A few weeks ago, the parents of a ‘Coronnial’ — the unfortunate internet name for babies born during the pandemic — had narrated to me how in late 2021, they had initiated their baby to a patch of grass. A video followed, showing their then one-year-old gingerly getting off from his father’s arm and being apprehensive to set foot on the soft, green blades below him. He was at the local park for the first time. The family had spent most part of 2020 inside their apartment complex, part of a large condominium with strict covid-protocols. This meant it was almost a year before the child could crawl on real earth, or interact with grass growing from it.
For kids born a few years earlier — and their parents too, of course — the lockdown and the various restrictions that have followed have been nothing short of cruel. Not only has the outdoors become mostly out of bounds, the life, learning, and just plain joy that come from experiencing any bits of non-manicured nature have mostly been snatched away from them.
At such a juncture, Akshay Manwani’s The Tiger, The Bear, and the Battle for Mahovann, a novel for children, with evocative black and white illustrations by Devashree Damodare, is a great way to bring some of that back to their lives.
Spanning 280 pages, the book is a fleshed out fable set in a jungle with various clearly demarcated provinces and already in-place peace treaties. The plot itself — despite some editorial redundancies in statements and depictions — is well-crafted. What really makes this a recommended read for children (and adults) in a pandemic though, is that it is a great primer on Indian wildlife.
Manwani uses his plot’s setting in the jungle to introduce readers to the region’s rich and diverse wildlife. For instance, Ustaad the tiger encounters a new kind of monkey, the lion-tailed macaques, when he wanders off into the province of Vellachi after graduating animal school. The region is filled with them, while in his native Mahovann, he was only used to seeing langurs. The descriptions of each type of animal and bird too, by and large slips in seamlessly. Some, like Daaga the fox are introduced through very visual descriptors, making their entries almost cinematic.
Fables for children with animal protagonists are usually moral-driven and become easily tired in their use of tropes. The Tiger, The Bear, and the Battle for Mahovann is driven by moral education too, but what stands out is the patience with which Manwani has given most of the main characters a backstory. This lends a slight shade of complexity to each of their motivations and faults, introducing young readers to the idea that not everything is a black-or-white, right-or-wrong.
This is especially important because in a bid to make their layered stories accessible to young minds, various versions of epics, fables, and other age-old stories for children have at best oversimplified their nuances, or at worst have been made reductive. The Tiger, The Bear, and the Battle for Mahovann understands the intelligence of children and does not talk down to them.
The dilemma of the tiger king Veera, in choosing between what his position demands, over his friend Bhairav the bear warrior; the shortcomings of his good intentioned and soft hearted son and successor, Ustaad; the wisdom and leadership of Sultana, Ustaad’s mate; the bear Taranath's simmering grudge that makes him hurt his long-standing friendships with anger and deception — all of these larger political dynamics and the fact that they mostly stem from primal human emotions, are made believable and accessible.
At the same time, the book isn’t all serious. There are big chunks of warmth and playfulness, with aunts, uncles, and older friends who come together in providing community, love, and fun. Ustaad and Sultana’s cubs for instance, have a porcupine uncle, an elephant aunt, and a pair of hilarious wild asses, a raptor, and a beautiful hornbill who are their parents’ old friends and their guardians. They support and care for the cubs through their childhood as well as through the battles they have to fight when their family is ousted from Mahovann through Taranath’s coup.
The Tiger, The Bear, and the Battle for Mahovann is a special book, perhaps even for Manwani who's written two works of non-fiction before – Sahir Ludhianvi - The People's Poet (2013) and Music, Masti, Modernity: The Cinema of Nasir Husain (2016). One look at Manwani’s Instagram account and it’s clear that he’s channelled his passion for wildlife and this experience as a writer in crafting a story that both parents and children can do with right now.