Jai Arjun Singh: The Best Indian Children’s Book of the Year

We asked some people who we know read a lot of Indian children’s and YA books to tell us about one (or more) really impressive book they read this year. We will be posting their replies over the rest of the month.

Jai Arjun Singh is a writer, blogger and critic.

Jai Arjun Singh

The Honey Hunter by Karthika Nair and Joëlle Jolivet (Young Zubaan)

This gorgeous book is about a little boy named Shonu, who loves honey and ventures deep into the Sunderbans to get it; in so doing, he revives an ancient power struggle between a demon king in tiger guise (Dakkhin Rai) and a benevolent Goddess (Bonbibi), both of whom ultimately have the forest’s best interests at heart.

I first “read” this book in its French edition Le Tigre de Miel, which means I couldn’t follow the details of the story at the time – I focused on Joëlle Jolivet’s enthralling illustrations. It was only later that I read Karthika Nair’s prose, with its striking imagery: in the descriptions of “colours flashing, changing, disappearing” as Shonu experiences the many moods of the forest; or in the kingfishers that resemble a moving piece of sky, the chatter of cormorants and egrets, the rustle of terrapin and pythons, and most stirringly, “the music of the bees: the hum of gazillions of bees hard at work”.

By experiencing images and text in conjunction, I could see how perfectly the gentle narrative – full of mystery and awe, but also a clear-sighted ecological sense – was complemented by the artwork, which makes the people and animals and birds and flora (not to mention the Gods!) one of a piece, forever bound to each other. Though The Honey Hunter works wonderfully at the level of a story for children and adults to immerse themselves in, it has other resonances, being a constant reminder of the interconnectedness and fragility of nature. I thought about it again the other day when I read a newspaper report about a large oil spill that was threatening the Sunderbans. Because I had recently read this book, the report seemed a lot more urgent, much closer to home, much more something that directly concerned ME, sitting safely in my Delhi house a thousand miles away…and that’s one of the many things good literature can do.

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