to eat. You know what it does then? It throws the fish in the air and then expertly catches it by opening its beak wide to swallow the fish as it comes down. Can you do that? I certainly cannot. I tried to toss a pizza once and it fell right on my head.”

Though Sharma writes mainly about birds here, she also mentions some animals in passing. She gets readers to think about these creatures in ways they may not have considered before. Here is one such instance. “A spider makes a web out of silken threads that it spins out of its own body. What fun if you too could spin the yarn yourself and make yourself a soft T-shirt!” The author’s sense of humour brings a sparkling quality to the prose and illustrations.

By making connections that sound absurd at first, she inspires readers to slow down and contemplate. There is a description of how kingfishers dig long tunnels in muddy riverbanks to build safe underground homes with their strong beaks. She writes, “What fun to be able to dig a tunnel and build a secret room for yourself! You could put up a bookshelf, place a comfortable chair and read all day in this muddy home. But watch out when water in the river rises! You will have to swim out very fast, taking all your books with you.”

Sharma also brings up concerns around gender equality in a manner that is subtle yet striking. The cattle egret is a bird that follows farmers when they plough their field. This bird likes to pick up worms from the freshly turned soil. The author remarks, “Don’t you think it is a clever idea? The farmer does all the hard work and the birds get to eat juicy worms. Very much like sitting on the sofa while your mother makes delicious food for you.”

Human beings often make a big deal out of their alleged superiority in relation to other species but this book is a reminder to appreciate our fellow earthlings. Without being preachy, Sharma manages to convey her point effectively. While speaking of migratory birds, she notes, “I really admire these birds. Imagine having the courage to fly such a long distance with no maps or packed food. They just know they have to do it and take off. No tickets, no visa and no passports are needed for these amazing, long-distance travellers.”

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Aparna Karthikeyan’s book Woof! Adventures by the Sea (2020) is woven around a pack of dogs who live on the beach. Published by Red Panda, an imprint of Westland Publications, it is based on canine characters personally known to the author. In herconcluding note in the book, she writes about Puchu and Shingmo who are “both Indies, rescues” and have been her “constant companions through good days and bad.” She calls them, “my rescue dogs who rescued me.” Through them, she met other beach dogs, who taught her “how to love,” walked with her every morning and sat by her side as they watched “a hundred glorious sunsets” together.

Thestory of these adorable dogs has been illustrated by Sagar Kolwankar. While this is not a picture book, the images complement the words and also highlight the cute factor that dogs are often associated with. According to the author, they are “curled up like doughnuts, snoring gently, musically, next to a friendly sea.” Readers are introduced to all the characters at the very outset, in a stylish manner with high recall value, somewhat like profile pictures on Twitter with a short, witty line of introduction that mentions their distinctive qualities.

It is charming to see how older dogs take care of little ones in this book — guiding them to sources of food, showing them the best places to take naps, cautioning them against bullies, and providing them the security of a group they can rely on. The author is, by no means, pushing any anti-bullying messages here but it is always difficult to tell what children will pick up from a book. If they end up thinking of alternatives to the brashness and cruelty on playgrounds and school buses, it would certainly be a big win for the author.

This book also explores the symbiotic relationships between dogs and other non-human creatures. One of the dogs named Coconut, known as “the beach elder” is friends with a crow. The dog protects the crow’s nest from cats and hawks. In return, the crow brings the dog “the finest scraps from the dustbin.” They get to know each other on a day when the crow is sitting on a tree with two rotis. One of these falls on Coconut’s head, and the dog is smart enough to eat it hurriedly, worried that the crow might want it back. That does not happen. Instead, the crow drops “a piece of egg,” and the dog happily gobbles up that as well..

The author attempts to inhabit the emotional world of the animals in her book. By doing so, she is able to sensitize readers about the suffering human beings inflict as a result of their selfish, uncaring ways. One of the dogs, Kyra, says, “Every single day, some creature is dumped on the beach. Do those people know how ridiculously hard it is to survive here?” Kyra’s backstory is choked with feelings of abandonment from a well-meaning boy who “had carried her home in his lunch bag when he had found her alone outside his school” but the boy’s parents refused to let him keep the puppy. With time, Kyra learnt to adapt to the new environment.

This book also engages with a topic that has become a bone of contention in recent times — the use of firecrackers. They are  lit not only during Diwali but also to celebrate other festivals, weddings, and victories in cricket matches. On the one hand, there are people who think that firecrackers must be banned because they pollute the environment. On the other are those who think that such a ban would compromise their freedom to practise their religion.

