Riti Prasad Reviews the Good Old “Panchatantra”
Composed in Sanskrit in around 300 CE, the Panchatantra is one of the oldest collections of fables in the world. Devised for the purposes of teaching the three dull-witted sons of a king, it conveys the principles of kingship, the codes of good conduct and some essential life lessons.
This complete and vibrant translation brings to you the full breadth of the ancient work. While each story unravels into several more, a motley group of creatures amuse and enlighten in crisp rhymes and delightful prose. Relive the joy of this enduring classic that illuminates the wise, pithy and unexpectedly witty tales like never before.
About the Book
Divided into five sections by the lessons and moral the stories impart, the book has more than 65 tales, several with sub-tales of their own.
The sections are-
Falling out of friends
The story of the lion and rabbit still does not fail to put fear in my heart for the poor animals. I was a softy and I recall I spent several nights quizzing my mom on what could the animals have done to escape their fate. Today, I try to inject rationality when I narrate to my children, who are insulated by several programs in National Geographic which tell us again and again that each creature has a right to hunt for their food. The Story of the iron scales and the merchant is my favourite in this section perhaps because it validates my favourite adage- never argue with a fool or in this case, never be friendly with a fool.
The Gaining of Friends
The mouse and the merchant is my favourite story which clearly focuses on survival spirit. I remember my very colourful and attractive comic with this lead story.
Of crows and owls
The talking Cave is my clear favourite here.
The loss of gains
The Story of the Man with the Wheel on the head is the most relevant in my life on how we transfer our woes to others- or rather how misery needs company!
The last sections are about the Panchtantra translations, reference to other fable collections, and a detailed glossary of words which add to the delight of the book.
Nilanjana Roy’s introduction is profound. She says that it’s always possible that I had heard (the stories) before, perhaps seen paintings…. but forgotten that I had heard or seen these very old stories. That must be why I felt I knew them. She also explores the possibility that these stories are alive, old and thereby powerful. Her words set me thinking across similar lines. Each story, as I read through, reminded me of a tale I had read a long time ago, when I was a child. It reminded me of the time I might have narrated them to my children or bought them as individual stories.
I might have pushed them to see the stories animated on television, thereby making the characters alive and vivid. and the story colourful, just like the comics. I might have, I certainly have, gifted several to other children and therefore most of the stories, or rather all the stories are known.
However, as one delves into it again, just as I did, as an adult narrating to the children, I find myself reading into the motivations of the characters and their traits.
Vishnu Sharma never boxed them into slots. He gave each animal a major trait but also brought out the softer side of the same animal, painting them in complex hues, surprising the listener and making them second guess the depth of the evil or goodness in the character. For example, in the story of the meddlesome monkey, the monkey is a fool and falls into trouble whereas in the story of the monkey and the crocodile, the monkey is clever and escapes ghastly death at the hands of the crocodile.
In this world, animals talk, show human traits and impart morality lessons which are far from boring and jaded. There are tales of cleverness and wit teaching the listener survival skills.
Vishnu Sharma did not shy away from violence, death and punishment. Those were simpler days, when lessons were taught without making them child friendly or without censoring them in any manner.
Some of the stories, as Rohini rightly points out tend to be male dominant, misogynist, dare I venture but they have to be taken in the spirit of the times. Feminism was perhaps not a strong concept at that time and therefore several of us modern readers may feel alienated by the story. I for my part, have felt dismayed by several books which I had loved in their abridged form in my school curriculum and have realized it is best to hold onto to the memories of the pleasure of reading the books in childhood and not judge them in the current context. In uncomfortable sections, I move on or skip because I know it is difficult to present an ancient work to present day children otherwise.
Each section starts with the lesson which the teacher imparts to the three princes and thereafter he moves on to narrate stories and nested stories depicting how a person in a situation uses stories to come out of the problem or adapt to his problem. In the same manner as how, we learn from past successes and failures and use them as models to solve our problems.
A lovely collection of stories, reminded me of my childhood and comics, A true revival for the next generation children. Easy to read and narrate to kids.
Loved the illustration and the cover colour.
I would peg it at age 10 plus however good to narrate across age groups
Author- Vishnu Sharma
Translator- Rohini Chowdhury
Price- Rs 299
Publisher- Puffin, Penguin
Riti Prasad is the author of Double Trouble, Double Fun!: A Supermom’s Guide to Raising Twins, Wicked Temptations and Mathematics Fun, Fact and Fiction. She works in the Fragrance Industry as Creation Head.
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