NYAGRODHA: The Ficus Chronicles, an amazing tale of adventures across India, begins when three children led by Makhmal Khan, the monkey, jump off a train and wander into the glinting world of a forest.
Nyagrodha is inspired by the Panchatantra stories in which Pandit Vishnu Sharma taught the five sons of a king to be good rulers. But those stories don’t have morals relevant to the present era. Kalpana Swaminathan and Ishrat Syed (who write together under the pseudonym Kalpish Ratna) have written those stories in an entirely different way — suitable for modern times.
Kalpana Swaminathan is a surgeon who works in Mumbai. She is also the author of many other books such as Ambrosia for Afters, Bougainvillea House, Cryptic Death and The Page Three Murders as well as several children’s books, including Ordinary Mr Pai and Jaldi and Friends. Ishrat Syed, also a surgeon, seldom writes independently but he has collaborated often with Kalpana Swaminathan.
Nyagrodha reflects the obvious understanding between Syed and Swaminathan. The book starts off with the name itself as the note on the flap explains; Kalpish Ratna is an anagram of their first names, which blends two languages, Persian and Sanskrit, meaning “the pleasures of imagination”.
The story is about three children — Aman, Vicky and Lily — who are facing different problems in their lives. Aman’s parents quarrelled with each other throughout their lives and now they are going through a divorce. Aman will have to live with his uncle and aunt, which will be very difficult for him because of his aunt’s rather rude behaviour.
On the other hand, Vicky has learned about his father’s other financial dealings and he cannot live with the fact that his father is a dishonest person.
As for the the third protagonist Lily, her father is dead. Her widowed mother wants to start a new life and she is taking Lily to Canada with her. But Lily doesn’t want to leave the place where she has spent the most beautiful moments of her life with her father.
These three children run away from their homes to escape their problems and end up in a forest under an ancient Nyagrodha or the Banyan tree which shakes up all kinds of exciting stories. And each of them more or less resolves their problems through their experiences under the weathered branches.
The stories in this volume are treated in a refreshingly different way. The authors have not given “morals” at the end of the stories. The afterword says “We must wait together in the shadows, you and I, till Nyagrodha is ready to shake down its stories again”.
Swaminathan was unhappy with the way the Panchatantra had been translated so far. Every story ended with a moral. It’s like rebuking children and teaching them about right and wrong. They don’t need that. “By not adding morals to the stories, we have left it for readers to think and take out the lessons hidden inside the tales,” says Syed.
The authors have also looked at the characters from a fresh point of view. Neither the original Panchatantra nor any of its translated versions have ever named the characters. Kalpish Ratna’s style of story-telling is different on that front too. They have given each animal a name that best suited its personality.
But the actual magic of the stories lies in what is left untouched by Swaminathan and Syed which they have conjured by the fabulous story-telling tradition of their ancestors. And it is a fact that there are no stories as attractive and fascinating as that of our grandmothers. The sense of immediacy that these stories evoke is something which the authors have tried to keep intact and this is the real charm of these tales.