Cover pic for this piece, including snapshots of the three books featured and the title text

Animals / Books | Wonderful as an Animal

Logo for VegPlanet magazineThis piece is for the launch issue of VegPlanet, the new quarterly premier lifestyle magazine for vegetarian, vegan and veg-curious folk. This appears in their Media Matters section.

Author Venita CoelhoAt The Hindu Lit for Life 2016 litfest, held about a year ago, I had bumped into Venita Coelho, both of whose animal fiction books I had just read then. Venita has been a scriptwriter for serials and films, before recently moving on to authoring and activism. I wished to find out one key thing from her: the motivation for writing these books. Her answer was simple: “Write for children. Adults’ minds are too set.”

Perhaps why much animal writing is aimed at children. So, in this round-up of last year’s best animal-friendly writing, we feature a couple of children’s books, including one by Venita herself. But for good measure, and perhaps to show that all is not lost with adults, we also include one aimed at grown-ups. Happy animal-friendly reading.

Front cover of the second animal-fiction book by Venita Coelho, Dead as a DodoThe second in Venita’s Animal Intelligence Agency (AIA) series, Dead as a Dodo traces the efforts of three AIA agents – Rana (boy), Bagha (tiger) and Kela (langur) – to save a dodo. A lone member of this extinct species has been miraculously discovered, but as expected, avaricious hunters are in pursuit too, for unscrupulous collectors worldwide. The three sleuths need to take the dodo to safety, so that history does not repeat itself. Like her first book, Tiger by the Tail, this too is racy, with several fantabulous adventures. No wonder it won the fest’s Young World – Goodbooks Award. So, are the three able to save the dodo? The ending is… clever as a fox.

Front cover of Stephen Alter's 'The Secret Sanctuary'Stephen Alter’s The Secret Sanctuary is more sublime. This too features a trio (all bipeds though), also out on an expedition, but only by chance. As they head out for school one morning, they lose their way in the forest en route, and are forced to spend the night therein. Before too much harm can come to them though, they encounter a naturalist, who helps them navigate through and also educates them in the ways of the jungle. What baffles the kids most is that while they spot and touch many a wild animal, the animal doesn’t see or sense them in response. The premise is simple: animals are meant to be away from humans – and from humans harming them. If only that were true in real life.

Front cover of Han Kang's 'The Vegetarian'As simple and smooth as the previous two books are, South Korean Han Kang’s Man Booker-winning The Vegetarian is as complex and intense. The protagonist, Kim Yeong-hye, decides to turn vegetarian (actually, vegan, as she gives up dairy and leather too), but the story, in three parts, is not from her viewpoint. Kang presumably wants to portray how others perceive veg(an) folk. So, Part 1 has the protagonist’s family not taking her decision well at all, her father even forcing meat down her throat at a get-together. Part 2 is esoteric: her brother-in-law yearns to paint floral-scapes on her bare body, the idea being that a plant-preferring’s person’s skin becomes very alluring. (This may not be so esoteric after all: there are several studies supporting this notion.) Part 3, told from her sister’s perspective, depicts her institutionalization in a mental health facility, as she is seen to take her vegetarianism “to an extreme”. (Now, how often do veggie folk hear that?) Due to its surrealism and structure, Vegetarian is not an entirely easy read, but serves its purpose well: showing how challenging it may be for folk who resolve to lead an animal-friendly life to live that life, especially when they have to do so around unsupportive others. For folk who’ve turned veg(an) in real life though, that’s easy: just think of the animals.

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Irficionado | Books’ Review | Venita Coelho’s AIA Series

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Author Venita CoelhoVenita Coelho began her writing career scripting serials for UTV, when that entity was still a production house and not a mega-channel. However, she moved out, out of serial-writing, as she herself says, “when the saas-bahu serials took over”. She wrote for one movie (the damp ‘We Are Family’, based on Hollywood’s ‘Stepmom’), before moving out of writing for the moving-images mediums. Presently, she writes books, out of Goa, where she moved out to from Bombay/Mumbai. She stays in Goa (but also spends some time in Bombay) with her family of people and her family of dogs and cats (five and two, respectively).

