Stranger things: Review of ‘From Makaras to Manticores’ by C.G. Salamander

Quirkily illustrated fantastic creatures ranging from the creepy to the cute populate this charming little book.

Published : Jul 27, 2023 11:00 IST - 4 MINS READ

Any adventure story gains an extra edge if the object of quest is a mythical beast—which guarantees that the tale will involve some time travel apart from deep dives into the pool of imagination. C.G. Salamander’s lively little book, From Makaras to Manticores, has adventure, time travel, legends and lores along with quirky illustrations, photo collages, and the occasional decorated margin. It is presented as the lost journal of Thomas Iravathur, a cataloguer of mythical beasts, who shares with the author a love of old bookstores, mythical beasts, and hitchhikes. Salamander reportedly found the journal “in a moth-eaten pile of miscellaneous literature outside the Moore Market in Chennai” and published it after repeated failed attempts to return it to the address mentioned.

From Makaras to Manticores: Around India in 100 Mythical Creatures
By C.G. Salamander (author) and Sheena Deviah (illustrator)
Hachette India
Pages: 272
Price: Rs.699

Salamander thus distances himself from his alter ego: the device of nested narratives, each placing the author at one remove from the stories being told, is a standard ploy used in fantastic tales. Thomas travels the length and breadth of India looking for monsters described in folklore, legends, epics, or by travellers and fabulists from foreign lands. The latter, ranging from the Greek Herodotus to the Englishman (probably fictive) Sir John Mandeville, left behind highly embellished accounts of India, which they fancied to be full of bizarre creatures, bloodthirsty savages, and unimagined wealth. Homegrown myths and legends also frequently describe powerful composite creatures, like the animal avatars of Vishnu or the talking vulture Jatayu.

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Mythical beasts are evidently a fertile ground for research. On their trail, Thomas undertakes arduous journeys from Tamil Nadu to Himachal Pradesh, from Indore to Kolkata, from rural West Bengal to the north-east, although he has slim chances of ever meeting any of them.

Cover of From Makaras to Manticores

Cover of From Makaras to Manticores | Photo Credit: By special arrangement

Too contrived

Some of the incredible beasts Thomas talks of—such as the griffin, chataka, chakora, varaha, the one-legged monopods—would be familiar from readings of mythology and ancient travellers’ accounts. Others, most of them drawn from local lores—like the astomoi, timingila, muhnochwa, pheichham—are less known and, so, interesting to learn about. What are as charming are Thomas’ thoughts on the myths as he mulls over them—such as, how do you fold a donkey into an urn for burial; do beasts stick to localities they have sprung from or do they travel all over; what can possibly drive us to eat a creature with multiple eyes, two faces, a trunk and talons, and so on.

Besides perking up the narrative with humour, these questions also create the impression of a naive Thomas learning about human nature as he goes after inhuman creatures. And thus he almost becomes a character himself—a storyteller and participant in the stories he narrates.

“What are as charming as the lores are Thomas’ thoughts on the myths as he mulls over them—such as, how do you fold a donkey into an urn for burial.”

Salamander undoes all this good work in the second half, when Thomas is called to Kolkata by a boy collector of supernatural creatures. The events that follow are so contrived that they are embarrassing. Thomas sounds idiotic here: for instance, when he slowly starts suspecting that witch-hunting may actually be a form of gender violence you wonder whether he, rather than the creatures he is after, has lived in a cave all along.

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My only cavil with this book, described as a work of “creative non-fiction”, is that it is not creative enough. Salamander does not let his imagination soar—it is as if he is constrained by the factual details of the pre-existing stories he is retelling. The device of a serendipitously found journal recording travels to lands of strange beasts has been used superbly by Satyajit Ray in his Professor Shonku novels and, before him, by his father, Sukumar Ray, in the exceptional Heshoram Hushiyarer Diary (The Diary of Heshoram Hushiyar), which, besides being a laugh riot with droll caricatures, is also a spoof on scientific expeditions. Those books are quite unputdownable.

Sheena Deviah’s spiffy illustrations plug the gaps in Salamander’s narrative: combining caricature with realistic sketches, they are witty, idiosyncratic, and engaging. They activate your imagination, which the text sometimes fails to do.

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