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Vikram Seth’s Children’s Books Transcript
One of the most well-known authors to emerge from the happy cultural fusion of East and West is the distinguished Indian novelist and poet Vikram Seth, winner of numerous international literary awards. Author of the critically acclaimed The Golden Gate, A Suitable Boy, and An Equal Music, Seth has translated volumes of Chinese poetry and written travelogues as well. Two of his books have made notable contributions to children’s literature.
Beastly Tales from Here and There, published in 1991, is a collection of animal fables in verse from all over the world. Of the ten tales, two each come from India, China, Greece, the Ukraine and the Seth’s fantasy land of Gup.
Seth says that he started writing these tales on a hot summer afternoon when the stories were “born and reborn.” He hopes, he says, that the reader enjoys them and has a “beastly time.” Sardonic, witty and impish, part of the collection reworks traditional folk tales like “The Crocodile and the Monkey” and “The Tortoise and the Hare.” But in other tales, Seth introduces us to characters like the Tragopan that come directly from the realm of his own imagination. The stories are based upon the age-old theme of good versus evil, with the good, though weak and wily underdogs outwitting their strong and stupid antagonists. Seth’s catchy, poetic style is memorable. For example, in describing the meal that a a goat and a ram have together, her writes: “They ate with pride as if to balance, their total lack of other talents.” Brightly illustrated by the well-known Indian cartoonist Ravi Shankar, this book is an excellent introduction to timeless folk tales in modern dress.
Seth’s other book for children, Arion and the Dolphin, is based upon a libretto he was commissioned to write by the English National Opera in 1994. This was subsequently transformed into a children’s picture book, with dynamic illustrations by Jane Ray. It then morphed again into an animation film which was popular in the Commonwealth. Seth’s reshaping of the Greek legend tells the story of the musician Arion and his friendship with a dolphin, through a tale that includes a musical contest and a journey across the Ionian Sea. The plot, however, refuses to be conventionally bland and cheerful — the dolphin who helps a human ultimately dies in captivity. This serious, closing note turns Seth’s tale into an allegory on the need for environmental protection.
In an era of increasing globalization, Seth’s books, taken together, offer a remarkable way for children in the West to visit their future friends and their cultures in the East — and to find out just how much they have in common.