Monday, May 31, 2010



Written by Kamala Das.
Cover and Illustrations by Puja Ahuja.
A Puffin original published by Penguin Books Ltd.
Ages: 5+ to read to. 8+ for self-readers.

Cover image: Courtesy Penguin books India.

Panna is a very beautiful girl who lives in a fishing village in India with her brother Moti. They are orphans and have only one another. The villagers think she is like a princess.

Moti would go fishing everyday with the other fishermen, and Panna would wait on the beach for him. Everyday he would return with his catch and sell it, and get lovely things for his sister.

One day, she waited for him like everyday. All the others came back, but there was no sign of Moti. She waited till it was night, and tired out, fell asleep on the beach. "The tide came alive. It hit the shore like a hissing serpent..."  The waves came up the beach, stronger every time, and pulled the sleeping Panna into the sea.

Here begins an adventure. Panna finds herself in a strange land under the sea where there was a moving green sky, pearl-studded lanes, fish-ladies in their coral houses and oystermen who spewed pearls every time they laughed. She enters the Fish-King's palace, where both he and the Fish-Queen are asleep on their thrones. They wake up to the jingle of her anklets.When asked Panna says that someone brought her there while she was asleep. "I want to go home."  But the Fish-King does not want her to. She would stay there forever, at the bottom of the sea.

The conversation between the three is very funny, and has a irreverence about it reminiscent of a mixture of the 'Queen of Hearts' and the 'Mad Hatter' from "Alice in Wonderland."  One almost expects one of them to shout: "Off with her head!"

When the king falls asleep, the queen takes Panna to her 'bed-chamber'. On the way, she sees a great black monster howling, chained down. On asking, the queen tells her that it is the wind, who creates a lot of mischief, and sinks boats. Rambling around the sea-world, Panna forgets all about Moti.

But Moti has reached the sea-shore by now, and is searching for Panna. The tide is out and the waves gentle. There is no sign of Panna. Moti runs around, looking for her, wading out into the sea, calling her name. The Fish-King hears him calling out, and does not want Panna to hear. He wants Panna to stay in the sea and not leave. So he casts a magic spell on the water. This illuminates the water around Moti and he is changed into an eagle. A black eagle with yellow eyes. The eagle flies over and around the waves, searching for any sign of Panna.

In the morning the fishermen came out of their huts and saw the huge bird flying in circles over the sea.
"An eagle. Perhaps we will be lucky today," they said.
Every day, even today, the black eagle flies in circles over the sea calling out for the little girl who went down to the sea world.

A beautifully written fairy tale of the love of a brother for his little sister, and his continuing search for her. In the time honoured tradition of Indian legends and folk-tales, this is a story from the coasts of Kerala. It is written by one of Kerala's greatest women poets, Kamala Das.  She was born on 31st March 1934 in a family of writers. She has written prolifically in Malayalam and English. She died on 31st May 2009 at the age of seventy-five years. Today, 31st May 2010, is her first death anniversary. Panna was her first book for children in English, and was published after her death.

This is what  Ruskin Bond has to say about the book on its cover page. "A famous poet gives us a lovely story of fairy-tale magic set along the sea coast near her home in Kerala. Just right for reading aloud to your children, or starting them off as readers in their own right. Kids will love the Fish King and the Fish Queen, and little Panna will steal your heart . . . "

The illustrations by Puja Ahuja are in the Madhubani style and add to the unreal and lyrical quality of the tale. The story itself reminds one of Hans Christian Anderson's 'The Little Mermaid' with its sad ending.

Picture of Black Eagle: Courtesy Wikipedia.

Crossposted here.


starry eyed said...

Sounds fascinating...especially the Madhubani illustrations! Somehow reminiscent of Norwegian folk tales I used to read as a kid! Will hunt this out for my daughter. Thanks!

Choxbox said...

Wow! Will look out for this one.

And, how did A react to the end?

Vibha said...

Saw this one in the bookstore but somehow did not pick it up. Will add to the list for my next trip.

Thanks for the great review!

sandhya said...

@Starry: Yes, the illustrations fascinated my daughter A too, more than the story. And could you suggest where I could get hold of Norwegian folk tales? I have always been fascinated by stoeies from Europe, and would love to get my hands on some. The only literary connection I know of is Roald Dahl, who was originally Norwegian. :)

@Choxbox: Other than the illustrations, A too liked the likeness to 'Alice in wonderland'. She said that sometimes fairy tales are so sad, and we left it at that. Too much of Oscar Wilde in the last few days!

@Vibha: Thanks. You are always good for my morale! I always look out for your comment.:)

Praba Ram said...

Sounds like a lovely modern fairy tale from India, and what a neat dedication in honor of Kamala Das! Thanks,S!

Coincidentally, I was reading about her work just last week, and here you go! And found this interesting link -
Now, I am craving to read all of her writing. :)

starry eyed said...

@sandhya: I really don't remember, it was tattered old book from my mom's childhood(!), may have been Norwegian or general Scandinavian, but was filled with fascinating elaborate ogre tales...lost somewhere in our refugee flight, I'm sure :( Will let you know if I ever find it again!

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Choxbox said...

@ Sandhya: We have a book called 'Folktales from Europe' - will dig it out and lend it to you. And one called 'Around the World in 80 Tales', which is rather heavy-ish so will reserve it for when you come over.

sandhya said...

@Prabha: Thanks. I love her work. Somehow seems so relevant. I feel she wrote far ahead of her time, and was a courageous woman. It takes a lot to stand up in a traditional society for what you believe in, especially for a woman, women's lib notwithstanding. Her autobiography 'My story' is worth a read. The other book I have by her is 'Closure', which is a collection of her later poems and a conversation with Suresh Kohli, whose poems are included in the second half of the volume. Many of her poems here deal with the awareness of death, and it is no wonder that the book Panna, written during her last days, deals with death metaphorically.
Long comment, I know!

@Starry: Thanks. Will remember your offer. Maybe if you do locate it, you could pass it on through our mutual friend Choxbox.:)

@Chox: Knew I could depend on you to dig something up. And thanks. Will try to make it next week when the girls are at home and will come away with your book.:)

ranjani.sathish said...

Sandhya, I have seen this book a couple of times in the book shops and stopped to take a look at the cover page is very it not ?!! Thanks to your review, I want to pick it up and read it now !

sandhya said...

Thanks, Ranjani. You'll like it.

utbtkids said...

As you say the illustrations are beautiful.

Have you read TARA's The Flight Of The Mermaid? Pretty non-Disney and original. The illustrations are awesome as usual.

sandhya said...

I haven't seen that one, UTBT. Will check it out. Thanks!

Related Posts with Thumbnails