Illustrator - Prabha Mallya
My first reaction to this book was a surge of envy. Envy that my children were privileged enough to read Vikram Seth in their childhood while I only first encountered him as an adult. I then chose to be more adult about it and began to read it
They're not fables we haven't heard before - the monkey and the crocodile, the louse and the mosquito, the hare and the tortoise and more. The difference is that they're retold in verse. What can you say about Vikram Seth's writing, that hasn't already been said? Even in this, a book meant for children, I like that he engages with his readers without talking down to them. How many other writers do you know who will use words like carcass, glib, mangled, unpoliced, commemorate and capricious while addressing children of this age group? To say nothing of introducing them to concepts they might otherwise go through a lifetime, unacquainted with. Sample this line -
First they hugged, and then the cat
Played a prelude in E flat,
While the cock, concurrently,
Sang a serenade in D.
The illustrations, as in every good children's book pull their fair share of weight and are very well done. What makes them brilliant is the fact that they could be from anywhere. They do not have anything typical that might trace them back to an Indian artist. Considering the stories come from lands as distant as Greece, China and Ukraine, this is wonderful. The attention to detail is thrilling. The king in the story of the louse and the mosquito slumbers peacefully (hugging a teddy bear) while a tattoo on his arm proclaims H.R.H. me, within a heart. The tortoise counting Uno, Dos, Tres has a number on his shell like sportspersons' tee shirts. Great stuff.
We only picked it up recently and the Brat and Bean have been thrilled by this combination of animal protagonists and verse. My only grouse is that he doesn't write for kids more often!