All that sounds like I’m writing her author bio for her next book’s jacket, and although I don’t mind doing so, that’s not the case. That is necessary to understand the kind of books she now writes and the style she pursues.

To continue the bio, Venita moved to activism after moving out of TV/movies (many, many people worldwide are following this path), and most recently is into animal activism (again not surprising, given the number of quadrupeds in her house).

All this comes brilliantly to the fore in her series of animal fiction brought out by Hachette. As she hasn’t given it a name herself, I’m calling it the AIA series, after the name of the agency in both the books so far – Animal Intelligence Agency.

AIA is a network of bipeds and quadrupeds across the world who fight to “Save the Animals, Save the World” (their motto). However, the two books so far centre around the ones in India…

The back cover of the books of Venita Coelho's Animal Intelligence Agency series, describing the agentsAgent 002 is Bagha, a Royal Bengal Tiger with a limp from a previous adventure, and who is typical of the male tiger: poised and not given to too much affection.

Agent 11.5 is a boy who gets his agent badge at 11.5 years of age. (So there.) Rana, named after a species of frog (see, this series is that animal-friendly) makes up for in the mind what he lacks in physique.

Bringing up the, um, rear is Agent 013, a langur named Kela. True to form, he is fidgety and a chatterbox. In the first book, he doesn’t have a number when he starts off on the rescue/adventure as it was revoked due to an earlier misadventure – the case of the exploding mangoes – but due to his efforts in the book, by the end, he gets back his badge.

Front cover of Venita Coelho's first animal-fiction book, Tiger by the Tail Book 1, ‘Tiger by the Tail’, is about the AIA’s efforts to investigate and rescue missing tigers. Tigers have gone missing from large parts of India and are, not surprisingly, landing up in China. Though perhaps not for the reasons you think (ornaments, medicines, aphrodisiacs); Venita takes the tigers’ tale to the max. (Will leave you to discover.) Along the way, and in China, they are aided by other agents and animals – a menagerie of dolphins, other langurs, a gigantic gorilla (are there other sorts, but wait till you read about this one), a giraffe, and a cussing rhino (who said plant-eating beings are calmer?). The humans are equally fun too, with Rana’s dada’s friend and a sloshed captain, who buys Rana’s tale that the 40+ tigers he’s just seen stepping into his ship is a drink-triggered hallucination.

Front cover of the second animal-fiction book by Venita Coelho, Dead as a DodoBook 2, ‘Dead as a Dodo’ (which I inadvertently read first as I couldn’t find the first earlier; this released this year, the first one last year), maxes book 1 in the wild department. Not content with saving tigers, Venita brings back the dodo from the dead, but being the only one of your species in this world has a price: collectors worldwide want him, though – tender mercies – alive. Along with Kela, the dodo provides the biggest laughs, as he’s a bit of a weepie, lamenting the fact that he’s all alone in this world – not content to being brought back from the dead.

Venita keeps the books very pacy and racy – perfect for her audience – but it left me a bit out of breath. (But as I just indicated, I’m not the audience.) The style is like Harry Potter meets Tintin, so now you know what I mean. The similarities to both permeate: Rana has lost both his parents to separate tragedies, he doesn’t recall their faces, he has animal companions on his adventures (Hedwig and Snowy, anyone?), the adventures are wild (Bagha jumping on trucks and Kela jumping on trains) and magical (a dolphin leads them to India after they switch off the GPS to avoid being detected by the Chinese as they make their way back with scores of tigers), and inter-species communication happens through a language called JungleSpeak (Parseltongue!).

She also sprinkles the narrative with interesting facts about the issue/s she’s addressing – done through two-page photos, sketches, doodles, notes – be it about the protection of non-human species and their habitats in ‘Tiger’ or about their extinction in ‘Dead’.

If you are an animal lover, you will read these. And then thank the entry of the saas-bahu serials on TV.