Readers might feel moved to approach the issue from a fresh perspective when they learn about the experiences of the dogs in this book. The author writes, “What truly frightened the dogs was loud noises. And Shingmo was especially scared of firecrackers. She could manage everything else, even the great thirst on hot days — for their water bowl was routinely misused by the visiting public, to wash their slippers — and learn to lick the blooming dampness around drain pipes.” This is a wonderful opportunity for humans to look in the mirror, and make amends.

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Nandini Sengupta’s book The Blue Horse and Other Amazing Animals from Indian History (2020) is a unique set of short stories that combine the author’s love for animals with her love for history. Illustrated by Damini Gupta and published by Hachette India, it is dedicated to “Snoopy, who loved meatballs, muffins, muck and me — not necessarily in that order.” The author’s objective here is to present the world from “an animal’s point of view” because humans have been having their say for centuries. It is time to step back and make space.

In the introduction, Sengupta writes, “Most of these stories involve heroes we’ve all heard of, like Shivaji, Rana Pratap, Rani Durgavati, Alexander the Great and so on. We know all about their exploits, but the animals who helped them in their most decisive battles have typically remained in the background – a cursory mention is all we get from history texts. This book is an effort to correct that historical wrong.” History teachers could use this book to get students to reflect on the silences in their own curriculum, and the possible reasons for the exclusion.

This book is different from the other two mentioned earlier because the stories are not about animals and birds that the author has personally interacted with. The source material she has used to write about them includes books, miniature paintings, historical treatises, tribal songs, inscriptions, and museum records. Using the information she gathered from this research, she has let her imagination run wild to produce a richly textured work of historical fiction.

In her introduction, Sengupta writes, “I have always wanted to burrow myself inside an animal’s head to figure out what it’s thinking…to experience the rough and tumble of history, I needed to get inside the heads of some of its most well-remembered animals — fearsome war elephants, vicious hunting dogs, well-trained and battle-hardened horses, pampered royal pooches and parrots that held conversations with kings.” Language teachers could use this book to discuss narrative voice, characterization and point of view in creative writing.

The story “Akbar’s Cheetahs” is in the voice of Samand Manik, described as “a majestic cheetah, averaging at a top speed of 113 km per hour while chasing antelopes.” This cheetah takes pride in addressing the Mughal emperor Shah-en-shah Abu’l-Fath Jalal-ud-din Muhammad Akbar by his name — Jalal — just “like his chief queen, Ruqaiya Begum.” The book is filled with many such endearing moments. Sengupta gives the animal characters an emotional range. They show loyalty, jealousy, grief, jubilation, fear, and love.

In a moment of vulnerability, Samand Manik shares, “I had always known that human love was fickle and an emperor’s affections even more so. I also knew I couldn’t continue on the top forever. I had seen older cats retired from the park. They lived in their own enclosure, away from the rest of the coalition. But being the emperor’s one and only for so long had spoilt me. I hated the idea of the spotlight swinging away from me. But more than that, I missed Jalal’s affection and respect. I missed him patting my head.”

The willing suspension of disbelief, or rather the readiness to be carried away by the magic of storytelling, would come in handy while reading Sengupta’s book. In the story “Rani Durgavati’s Elephant,” the narrator is Sarman who is described as “a war elephant, a veteran of many raids.” We learn that the bloodlust makes Sarman “go crazy” but, in the line of duty, elephants are raised to think of pain as honour. The wounds from arrows take a long time to heal but this elephant is lucky to have the queen’s special attention.

After one particularly terrifying battle, Sarman says, “I was in so much pain that I thrashed around my stable. Durga spent hours with me, calming me down, giving me my favourite sugar cane to munch on, telling me it was going to be alright…my mother never stopped caring for me. She would prepare the balm herself and visit me in the stable to make sure it was applied properly.” This story demonstrates that the love between animals and humans is not always one-sided.

Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj’s dog Waghya, Maharana Pratap’s horse Chetak, and Alexander the Great’s dog Peritas as well as his horse Bucephalus are some of the other famous animals that you will meet in this book. Apart from India, Sengupta has also included stories from Italy, Sri Lanka, Egypt, China, UK, and USA in the final chapter of the book, which is titled “Tales from across the World.” Art teachers could work with their students to adapt these stories into a variety of visual formats such as scrolls, comics and murals.

Sengupta writes, “You might also wonder why so many of these stories conclude with the animals meeting a sad or violent end. That’s because legends usually remember heroic animals, and heroism often comes at a great cost. Chetak has become a fabled mount because he died such a noble death. If he had simply grown old and died in his stable, he wouldn’t be the blue horse that bards sing about to this day in Rajasthan.”

The author is a writer, educator and researcher who tweets @chintan_connect He can be reached at [email protected]

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