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Subhadra Sen Gupta

By Karthika Nair . Illustrations by Joelle Jolivet
Young Zubaan, New Delhi, 2014, pp. 52, Rs. 395.00


It’s a very eye catching cover—a purple and gold tiger with a huge lolling, shocking pink tongue springing out of a forest. Then the blurb on the back cover tells you it is a story set in the mangroves of the Sundarbans and you know you are in for a treat. Karthika Nair has set the story of her picture book in a very unusual location—the ‘beautiful forest’ of the Sundarbans that stretches across West Bengal and Bangladesh and is the largest river delta and mangrove in the world. It is 26,000 kilometres in area and now a World Heritage Site and part of Project Tiger. It is a pitiless land of snakes, crocodiles and ferocious wild cats and the most ferocious of all is the Royal Bengal Tigers that are often man eaters in this region. It is also a beguilingly picturesque landscape where flocks of snow white herons nest among the golpata palm trees, kingfishers shimmer in their turquoise hues as they dive into the water and herds of chital deer with their white spotted brown bodies stand hidden in the undergrowth and turn their dark liquid eyes towards you. Children growing up reading Bengali literature are familiar with the mesmeric power of the Sundarbans and Amitabh Ghosh captured it in unforgettable prose in his novel The Hungry Tide. Nair tells the story of a little village boy named Shonu whose father is a honey hunter and in the Sundarbans collecting honey is a very hazardous profession because of the danger of tiger attacks. She captures beautifully the difficult lives of the villagers as they build their fragile thatched huts on a char, a temporary island that springs up in the rivers. However the chars can vanish just as quickly as they appear and there is the danger of cyclones that blow away everything and they have to float away in their ‘long, rice grain shaped’ boats in search of a new home. Shonu loves honey but they are too poor to keep any of it for themselves. All he gets to do is lick the ladle with which his father pours the honey into the jars. What is remarkable is how Nair captures the quiet desperation of their lives without sounding either condescending or too tragic. Also life is not all about deprivation and there are moments of free flowing joy, ‘But Shonu was happy ...

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