Monday, January 22, 2007

The Story of Ferdinand - Leaf and Lawson

I just love the serendipity of the book fair – where you never know what treasure you might find. Or might not, for that matter! We found the sweetest little book at the Mumbai International Book Fair last week. We went because the guys who have the oddest books – small-time Kutchhi distributors Amit hobnobbs with - were going to be there. We scoured their throw-away boxes and found lots of little treasures. (The other find there was the Lalit Kala Academy stall with gorgeous folios of miniatures and a few modern artists as well.)

One book we found was a 1938 edition of The Story of Ferdinand written by Munro Leaf and illustrated by Robert Lawson (yes, the same Lawson who wrote and drew Ben and Me - see below). It’s a deceptively simple and sweet story of a gentle, pacifist bull who is dragged into the bull-fighting ring – amidst much fanfare of the Banderilleros (whose job it is to stick long sharp pins on the bull to make him angry) and the Picadores (who do much the same job seated on horses) and last of all, the Matador with his gorgeous cape and sword. They are all terrified of Ferdinand who, as it turns out, only sits in the middle of the ring and sniffs the air which is full of the perfume of the flowers that the women spectators are wearing in their hair. Despite their best attempts, Ferdinand refuses to fight and is finally carted home, leaving behind a weeping Matador (who hasn’t been able to show off his beautiful cape, you see).

The book was variously considered pro-democracy by Hitler, and pro-Communism by Americans. To me, it’s almost fantastically dreamlike – I wish such pacifist protests worked; that states would listen to their people’s desire for peace and livelihood above all… Ferdinand has the most delightfully minimal drawings by Lawson – the pages are almost spare and stark somehow. Totally unlike the fun and exuberance of his work in Ben and Me. It’s different, but I think it's just as gorgeous!

Friday, January 19, 2007

The Tenth Rasa - An anthology of Indian Nonsense...

The Tenth Rasa is finally out! It's a really interesting book, and I'm not saying that only because I'm involved ;) I translated some Marathi and Gujarati literary and folk nonsense for the book. And it was great fun - the translation part of it was immensely satisfying, of course, but even more delightful was the spirit of fun and rigour that the editor Michael Heyman brought to the whole project. What I really loved about the book is the sheer range of material that Mike, Anushka Ravishankar and the others have brought together - there are poems and prose pieces from practically every Indian language, and also bits from Hindi films (Amitabh's monologue from My name is Anthony Gonsalves and his I can talk English, I can walk English... speech from Namak Halal)!

Lots of original poems too, by Anushka and Sampurna and others. But more than anything else, a wonderful bhel puri of the many kinds of nonsensification in India... Go take a look - am sure you'll like it!

Saturday, January 13, 2007


Not been posting for so long because life has this way of swallowing you in big, greedy mouthfuls. Small bits and entrails of your body dangle out of its mouth, desperately finishing chores and tying up strings, till it spits you out in disgust. Who wants to eat food that won’t stop wriggling? What a ghastly image, I’m telling myself, but somehow it’s been that sort of a time!

But there is always a lot to be grateful for – food, clothing, a lovely roof over our heads, and books, of course. Fort Book Distributors came to Chembur again this year, like a cool breeze that brings clouds heavy with rain. Not too many finds this year, and prices were high-ish. But my evenings had meaning again. I could browse and lose myself again…

Two gems came out of it, and of those, only ONE is exciting enough to make me want to post after soooo long! Gem no. 1 is a book called Ben and Me. Amit saw it and put it back, thinking who’s going to pay that much for a dust-jacket-less 114-page book which sounds obscure? Later that night he told me about it and I squealed, sure I’d seen or heard of it somewhere. Next morning, we rushed back and bought it. The owner nodded sagely at fellow-gujju Amit and said, “Tamari choice saras chhe, bhai...

Ben and Me is a small novel on the life on Amos, Benjamin Franklin’s fictitious mouse, and his relationship with the great Ben. Written by Robert Lawson in the voice of Amos, the book gives the mouse full credit for all of Ben’s amazing discoveries and innovations. From the Franklin Stove to electricity to printing to writing the first stirring words of the Declaration of Independence (inspired by something written by another mouse named Red, actually) – it was the mice who came up with everything first, and not the great man.

Amos and Ben get into a bargain. On the morning after Amos has given Ben the idea for what came to be called the Franklin Stove, Amos sees Ben preparing an account of his ‘invention’. When Amos jogs Ben's memory a bit, Ben duly acknowledges his (Amos’s) contribution. Ben, as Amos observes, ‘was always fair, just overenthusiastic about himself’. As Amos tells Ben, ‘…Fame and honors are nothing to me – cheese is.’ He has 25 hungry siblings in a cold vestry to consider, and so in exchange of ‘1 two-ounce piece best quality cheese, 1 one-inch slice fresh rye bread and 88 grains of unhulled wheat, ’ to be delivered twice a week, Amos would give Ben ‘advice, aid, assistance and succor, at all times and under all conditions…’

It’s a really sweet book, but more than anything else, it has the most wonderful illustrations. Though this edition was printed in March 1956, the book was first published in October 1939. Illustrated by the author, the book has stunning black and white drawings. The lines are strong and compelling, and are very funny in a gentle sort of way. Lawson’s draughtsmanship is a sheer joy to behold. Here are a few pics.

We also went to a secret store that we stumbled upon some time ago, and found these treasures:

A French Asterix – Les Domaines de Dieux (Mansions of the Gods). I didn’t get many of the jokes and it took me a week to read, but I still love it and want more! The bottomless hunger of the greedy, is what I have!

Another rare book – a 1973 reprint of the 1951 classic version of R. L. Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses. What makes it a classic? The delightful illustrations by Alice and Martin Provensen.

And, also coming in as a surprise this weekend, was a new Scholastic book, The Moustache Maharishi and other Unlikely Stories. Amit's designed and illustrated the cover for this one!