Beastly Tales from Here and There by Vikram Seth – Part 1

What is it like when the stories you heard as a child and left an impression on you, are turned into poetry? It can go two ways – very wrong, or unexpectedly entertaining. And luckily (for us), when Vikram Seth decided to revisit 8 old fables, he steered them the right way. And it’s not just the right way. It’s much more. It’s heart-warming, cute, and funny.

Each of his poems in Beastly Tales from Here and There take you on a trip down memory lane that will leave you with the warm fuzzies. The book contains ten poems (2 each from 4 countries and 2 from the Land of Gup) in which the protagonists are… you guessed it – beasts (though, after a point it seems like a misnomer). Let me try to give you a quick two to three line snapshot of my impressions about each of these stories (though I think they each deserve a post). Needless to say, every story has been beautifully told (or retold) with a poetic sensibility that is simply beautiful, fluid, and captivating.

The Crocodile and The Monkey: Having originated in one of India’s most famous/popular collection of stories with morals, Panchatantra, this is one of the most widely narrated tale across the country. It’s a story about a crocodile, Kuroop, and his friendship with a considerate monkey. What happens to this friendship will leave you wondering if the characters’ hearts were in the right place. Vikram Seth gives this story a personality that is sweet, and at the same time sour.

The Louse and The Mosquito: Again, an adaptation of an old Indian fable, this poem gives us a glimpse into the life of the humble louse and his family that lead a discrete life. Their main source of sustenance is, wait for it… the emperor’s blood. Nevertheless, years of experience and respect for the emperor have taught the louse and his family to take what they need from the emperor without troubling his sleep or satin. But all of this is threatened with the arrival of a mosquito to whom the louse is tragically too hospitable. What happens next?

The Mouse and The Snake: This poem looks at two mice and their “disastrous adventure” that they undertook despite being told that they should not venture into a specific grain room. What ensues is a story of bravery that is nevertheless sad. And it becomes sadder when the poet ends this story with the lines “And in couplets sad and stoic, Celebrates her acts heroic–” (referring to the narrator/poet).

The Rat and The Ox: Vikram Seth makes this poem work in two ways. Firstly, it gives a poetic view of what the twelve Chinese zodiac signs are and how he perceives their origins to be. Secondly, it opens our eyes to the repercussions of speedy decision making – haste makes waste. Anyway, in this poem, Seth gives us his version of why, when the rat is supposedly so small, is the animal that starts the zodiac signs.

The Eagle and The Beetle: This is an adaptation of an Aesop’s fable by the same name. Where the fable narrates the story in a simple manner, and gets the moral across with just as much ease – that even the determined weak will find a way to avenge wrong doers – Seth’s version of it is so much more, without losing its simplicity. When he tells the story in poetic lines, it conveys sorrow, fear and revenge in really beautiful words.

It looks like this post too, much like RK Narayan’s Malgudi Days, will need to be expressed in two parts. So, I will end this post here, still surrounded by the magic that is Vikram Seth’s poetic genius in Beastly Tales from Here and There.

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