Facebook Twitter insta


Volume 15

Fables and Folklore - Fall 2015


Written by
Suniti Namjoshi

Suniti Namjoshi lives in the southwest of England. Her most recent books for adults are The Fabulous Feminist (Zubaan, 2012) and Suki (Penguin and Zubaan, 2013). Her children’s books include the Aditi series and Blue and Other Stories (Chennai: Tulika , 2012) for which Nilima Sheikh did the art work. The Boy and Dragon Stories will be published later this year by Tulika.


Read more by this writer
Read more from this section

Audio: Unreal Animals



Because birds and beasts abound in my poems and fables, I’m often asked ‘Why do beasts inhabit your mind?’ And I reply lamely, ‘That’s just the way my mind works.”

But here, by looking at some of my poems and fables, I’ll see if I can come up with a better answer.


In Feminist Fables which was first published in 1981 the animals multiplied and flourished. I realized that there was something about animal images that made my brain flare. And I also realized that this was true in some degree of everyone.  Many of the creatures in my fables come straight out of Aesop or Greek myth or fairy tales. For example, here is the lion being caught in a net.


The Mouse and the Lion

One day a lion caught a mouse. ‘Spare me,’ said the mouse, ‘I am so little and you are so big; but, who knows, perhaps some day I will be able to do you a favour.’ The lion thought this funny and let the mouse go. But a few days later the very same lion was caught in a net. After a while the mouse came along. ‘Help,’ called the lion, ‘Help, little mouse. Chew through these ropes. Remember, after all, that you owe me a favour.’ The mouse started chewing and then suddenly stopped. ‘Why have you stopped?’ roared the lion. ‘Well, I just thought of something,’ said the little mouse, ‘You see, I think I have already done you a favour.’ ‘You haven’t,’ roared the lion. ‘Yes, I have,’ said the mouse. ‘What?’ roared the lion. ‘Well, you see,’ said the mouse, ‘I haven’t killed you.’

The Fabulous Feminist (Zubaan, 2012) p 28


The mouse and the lion have come out of a fable and have entered into a different fable. No forest or jungle ever contained them. And, of course, I’m really talking about people and their notions of justice. But then why the allegory? Why talk about animals? Why not talk about people if that’s what I’m concerned with? Writers are different, but I think a case can be made for allegory. In a fable readers are lulled into thinking that they are just listening to a story and it’s the startling realization that the story is about them that is, I think, effective.

There’s also the animal imagery that refers to ‘real’ animals as opposed to fabulous or literary animals. From the Bedside Book of Nightmares (1984), contains a poem about fur seals as shown on television. In a way the poem is about seals, but there are human implications in this poem as well.


The Fur Seals as Shown on Television

A female of the species has strayed
             too far. Beachmaster bellows
and staggers after her.
                                         Rolls of fat
move oilily. I would like
                                         to laugh.
but l hold my breath
            and wait for what follows.
Can`t the female run?
                          Perhaps the female
does not wish to run?
                          The announcer says,
“The male of the species
                          is four times as large,
but females are seldom,
                                       if ever, hurt.”
Beachmaster hits her.
                                       It`s a blow
to the head.
                          (She has such a sleek
and beautiful head.)
                                        She goes down.
With a casual flipper
                          he stows her underarm
and hauls her away.
                          The rest is not shown.
Another long shot,
                          another beachmaster:
this ones beach
                          is covered with water.
“But nothing deters him.”
                          Proof is offered.
He grabs a female.
                           Theres a noisy scuffle.
and a sleek head
                              forced underwater.
The TV announcer
                                is very excited.
l feel bruised, My head
                                          The Fabulous Feminist (Zubaan, 2012) p 47


The TV presenter and I are not looking at the seals dispassionately. He is identifying with the Beachmaster, I with the female seals. Is it possible to be dispassionate in our attitudes to fellow living creatures?

