Semeen Ali
THE CAT WHO BECAME KING AND OTHER STORIES FROM INDIA by by Dhan Gopal Mukherji published by Talking Cub, an imprint of Speaking Tiger, 2023, 156 pp., INR 250.00
FIERCE-FACE THE TIGER: JUNGLE STORIESby by Dhan Gopal Mukherji published by Talking Cub, an imprint of Speaking Tiger, 2023, 160 pp., INR 250.00
November 2023, volume 47, No 11

Growing up in the nineties in a small town, the literature that one had access to was fairly limited. One grew up on a fat diet of Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, Enid Blyton’s writings, the Anne of Green Gables series and relied heavily on the books that the relatives got from abroad. The comics were a different ball game with Chandamama, Tinkle, Champak, ChachaChaudhury, Pinky, Billoo to name a few and of course, Archies. Now when one looks back at the gamut of English literature that was available for children, one is taken aback by the paucity of children’s literature from India that was available. The identification that one had with the Blytons and the Drews and others stopped short when the landscape that was described in those books was not at all relatable; the food as well as certain words and phrases that were not at all used in one’s surroundings. That chasm grew. Cut to the present times, and there is no longer a dearth of literature that is getting translated or written for children. The richness of words surrounds the children of today’s world. I was curious when I came across the writings of Dhan Gopal Mukherji (1890-1936). He was writing for children when he moved abroad and won much acclaim for his books. Visiting his books as an adult fills one with wonder about how time has been captured in his works.
The short story collection titled The Cat who Became King, draws inspiration from Panchatantra stories and infuses new life into these old folktales. We even have a story from the Mahabharata, a post-war story of the friendship between a dog and a man. The man here being the eldest of the Pandavas. Although there are no names given in this particular story, the overall description and the characters give away the identity of the protagonist. It is a beautiful story of the bond between a human and an animal that transcends even the gates of Death.
‘Now the animal asked his friend, “What does the darkness that we left behind mean?”
Dharma answered, “It is called memory by men. All old men and women like to live here.” “If the darkness is memory,” asked the beast, “what is this light, O King, in which we are moving?”
Dharma answered again, “This is hope. All young men and women like to live here. Whatever you see here is young…”’
There are a lot of references to God, divine justice and how the characters when they turn to the Almighty for staying on the righteous path, receive the blessings to do so. The book contains not just references to Indian mythological characters, folk tales or myths; the book provides indirect reference to myths from across the world:
‘That instant something unthinkable happened. The throne on which the king had been sitting turned into a living creature, half-lion and half-man.’
And another one, that is an indirect reference to one of the Biblical myths—
‘Just then the thunder roared, the lightning flashed and the summer rains began to fall. “God is going to send down a flood in order to put their selfishness to a final test,” said the silver leaf to itself as it curled up when the first rain drop struck its back.’
The retelling of myths and folktales connect the worlds, creating links between the world of the past with the world of the present and how these stories function through the pattern of narratives helping the self, relate with the surrounding world.
What is interesting to note is that the language of the book at times has a tinge of Shakespearean language that emerges from time to time with words like ‘thou art’, ‘thee’, ‘shalt’ and so on peppering the rest of the book. The switch in the pronunciation occurs when a particular character is in a pickle and turns to help or encouragement. A clever strategy used by the writer while giving a glimpse of the times in which he was writing where such words and phrases were in circulation. The book turns into a chronicle of the times as well in which it has been written. It is not just contained in this collection of stories, but in the delightful read which is the next book that contains two stories, one about a tiger cub, Fierce-Face and included in the same volume is the celebrated story of an elephant, Kari. It is important that the introduction is read first in this book before embarking on the narrative about the animals. The writer informs the adult reader to carefully scrutinize the stories in order ‘to notice the unique presentation of reality. Those who read aloud to children will be able to read the story without being misunderstood. Certain simple pauses and reiterations have been placed so as to enable the listening youngsters to feel as if a voice from India is broadcasting.’
The first story is about a young tiger cub called Fierce-Face, who along with his mother goes through the ups and downs of life, facing threats as well as adventures. It is a story of resilience, of learning to fend for oneself, of facing a world that at times can be a threatening one.
‘Fierce-Face was an animal; he had to be educated to become a good one in the manner resembling that of a human child. The difference that marks the training of the young of the two species lies in this: a tiger is trained within the first fifteen months of his life, while men educate their offspring for years.’
The clash between humans and animals arises out of fear; the fear of the unknown. And misunderstood by the narratives and the myths that surround the other; the story brings out the perceptions of both the sides without favouring one over the other.
‘In order to feel safe, the villagers came to their parched fields with beat of drums, roar of trumpets, and lighted torches. The cringing bipeds had united their forces to meet the triple tiger-menace. No matter how brave, any tiger would run from the thunder of drums and swaying of a dozen torches.’
‘Not an animal was afraid of man now; the fear of fire had made all the forest forget the lesser of mankind.’
There are echoes of the first book in this volume and one can relate to the other book well after reading this one. The forest is painted with the colours of an artist and one receives insights with regards to parts of the country through this book; the way it used to be. Landscape turns important here as a visual aspect providing not only a space where the narrative gets played out but also turns into a repository of the geographic and the cultural scenes thereby tying up one’s identity with the place that one comes from. The idea of home comes along with its set of definitions that are different for different pair of eyes.
The story about an elephant named Kari is an emotional one and one finds shadows of both the stories in this book in each other. When Fierce-Face, in the previous story asks his mother about the ‘beast’, i.e., Man, the mother tells him:
‘“Do not come near man when on the neck of an elephant. He belches out unerring death-fire.” “Why are elephants so stupid as to let a man ride them?” “Because Thick-Hide is a vegetarian, and like cattle and horse submits to man.”’
Kari is described throughout the novel through the voice of its master. A young elephant who is an adorable one. ‘Kari was like a baby. He had to be trained to be good and if you did not tell him when he was naughty, he was up to more mischief than ever.’
Many facts are also shared with the reader as the story progresses; from how an elephant reacts when afraid to how they are celebrated for their memory. ‘An elephant is willing to be punished for having done wrong, but if you punish him without any reason, he will remember it and pay you back in your own coin.’
The story sheds light on the hunting practices in India; how it used to be a gentleman’s game and the various adventures that one faced while going from city to city. The city of Banaras of the yesteryears comes alive and the struggles that one faces while travelling through thick forests as well. If Fierce-Face was free to roam the natural surroundings and be as he wished to, Kari does not enjoy the same rights. Although Kari receives the love and attention of the family with whom he lives, he is bound to them. It is the narrator who continues to be the voice of the animal until a dream sequence turns the tables and Kari is given a voice. It is in this realm that Kari finally shares all that he has to say.
There is in both the stories a small space provided to the idea of death that the creatures come face-to-face with. While Fierce-Face and his mother stumble upon the area where all the old tigers go to die. Kari facing the cruelty of human finally decides to leave forever. ‘Kari’s last impression of human beings must have been so terrible that when the Spirit of the jungle asserted itself in him, he allowed it to lure him away forever from the habitations of men.’
Reading these two books, one wonders at the dynamics that arises while writing for children, There is a concern to be in tune with the changing times as well as how to insert texts that would otherwise remain invisible or lost to time. Most of the adults, while revisiting familiar stories and texts, find comfort in them as they take them back to a time when life was less complex. Reading these two books as an adult opens up perspectives that perhaps can get lost in the innocence of the story telling. The book turns into a home—for a child, it satiates the curiosity of getting to know about the psyche of the animals whereas for an adult reader, a revisit to these realms provides answers to some questions about life.