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Quiddity of a Country

S. Theodore Baskaran

Edited by Ramchandra Guha
Penguin Books, Delhi, 2007, pp. 310, Rs. 395.00

VOLUME XXXI NUMBER 9 September 2007

M.Krishnan (1912–1996) started writing in the nineteen thirties, when he was working in Madras and later at the durbar of the princely state of Sandur in Karnataka. After Independence, spurning an offer to be absorbed into the civil services, he decided to make a living through writing and photography; only then did he switch over to English. Quite a few of the writers of his generation were bilingual, having studied in the Tamil medium, including R.K.Narayan who had also started his writing career in Tamil. From the forties Krishnan started writing in English; he had a column in the Statesman which he kept up for nearly 46 years, the longest single column in India, one in the Illustrated Weekly titled The Southern Diary. Occasionally he wrote in magazines like Imprint and India Perspective. His articles in Tamil on natural history have been brought out as an anthology recently. He even wrote a novel in Tamil, the first Tamil thriller, he would say.   This book under review is a collection of the articles, 68 in all, Krishnan published from 1938-1996. (Earlier, The National Book Trust brought out a collection of 38 articles of Krishnan titled The Jungle and the Backyard ).The essays chosen cover a wide spectrum of natural history—mammal, birds, habitats, domesticated animals, indigenous cattle, dogs and conservation issues. There are also articles beyond the ken of natural history, like the one on those who have a penchant for writing letters to the editor. I recall that in the seventies, when a portion of the Guindy Deer Park was appropriated to build a memorial, Krishnan protested through a letter in The Hindu. There are quite a few pieces in this compilation relating to ancient Tamil literature and lore, like the one on the Anril bird, said to pair for life. Guha says that he exercised his privilege as an editor and changed the titles of some of the chapters. But he decided to retain the despised term ‘Pariah’ as a title of a chapter. Similarly Krishnan’s original reference to the country dog in an article published in 1944 as ‘pariah dog’ has been retained.   Trained as a botanist by P.P. Fyson, his professor at the Presidency College, Madras, Krishnan travelled with him on his field trips. The professor’s wife Dorothy Fyson taught him to draw. Krishnan illustrated many of his articles with his line drawings. This book carries ...

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