And human beings are also our fellow living creatures. What happens there? I’m not sure Bhadravati in The Conversations of Cow belongs with the unreal animals. Yes, she’s a cow, but sometimes she’s a woman and sometimes she’s just who she is perceived to be. She talks. But then so do many of the animals who inhabit books. The difference is that she is also a woman, and though women may have been silenced for many centuries, women can and do talk.  ‘Animal imagery’ is a commonplace term, but ‘woman imagery’ isn’t. We make images of women (and men) of course, but there’s a difference. We know that individual women and men aren’t there just for our taking. It is not their function to be exploited. But I fear that our attitude towards animals – the non-human ones – is cheerfully and unthinkingly exploitative.

All this began to trouble me as I was writing  The Blue Donkey Fables,  and though the Blue Donkey herself walked straight out of Chagall, there’s a poem in the book which asks about the difference between the unreal animals and real ones.


Poem Against Poets

I fall upon the thorns of life,
                        I weep, I bleed,
but to what purpose?
                        There was once a poet
who thought she was a nightingale,
                                      and another
who thought she was a rose —
                        charming perhaps,
able certainly, having found at least
                           a way to cope.
Would the nightingale’s entrails
                        have been more powerful
(as emblematic objects)
                                      laid out on the floor
of a room that you came to, and then
                                      withdrew from,
startled and amazed?
                           Oh the rose is bloodless,
she is white with pain;
                                         and Philomel wails
in the woods again.
                          But there are the other
more ordinary animals.
             They are not literary.
                                      They own their pain.
                                                      The Blue Donkey Fables p 22


I am not suggesting that we legislate against using animal imagery. I would have to censor a large chunk of my own work. But I do question the notion that animals are ‘dumb’ just because they don’t speak English. Even when their situation is clearly eloquent, we choose to ignore it. And though I’m not an activist, I think that our deafness is both sad and culpable. Living creatures are highly expressive and even when they seem not to be saying anything, their body language is shrieking at the universe. To consider the truth of this all you have to do is watch people on a train or a bus, or seagulls on a beach.


Here’s a relatively recent poem about birds, in which I just try to write about what I see.


           ‘Look, but don’t touch.
           And don’t look too long.’
I try to observe the sheen of each feather,
wish I could paint, buy a camera,
                                                 and recall
that the great man himself used to wire them up.
I understand.
                       I must keep my distance.
One day they leave.
          ‘They have flown heavenwards!
                        To join their cousins!
                                    Birds are angels!’
I know, of course, I’ve got it wrong.
                                           Birds eat snails,
mate as lavishly as any emperor.
                                       And sooner or later
they abandon their young.
               But the flight of the albatross,
the courtship of cranes –
                                    I wish my own life
were a tenth as surreal.
                              The birds look askance.
their eyes glassy
                     like the eyes of toy birds.


I might wish to be connected to the birds, but we humans may have left it too long and the rest of creation is alienated already.  The day may come when ordinary animals will glitter in the pages of books (or on electronic media) as brightly as any fabled creature, and poets will continue to refer to them because they will continue to exist – but only as poetically charged words.

We admire the birds and beasts and even the fish and the insects. We want to be like them, we want to partake of their swiftness, their courage, their beauty. In short we want to establish a connection with them. That is at least in part at the root of all the poems about metamorphosis (Ovid) and the poems of identification (with skylarks and nightingales and such) and the children’s stories abounding in creatures.


I think it’s our awareness – at least at a subliminal level whatever our cultural background -that we are connected to the birds and beasts that makes us unable to leave them alone. And perhaps what is so potent about animal imagery is that it allows an imaging of ourselves that no one and nothing else can offer. But we have failed them, and cannot hear their speech because we have chosen not to.

(Copyrights to writings cited in the transcript and podcast belong to Suniti Namjoshi. All Photos by Suniti Namjoshi.)




 More in this Issue: « Previous Article       Next Article »

Desi Writers Lounge Back To Top