Tyger Tyger. Tiger in the Tunnel. Project Tiger. Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.
I have read them all. And yet, my favourite remains a children’s book, back from my childhood. “The tiger who came to tea”.
The tiger who comes and rings the bell and is invited by Sophie and her mother for some tea. The tiger though is so hungry that he eats all the sandwiches, drinks all the tea, and finishes everything he can find in the kitchen. Having filled himself, he thanks Sophie and bids her goodbye. The next time the family goes to the supermarket, they get a can of tiger food. But the tiger who came to tea, never comes back.
My earliest memories of stories are my father reading them aloud to me, adding some of his personal twists in the plot. I usually seated myself on the newspaper he was reading, which he had been forced to put down. Settling down on the newspaper prevented any distraction on his part!
When I was old enough to read, he bought us brightly illustrated books published by NBT, with big fonts, both Hindi and English. I wonder if most of my beliefs today were not shaped by those stories.
There was another book about an elephant. Roopa Hathi. A book shaping my concept of beauty like no sermon, and no booker prize winner could.
Roopa Hathi is a story about an elephant who is loved by children who come to the jungle for a visit. He sets them on his back and takes them around, introducing his fellow animal friends. One day, Chichi, the bird finds him crying. Crying so hard that his huge tears have formed a pool around him. He tells her he looked at his reflection in the pond today and realized he is extremely ugly because he is black and splotchy. The good friend Chichi goes around collecting colours from different animals in the jungle- spots from the leopard, green from the parrot, blue from the peacock, yellow from the chinkara and white from the rabbits. She collects these colours in a flask and pours them over her massive friend. Once exquisitely coloured and looking pretty, Roopa stands on the edge of the forest, eager to greet his children with the new look. But alas! When the children come, they refuse to acknowledge him and insist on their very own, black and splotchy Roopa. And thus, realizing that he is best when he is himself, he rushes off to take a dip in the pond and comes back- dark, splotchy and contended.
As I grew, I passed on these books to my sister and other younger kids around me. Somehow, as I went on with Ruskin Bond, Enid Blyton, Hardy Boys, JK Rowling, Ayn Rand and Dickens, my books got lost. The paper bound books and also the stories I had in my head, all memorized. Snippets did come back, in a bedtime story I was narrating to a young one in the family, or during an occasional bout of nostalgia, as we went through family albums.
In a book fair, as I scrounged for cheap appealing books, I found new editions of my childhood favourites neatly piled in a corner. Glossy papers, same stories, same illustrations. Only smelling fresh, right out my memory. I bought them all, naturally. And read and re read them. I decided to be selfish and never pass them on. Like the tiger, I fear, they might never come back.