Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Review of The Broken Tusk, by Uma Krishnaswami

I grew up immersed in the Greek myths. I read many versions of their stories again and again. I knew those Greek tales of gods and heroes like other, more normal, kids knew about sports statistics and athletes. Yes, I was a nerd, but looking back in the cold light of adulthood, isn't obsessing over the deeds of sports figures just as ridiculous and pointless as, say, cataloguing comic book heroes, or detailing the minutiae of Star Wars? (The answer is yes.) Yet one activity is considered healthy and mainstream, while the others are derided and marginalized. Go figure. But I digress.

This is the book that first captivated me, and that I read to a shambles --- it should be available to every child. Ingri and Edgar Parin D'Aulaire tell (and illustrate) the ancient stories in a forthright, easy manner, discreetly and appropriately passing over the more prurient bits without stripping the characters of their all-too-human side. They are not presented as daunting, alien beliefs far removed from modern man, or, worse, stuffy and important "classics." Children don't care about those things. They just want to hear about powerful gods and tricky heroes and fantastic battles. The D'Aulaires presented the Greek myths in just the right way, tempting children to learn more.

I recently came across a slim volume that accomplishes the same task for one of the Hindu pantheon: the divine half of this blog's name, Ganesh. In The Broken Tusk: Stories Of the Hindu God Ganesha (first published in 1996), Uma Krishnaswami retells for children seventeen of Ganesh's deeds. Maniam Selven provides simple, elegant line drawings for some stories, making Ganesh into a cute, chubby little figure.

And why not? Ganesh is revered all over India for his jolly, happy-go-lucky outlook. If there's one single Hindu god that Western children might find appealing at an early age, it's Ganesh, that wise and powerful but kindly and pleasure-loving god. (Well, it sure ain't Kali!) I mean, he's a rotund, elephant-headed god with a sweet tooth and whose divine steed is a mouse, for crying out loud! It's not like he's a bastion of dignity or anything.

Krishnaswami is a superb story-teller, and manages to extract from the often bewildering web of Hindu mythology (with its overlapping story arcs, contradictory details, and an overabundance of avatars) these easily digestible stand-alone morality tales. As in the book of Greek myths that I so loved as a child, the stories here are simple in their presentation, but they're never simplistic in their intention. Children, who know when they're being patronized, are attuned to this style.

I'm a reader of the Indian sagas, and I had not heard half of these tales. Krishnaswami not only retells events from the main epics, she also adapts tales of Ganesh from other lands and religions. All of the stories --- how baby Ganesh got his elephant head, how Ganesh took a sage's dictation and thus put the epic Mahabharata to paper, how Ganesh came to ride a mouse, how Parvati, Ganesh's mother, turned into a cat to teach him a lesson, and more --- are full of the magic and whimsy that children love about myths, but they also affirm ethical lessons applicable to our own lives. Every story is captivating, leaving the reader wanting to know more about this friendly god.

My one minor quibble is the order that the stories are presented. More than likely Krishanswami intends them to be independent tales, not necessarily read from first to last, but they are in the book in a certain order, and I don't understand the reasoning behind the order. The origin of Ganesha’s broken tusk appears after a story in which that tusk plays a central role in Ganesha’s quarrel with the moon. For another example, the origin of his mouse steed Mushika (as a demon Ganeshatamed) appears after Mushika is mentioned several times in other stories. With little effort, a bit of reordering might have made this book even more accessible. Still, that is a minor quibble. I would like to see this elegant, charming book of Indian myth on every child's bookshelf. In these supposedly multi-cultural days of high-tech instant communication with millions from all over the globe, it's never too early to start opening doors onto traditions different than our own. (The irony is that the more we look into different traditions, the more we realize that the same basic quests for an understanding of the forces that guide the universe and of some kind of ethical map are pretty universal.)

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