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Sunday, April 20, 2003
Books

Encounters in the wild
Aditya Sharma

The Rupa Book of Great Animal Stories
edited by Ruskin Bond.
Rupa. Pages 205. Rs 295

The Rupa Book of Great Animal StoriesLET it be said at the very outset that this book is of a kind as comes once in a while. The stories in it, as its very name suggests, pertain to animals but, contrary to popular notions, are neither moralistic nor merely for children. Far from that, they are realistic and true accounts written by seasoned authors, illustrating the bittersweet encounters between men and beasts. The clear and vivid prose of many of these narratives stands in sharp contrast to the generally ambiguous and prosaic writings of modern fiction writers.

Ruskin Bond is just the right person to edit this anthology. Living for years in the vicinity of hills and forests he is as familiar with the subject of this book as he is with the back of his hand. This selection would make anyone pronounce with certitude that he has an eye for good writing. Out of the 19-odd stories in this book, nearly all have the ability to enthrall the readers.

The tales in this anthology are extremely varied and penned by authors as diverse as the renowned Rudyard Kipling and Ruskin Bond and the relatively unknown B.B. Osmaston, GGD Roberts, James. S. Lee and others. Going by the first-rate prose in which these little-known writers have written, one often wonders why they have remained unfamiliar. Many of these authors were Englishmen who came to India during the colonial rule.

 


As expected, a few of the tales pertain to the most dreaded beast of the jungle óthe tiger. Others include all kinds of animals from a bear to a deer and are written in all styles, from tragic to humourous.

In one bizarre story, a tiger nabs both the grandfather and his grandson in an identical but weird fashion. Another hair-raising episode describes a grim situation in which a man finds himself sharing his bed with a venomous snake. With an almost superhuman endurance he suffers the cold reptile crawling all over his body. A story by Rudyard Kipling brings to light the strong affinity between a dog and his master. Both of them share with each other the same chemistry as bonds two very intimate friends

Later, in a heart-rending tale, we come across the raw reaction of a couple in the face of death. Unmindful of his own safety, a husband single-handedly grapples with an alligator to rescue his wife from its vicious jaws. The pathos of his predicament are further intensified when his wife pleads him to go and let her die for she canít endure the excruciating pain. In another dramatic incident a travel writer unwittingly disturbs a hornetís nest and suddenly finds himself being stung and chased by a cloud of wild bees. As he runs for his life, howling like a madman, he terrifies a group of apes he encounters en route!

The free-flowing prose of C.M. Donald, studded with subtle humour, merits special consideration. His writing strikes one as being so familiar, that one canít help thinking of him as a long-lost brother of the editor himself! The writing styles of both seem curiously similar.

Ruskin contributes to this collection with three stories among which The Regimental Myna has been published here for the first time. Peppered with humour, wit and amusing anecdotes, itís a delightful read. Rudyard Kiplingís narrative has a nostalgic feel and historical significance. In his journey from Ambala (then Umbala) to Shimla, he recounts, how in the absence of automobiles and the railways, it was a horse carriers that dragged one to over 7000ft above the sea level. Moreover, one had also to change oneís horses at least 14 times between these two destinations.

In the introduction to the book, Ruskin brushes aside those stories in which animals engage in human dialogue and mentions that he has excluded such yarns from this collection. I wonder what R.K. Narayan would have said about that. In one of his extremely hilarious novels, A Tiger for Malgudi, it is the king of the jungle who himself recount his eventful life!