by Nikita Gill
When I was a little girl, my favourite place to visit was my grandparents’ house. They lived and still live in Jammu, a region of India up north and close to the Himalayas. Their house was situated next to a canal where the waters ran ice cold in the summer because it came from the mountains. My grandmother’s home had a vast garden and it was full of animals. Dogs, cows, hens, rabbits and sometimes we would get a frightening visit from a snake, or if you were up early enough, you may see a deer grazing on my grandmother’s favourite flowers. And then, there was my grandmother herself, the one who gave me the gift of story.
She knew my love for animals from an early age and that was precisely why the stories she gave me were from the ancient Indian book of fables, the Panchatantra. The Panchatantra is over a thousand years old, and the stories from the book have become a beautiful form of preserved cultural heritage. When my grandmother gave me these stories, she told me that each tale came with a moral that would help me in my life. The feeling of a trusted adult telling you a bedtime story full of magic should be a staple of every child’s life, because if you asked me for my favourite memories, those are the ones I will recall at the drop of a hat.
My grandmother would sit by my bedside and every night she would share a tale. The tale would begin with those four wonderful words that have the capacity to instantly invoke magic “Once upon a time…”
When I asked my grandmother where she got her stories from, she told me these were stories given to her by her grandmother who probably heard them from her mother or grandmother, going back generations. I think that is precisely why I decided to write this book. These are well loved tales that thrive in being shared. Whether it is a story about a cheeky monkey outwitting a crocodile, or a jackal learning the importance of loyalty, there is a universal beauty to these tales that I think would bring joy to any child. In this book is a legacy of friendship and love and kindness that, while feeling modern and very current, actually goes back generations.
The beauty of retelling stories that made your own childhood feel magical is that everyone will forever remember the first time they heard a story that had a deep impact on them as a young person. And most of all, you remember the voice that gave you that story. In the pages of Animal Tales from India, my grandmother’s voice comes through in my words, and I have tried to capture that precise sense of awe she inspired in me.
In a world which carries a lot of anxieties and fears, a story is a powerful thing that can bring comfort and a sense of escape to another land far, far away. Each one of the characters from this book live in such a land and the dreamlike illustrations work like a time travelling device, helping a child escape to that place so they can forget anything that troubles them. I think the best bedtime stories do that. They give you such a sense of security that you feel safe enough to sleep, eyelids finally heavy enough to visit the land of dreams.
When writing this book I was reminded of an anecdote from my own childhood which illustrates the power of story. I had been playing in the summer in my grandmothers garden and was stung on my hand by a bee. I screamed and cried and was inconsolable as I had never been stung by a bee before and I was only five years old. My grandmother and mother tended to the sting and the only thing that worked as a distraction to stop me from crying, was my grandmother saying these words, “Let me tell you a story,” and told me the story of The Monkey and The Crocodile. By the time the story was done, my tears had not only stopped, I had forgotten about the sting till years later my mother reminded me of this memory.
It is a joy then, to have written a book which retells the stories that brought happiness to me and millions of children who came before me, hoping to continue the tradition of giving these tales to future generations who will perhaps share them with their children.
But most importantly, I wrote these stories for every child whose eyes light up when they hear the words, “Let me tell you a story about a land far, far away.”