The brief for this column is to write about interesting characters from any book, which is currently in circulation. However, since The Crow Chronicles, a delightful tale about birds centred on a megalomaniacal crow, which I read recently and absolutely loved, is unfortunately out of print, I decided to do a broad sweep of the wonderfully quirky characters that author Ranjit Lal populates his books with.
A bit about Lal first. Over a career stretching into decades, the author has penned more than 30 books both for adults and children. He is also an avid birdwatcher and naturalist. The Kolkata-born author, who lives in New Delhi, does not just write funny stories but introduces topics like dementia, child sexual abuse and female infanticide among others in his characteristic lucid and humorous style.
In his first book, The Crow Chronicles (1996), Lal situates the story in the Bharatpur bird sanctuary, one of the best birding places in India. He goes all out to bring to life the rise to power of the devious white crow Khatarnak Kala Kaloota Kawa Kaw Kaw. Yes, that is his name!
Khatarnak, a mafia don from Bombay schemes a coup and unseats the corrupt government led by Prime Minister Pinki Stink Stork, his Chief of Security the tomcat, Chakumar Billa and Intelligence Chief, Budhboo Bundicoot. The dictator Khatarnak rules over the Keoladeo National Park with the help of his crack team of ‘crownie’ (crow) commandoes.
Badshah, the tawny eagle and the head of the state is reduced to a ridiculous comical position, till a select group of resistance fighters led by Achanak, the shikra, launch a deadly counter battle ‘Operation Izzat ka Faluda’ to reclaim their park. Titri, the red-wattled lapwing, tailorbird Putki, Gughuji, the owl, Dr Thappad Maro Saala, the evil jailor, Ghulabi Nakooni, the dictator’s mistress…. the author’s imaginative prowess is brought to fruition in his brilliant character sketches of each bird species.
Lal keeps up with the quirky names in his next book too, Life and Times of Altu Faltu (2001), an anthropomorphic novel about the national capital’s population of rhesus monkeys. Rani-beti, the simian daughter of Chaudhury Charbi Rai Sahib, scion of the Flagstaff Tower Macaques defies her fiancé, the fearsome self-styled nawab Bade Badtameez and elopes with “the two-bit awara” Altu Faltu who smokes bidi butts and drinks stolen bottles of cough linctus.
Lal extends further into the animal world with The Tigers of Taboo Valley, which brings forth environmental issues to the forefront in a simple manner. Rana Shaan-Bahadur, alpha male tiger of Sher-kila National Park is photographed by a wildlife photographer whose pictures make the tiger a celebrity around the world. Fame goes to his head and the tiger belittles others and becomes self-centred and narcissistic. He is nonchalant about his four cubs — Hasti, Masti, Phasti and Zafraan until their brother, the beauteous Raat ki-Raani is killed by a poacher.
To escape the ignominy of a single parent and the taunts of other tigers, Bahadur escapes with his cubs into the dreaded Taboo Valley. Here he has to deal with multiple threats while raising his children. There is Khoon-Pyaasa, the poacher, there are the rival tigers who are competing to get Shaan’s spot of alpha male and the risk of attack by Askaa-Al-eekh-Kabab Atankvad Aandolan, an underground group of porcupine terrorists who have sworn to exterminate all tigers. Honour killing, terrorist threats, poaching and single parenting are the issues Lal attempts to deal with in this book.
In Our Nana was a Nutcase (2015), Lal looks at how children cope with their grandparents succumbing to Alzheimer’s and dementia. Teenagers Avantika and Niharika, nicknamed as General Gosling and Major Duckling together with their twin younger siblings Dingaling and Dumpling, are brought up their grandfather, the crazy Nana and his beloved, the lovely (Shabnam) Shabby Aunty, who has to deal with her druggie son, Raksha, also known as the Rakshas.
Nana, an ex-Army surgeon has a fondness for classic cars and runs his house with the help of Gurkha batmen he has christened the Chakrams and their wives, the twins, Neerabai and Meerabai, whom the children call the ‘Tragic Neerameerabais’.
In another book Faces in the Water (2010), Lal deals with the complex issue of female infanticide. This too is a book written for children and has won an award.