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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Front-Back covers of 'The Secret Sanctuary', Stephen Alter's new book for children

Irficionado | Book Review | ‘The Secret Sanctuary’

Humans were never meant to interfere with animals. Animals were meant to be in the wild, and humans in the plains, or well, non-wild. But man is man, and has not been up to much good since the time of Cain. He has let his population and greed go forth and multiply, so much that it’s come at the cost of the animals’ (population only; animals aren’t greedy, they take only how much they need, food and territory alike). Many animals have lost their habitat and thus their numbers, and others find themselves in what are sanctimoniously called sanctuaries, spaces that nevertheless have boundaries and in many cases fences that define how much space an animal can have. But what if there was a space, a sanctuary, a place for animals where humans just couldn’t enter, or better still, not interfere?

Stephen Alter, with the Himalayas in the backgroundStephen Alter introduces just such a place in his new book for children, ‘The Secret Sanctuary’. The sanctuary is set in the real-life Jabarkhet Nature Reserve, near the small village of Kolti, north-east of Mussoorie. The story takes us through one day in the lives of three kids, the siblings Kamla and Pradeep and their friend Manohar. The three set off for their distant school one morning as usual, through the edges of the forest, then distracted by a marten pair on the hunt, go deeper and lose their way. As they slowly and as gallantly as possible try to find the path out (there puzzlingly doesn’t seem to be one, at least not in the same direction they came), they realise they and their interferences with the animals (such as stroking a barking deer) are oblivious to the animals. The forest is the animals’ alone, it’s truly an animal sanctuary.

To help the kids (and perhaps to enable the philosophy of the book to emerge), Alter introduces a naturalist in the middle of the forest. He is appropriately named: Dr Pashupatinath Linnaeus Mukherjee – Pashupatinath afPashupatinath, the incarnation of Shiva as the lord of the animalster the mythological lord of animals and Linnaeus after Carl Linnaeus, the father of modern taxonomy, or basically, the person who stipulated all those Latin names for plants and animals. The ‘Animal Doctor’ knows the workings of the forest deeply – he has been there, lost or wandering, for the past three years (although he’s not sure of the exact duration, as “Jungle Time” works differently, slowly, he says). He came there for the believed-extinct Mountain (Himalayan) Quail, but hasn’t given up despite not spotting it even once. Dr Mukherjee provides them food (fruits, seeds, tubers and other things green and edible), water (the hidden spring, which proves to be a secret sanctuary within the secret sanctuary) and shelter for the night (a cave that he shares with a bear, who does make an appearance, but remember, the animals can’t see the humans, so all of them sleep soundly, though a bit tightly), opens them up to the magic of the forest (the birds’ dawn chorus), and most crucially, answers their questions about animals, birds, their lives and workings.

In the end, the kids do manage to find their out. But there is no big adventure (apart from the doctor tumbling down after pursuing the supposed call of the quail), no major action (the result of the leopard stalking the goat-antelope doesn’t unravel in front of their eyes, so you don’t know just then “who won”), no breakthrough (the doctor doesn’t find the quail, yet); in short, there’s no high drama. The kids leave the forest as they came, unobtrusively. Also, they don’t destroy anything in the sanctuary: they use the doctor’s sBear Gryllis in (eating-wild-animal) actionolar lamp at night, forage for the fruits of the forest, and most remarkably, don’t do a Bear Grylls: they don’t hunt (making a big point about surviving in the wild without destroying the balance / sanctity of the place; although technically they can’t hunt in this case because of their “non-interferability”). The animals in their place, the humans back in theirs, without disturbing the former or their way of life. Just the way nature meant it to be.

That itself is a big achievement of Alter’s. Else, most animal / kid fiction ends up being extremely racy / pacy. Here, the author treats his reader kids almost as grown-ups, or at least mature, leaving them to work out the philosophy from the deceptively simple narrative. And it is a philosophy rather than a message. A message, that too about animal (habitat) conservation, could come across as forceful and thus be eventually discarded. But a philosophy, being more at a principle level, is easier to adopt, or at least consider.

But Alter serves up other glories too. He knows the environs intimately: you feel he could make his way out of this sanctuary if it came to that (Alter was born and now lives in Mussoorie, and Dr Mukherjee almost seems his alter ego, except that the doctor came from elsewhere and Alter came back here). And he writes immaculately, to paint the perfect picture of the place and its creatures: The bear had a strong, earthy smell, like a big dog but with a wilder, stronger smell, as if he’d been rolling about in rotting leaves. You feel you’re the fourth kid there in the forest.

However, Alter reserves the best part, of his intention, for last. In the acknowledgments section, he mentions how 50% of his royalties from the book will go toward the Reserve. So, go on, visit this sanctuary, both for the love of reading and for that of animals.

Signboard stating 'Jabarkhet Nature Reserve'