When Bruno the bear went to sleep with the little boy in the story, I longed to have a bear to cuddle up with as well. When Sally the donkey looked shyly at her new owner Gerry, on the morning of his birthday, I knew instantly that I wanted a donkey as well. And when White Fang, the wolf-dog, followed his master across America, I knew I had to have wolf-dog walking majestically beside me.
Do you know any of these animals and their owners? I am sure you do! They are from stories and books by Kenneth Anderson who lived and wrote in India, Gerald Durrell who was born here in Jamshedpur and Jack London who knew dogs and wolves better than any other writer.
When I was growing up, we could not keep any animals at home since we lived in such a small house, but that didn’t stop me from keeping them in my head. Inside my head, I had a hilly island all to myself, just the right swimming distance from my parents’ home on the beach, and on this island I lived in a small hut surrounded by mango trees, with dozens of assorted animals who I fell in love with through the books I read. They included owls from Farley Mowat’s book Owls in the Family , Kutkha the Ravenfrom Russia, moles and rats from Wind in the Willows , and numerous dogs from James Herriot’s lovely recountings. They also included Gumchikki the sparrow and Thama the very naughty baby elephant, who I met in Kamla Laxman’s utterly charming little stories. For a while, I just wanted to beThama, to live in a forest with such a fun collection of animal friends.
I had a love-hate relationship with wolves — Russian, Indian and American stories combined to create in my head a creature of flaming mane, which could be a wise, undyingly loyal friend or a bloodthirsty marauder. And could switch between these personalities with unsettling ease. I miss wolves. They have disappeared from children’s books now, which seem to have fewer and fewer animals of the wild; those that do appear are often birds rather than creatures of scales, fur, claws and teeth.
And then there were animals in books that weren’t about animals at all. Most of all I remember the falcons, snakes and fish in Sword in the Stone by T.B. White. Young Wart, an orphan boy who would one day rule his country, is taught by the magician Merlin to inhabit the worlds, bodies and minds of creatures of the water, land and air, so he can learn how different the world looks depending on what kind of creature you are.
But the animal I loved with all my heart was Appu. Appu the silly, clumsy, unruly yet adorable baby elephant who was brought to life during the Asian Games of 1982. I was too young to note who wrote and illustrated the Appu comics , but I what I do remember is that they were the work of geniuses. The quality of illustrations, the writing, the perfectly done silliness, the hilarious resolutions, were all defiant and triumphant response to anyone who thought imaginatively created children’s comics could only come from abroad.
Photo credit: M. Periasamy