Beastly Tales from Here & There , written by Vikram Seth, is a collection of 10 stories presented in verse form. Eight of the stories are ancient folk tales from various countries. As expected from the cleverly chosen title, all the stories are centered around animal characters and usually explore the relationship between two of them.
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Some of the ancient stories are written in a modern setting with humorous references to computers and broadcasting. The writing is crisp, witty, and sometimes hilarious (What can I say, I love puns), while the stories are thought provoking. Some tell hard truths quite matter-of-factly and the lessons are conveyed in a subtle manner.
My favorite is The Hare And The Tortoise. I had heard this ancient Greek tale in school and at home since I was too young to remember. The moral was slow and steady wins the race. But Vikram Seth makes you think about it. Is that necessarily true in a world that adores glamor and glitter? Maybe not, I thought for a while. But now again I am left to wonder – despite all the attention and accolades the hare received, perhaps, the tortoise’s life was the happier one, because his happiness came from within. You need to read it and decide for yourself. This poem is so well written, it was really hard to choose my favorite lines, but I finally settled upon these:
And the sleepy BBC
–Beastly Broadcasting Company–
Beamed a feature with the news:
“All the World Lost for a Snooze”.
The Crocodile And The Monkey, an old folk tale from India, was one I already knew but reading it in rhyme, with the depth of personality Vikram gives each character was a real pleasure.
The Frog And The Nightingale, I believe, from Vikram’s fertile imagination, is a tale of exploitation and insecurity. The nightingale has no faith in her abilities even though she is much adored by her first large audience. She defers to the authority of a talentless frog who is quick to take advantage of her naiveté. The frog feels no remorse when the nightingale dies from fatigue and sadness as a direct result of following his instructions. I could not sympathize with either the naive nightingale, or the pompous frog. They both had their faults, although the frog was certainly the more loathsome.
Well, poor bird — she should have known
That your song must be your own
The Rat And The Ox is an ancient Chinese folk tale. The story is about how the rat convinces everyone that he belongs at the top of the Chinese zodiac chart. While the foul tempered boastful rat is not the least bit likable, it is hard not to admire his ingenuity and insight of psychology which he effectively uses, first to manipulate the ox, and then everyone else.
The Cat And The Cock did not make for pleasant reading. It had the same lines repeated several times during the course of the story. Though it did remind me of the troubles of a parent. Maybe the idea was to make you feel the frustrations of a parent, repeating the same cautionary instructions, desperately trying to protect their child and failing, but never giving up.
The Goat And The Ram is entertaining, particularly because of the goat’s optimism and his ingenuity in fooling 3 ferocious wolves.
The Mouse And The Snake is a heart warming tale of bravery, perseverance and loyalty highlighting the need for closure on losing a loved one.
The Eagle And The Beetle is also about honoring a dead friend, but it is about revenge rather than grief and acceptance. It also a warns to not underestimate the strength, persistence and single minded obsession for revenge, of the loved ones of those you hurt.
For weeks on end she scarcely slept.
She laid her eggs in grief, and wept
The Elephant And The Tragopan is relevant in today’s world as climate change and other large scale environmental disasters threaten out existence and yet we choose to bury our heads in the sand. The depiction of the power hungry, corrupt, government official would be hilarious if it were not so alarmingly familiar.
The book can be enjoyed by children and adults alike. There are some nice black and white illustrations, my favorite being the picture of the crocodile’s wife in The Crocodile And The Monkey.