"Crows seem to take well to Mumbai"
Jerry Pinto's latest book for children, When Crows Are White, is a different take on this integral element in our urban landscape. It talks about their unsung worth in cities like ours and being tolerant in today's world
Why did you decide to write a book about a white crow, and about crows in general?
I wasn’t thinking about crows at all, except in the general sort of way that Mumbaikars look at crows, as noisy nuisances. The crows of Mahim take a fiendish delight in dropping in at the Gopi Tank Market, one of the best fish markets in the city, feasting on the offal and then flying into my balcony to clean their feet on freshly-washed clothes. I knew that crows are intelligent birds, that they might even have a sense of humour. Across the wadi, lived a man who simply hated them. He would lash out at them with his belt but they would constantly fly in to pester him; they’d fly close but never so close as to be hurt. I’d watch this in some alarm, until I realised that the crows were playing with him. It was their version of danger sports. But this wasn’t what started me off. I was looking for a way to talk about tolerance. I was looking for a way to say, “We have to find a way to live together.” I wanted to say it to children but I didn’t want to be waving my finger in their faces and sermonising. So, I hit upon the idea of telling a crow story in which a crow is worried that her baby may be born white. And what will happen then? How will her mother take to that?
Do you believe that Mumbai’s crows might be smarter than those in other metros?
I believe animal intelligence probably improves with the challenges that are set to it. Ours is a huge challenging city and crows seem to take well to it. You’re never very far from a Mumbai crow.
How did you and Garima Gupta work on the illustrations and the imagery for this book?
I took my crow book to two or three publishers. Most of them saw it as a short story though it was clearly written as a script for a graphic novel. Finally Sayoni Basu, who was then at Scholastic, looked past the words, and saw the possibility for the story there. And she got hold of Garima Gupta. I have always trusted my publishers; which means, for me, I have always trusted someone I know at a publishing firm. I knew that Sayoni had got the spirit of the story and she would choose a good illustrator. Then the first roughs came in, over email, and I was ecstatic. Halfway through the project, Sayoni left Scholastic to join ACK Media and my heart sank a little. Only, she was replaced by Anushka Ravishankar who liked the project too and saw what even I had not seen: that there were three layers to the story. She got Garima to produce three different kinds of sketches and we were flying.
After reading about Saawri and the rest, do you think we (and children in particular) will look at crows differently?
I hope so. I hope that they will see how much crows do to clean our city. But I hope that they will think about tolerance and about difference.
Are Indian children readers discovering the joys and delights of talking animal and bird stories?
Indian children have always lived with these stories. In the Jataka Tales, the Buddha takes different animal personae in order to communicate lessons: he is the great king of the monkeys who lets his enemy break his back, he is the king's white elephant, he is a crane, a turtle, even a buffalo though this is rare. All Indian children know two crow stories: the Akbar and Birbal story about the number of crows in Agra, and the thirsty crow. But I find it fascinating that in all the schools I visited, whether state-supported or private or international, no one seemed to have made the connection between Aesop and Archimedes: That the crow was using Archimedes’ principle and so slaking its thirst. And this may tell you something about how education never seems to be able to transcend those little boxes on the timetable sheet. When Crows Are White, Jerry Pinto, Garima Gupta, Scholastic India, R200. Available at leading bookstores.
Jerry Pinto choose some animal tales
I am assuming that most kids will bump into the Aesop’s Fables, the tales of La Fontaine and the Jataka Tales, all of which bear some resemblance to each other.
Here’s my list of other animal stories
1) The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame: This is a magnificent story, full of lazy old England, and a savage attack on modernism as well.
2) Charlotte’s Web by EB White: This one can still make me cry. Some story.
3) Black Beauty by Anna Sewell: A good way to teach children how much labour we expect from the animals we domesticate.
4) Tarka the Otter by Henry Williamson: No anthropomorphism here, just a great story, well researched and well told.
5) The Bafut Beagles by Gerald Durrell: Actually, anything by Gerald Durrell when he’s out collecting animals for Whipsnade or his own zoo.