It is a year since I began this monthly column on books, with Premchand. With his animal portraitures, to be precise. And I conclude the series, now, with Premchand once again – by pure serendipity.

Mint-new books have been coming to me in a regular stream from the day Kitabistani started. Crisp, fragrant in a way only new books are, not a particle of dust on the front or back, not a wrinkle on the spine, not a curl on the fore edge, endpapers smooth as icing on a cake, flyleaf waiting for a name to run across it. Which of these books should I write my last column on, I was wondering, when the postman brought this most exquisite production of Aleph Book Company, Animalia Indica.

A collection of “the finest animal stories in Indian literature” put together by Sumana Roy, the book has twenty-one short stories on animals, including Premchand’s heart-wrenchingly beautiful “Do Baelon Ki Katha”, translated from the Hindi as A Tale of Two Bullocks by Rohit Manchanda.

The book has eight stunning illustrations in black and white by Rohan Dahotre.

The eyes have it

It is not children alone who start turning the pages of a book, if illustrated, by looking at the visuals. I do that with every such book. And I did that with Animalia Indica. Dahotre’s drawings, like those of the late photo-naturalist and writer M Krishnan, are masterpieces of verisimilitude. They are more photographic than photographs. And yet so unlike photographs in their inner life.

The artist has a way with his subjects’ eyes that can only be described as magical. He is an artist of the eyes, animal eyes, piercing through slits for pupils or beads. Aglow, afire or almost asleep. But everywhere, brilliant. His crouching tiger (on the cover and on the page facing Ruskin Bond’s The Last Tiger ) has fiery eyes like the deathless one in William Blake’s poem, those of his mongoose (in Kipling’s Rikki-Tikki-Tavi) bore into you with an icy fire, his bullocks’ drawings (Premchand) stir un-plumbed pools of sadness, his tusker’s drawings (Orwell’s Shooting an Elephant) say farewell forgivingly to his feckless annihilator, and the viper’s drawings (Khushwant Singh’s The Mark of Vishnu ) are gems of determination.

If those of the two goats’ (R K Narayan’s A Horse and Two Goats) are buttons of sleep, those illustrating Perumal Murugan’s Poonachi (translated from the Tamil by N Kalyan Raman) are wide awake marbles of astonished discovery. That kid goat’s eyes, with their pupil-slits taking in the old couple who are going to rear it, may be said to be the book’s brightest gem – not just the drawings part the whole of it.

The careful symmetry of the kid’s tiny horns just above the eyes, and the nostril-pair just below them make the composition a win for sheer symmetry. The almost-silhouetted elephant accompanying Kanishk Tharoor’s Elephant at Sea is nondescript, but the final illustration, that of the hyena (Sultan Muhammad Ashraf’s And Then Laughed the Hyena) is a triumph of animated terror. The canine’s eyes and its deadly teeth form a diamond parure set for predation, with the glow worms completing the brilliant design.

Connecting humans to animals

The animal portraits’ eyes drawn by Dahotre are, really, the entrepot to the stories which are, each one of them, utterly remarkable, memorable, in fact. Many of them are well-known to readers of fiction, particularly in short form, but as stories, not as animal stories. This is where Sumana Roy has done something new, fresh. She has created a story menagerie, a story safari.

But more, much more as each story is about the web of life, so callous, cruel, cunning and also innocent, thoughtless and dull, that connects animals to us, humans, animals ourselves, but animals with one huge ego. It has something of ancient story-telling in it and something very new, something very contemporary, like a Jataka tale being filmographed by David Attenborough.

Delightfully surprising is the inclusion in the anthology of Vikram Seth’s delicious poem-story The Crocodile and the Monkey, with its mordant wit, suspense-ridden narrative where one expects to see any moment a sudden swirl of simian red in a chortle of grinning mud. But no, Seth being Seth we have the reptile’s terraced dentition fade as it

…with a regretful smile
Sat and eyed him for a while.

No human intrudes in this “pure” animal tale, just as nothing Indian does in the poet’s all-time great The Golden Gate.

Among the book’s plus points are its superb Introduction, and its end-notes about the stories, the authors and translators. Of immense value is the dating of the stories which, for instance, tells us that Premchand wrote his story on the two bullocks in 1931, some fourteen years before Orwell’s classic Animal Farm, making the bullock-to-bullock conversation and plots a spectacular anticipation of the famous Orwellian fantasy.