‘Beastly Tales’ by Vikram Seth

Book 16 of 45 Days of Book Stories


Title: ‘Beastly Tales from Here & There’’
Author: Vikram Seth (1952- present day)
Date of Publishing: 1992
Publisher: Viking Press, (now owned by Penguin Random House)
Seth successfully transforms these fables into a contemporary 19th-century form. Written in a poetic style, each verse has you smiling at the familiar and the absurd. The book consists of a series of 10 such fables suited for adults and children alike. Each one with a set of characters that are captivating, lovable in some, scary in others, but never ever boring. Each tale is illustrated by the unlikely and talented late Ravi Shankar – yes the musician! If you are wondering where these tales originate from, Seth shares the details with us early on – in the introduction, he tells us that they come from ‘here and there’, “the first two come from India, the next two from China, the next two from Greece, the next two from the Ukraine. The final two came directly to me from the Land of Gup”.So, get ready with your cup of chai and mathi, for these tales are awaiting!

Why This Book?

Only the uninitiated to the verse and rhyme, the humour and delightful wickedness that is Vikram Seth’s prose and poetry – it can only be they, who ask such a question.


Born in Kolkata in 1952, Vikram Seth is one of the most erudite and celebrated scholars of contemporary India. He wears his many accolades and awards  – the Padma Shri (2007), and Commander of the Order of the British Empire (2001), as well as the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman ( 2005) with uncommon humility. Literature and the written word have always completely consumed him. It may surprise you that Seth is an avid and curious learner. His artistic temperament colouring each experience of learning with a fervour and passion to know more. Be it his love for Urdu, Persian and Chinese Calligraphy, his extensive knowledge fo the Hindi literary greats, or his enjoyment in producing art and exploring the various mediums as a sculptor! Vikram Seth is an artiste who began his journey as an Economist.

Seth’s educational journey began by attending the prestigious all boys private boarding school in Dehradun – The Doon School. Often seen as a fertile ground for young minds that go onto shape culture and society within India, Doon provided a plethora of access for Vikram, be it in academia or then the arts.

Our young budding author, when onto read philosophy, politics, and economics at Corpus Christi College, Oxford. Receiving his B.A. with honours in 1975, Seth then went onto receive a master’s degree in economics from Stanford University in the U.S. in 1978. His love for languages can be seen soon after, as Seth leaves for further studies at Nanjing University in China, graduated from there in 1987. In each leg of his travels, and emmersion within various cultures, Seth was gathering tales to weave into lucid tapestries for us to admire and marvel at.

The Beastly Tales is one in many such creations by Seth.

The Creator and His Creations

Every-time I have picked up a Vikram Seth book I know I am going to be taking a detour from my point of reality. In every one of his books that I have read I see a pattern emerging, there seem to be 5 steps to Seth’s creative process. Of course please note these are my suppositions based analysis of the evidence, i.e. the books.

I presume step one is – Inspiration. This could be an art form he loves, such as chamber music in Mappings, or then a time-period and culture as in A Suitable Boy. Seth is looking to what he knows and what he wants to explore.

Dear though the reader might be, I’d be silly to cater to what the reader wanted.

Vikram Seth

Once Seth has these, I imagine he scans through his mental folders of all that he has read and engaged with to come up with a perfect fit for the subject matter. What I mean by this is, for example, for A Suitable Boy Seth finds the perfect structure – that of a realistic turn-of-the-century style novel. Much in the vein of writers such as Tolstoy and Austen, Seth gives us a detailed landscape of the time, their wants, needs and social constrictions. And keeping with the structural tradition of these works being long with the pages running well-over a 1000, Vikram Seth gives us a more than 1400 page tome.

Too many trees are killed to print the words of people who may not have all that much to say, and authors and journalists are equally culpable in this regard.

Vikram Seth

As Seth enters step three of his process ( I imagine) – he fleshes out the themes of his book, his characters, and then marries them to the style he has chosen.

The fact is that at different stages of your life, and under the influence of different inspirations, you write different things. The point is not necessarily to find your voice, which grinds out the same sort of thing again and again, but to find a vehicle for people who are far more important than the author: the characters.

Vikram Seth

Steps 4 and 5 are technical in my analysis, here he spends his time debating whether his work is best suited to prose or poetry, or a bit of both. Once decided, the thoughts, the plots, the characters all just flow. At the end of the endless creative flow, Seth now must pause and look at all that has been brought forth by the “muse”. Unafraid he pours it all out on paper.

Fiction basically is a form of gossip where you want to enter other people’s lives, the lives of people you don’t know, and you want to know what’s going to happen to them.

Vikram Seth

The Beastly Tales perhaps followed this above recipe, perhaps not, but what we get is a delicious dish. As a reader you are tickled pink with his turns of phrases and the smiles he is able to invite from within you. they seem to want to dance with the words on the page. Each and every tale is a pleasure to visit and re-visit. This book is so rare in the magic it weaves in your heart. Young or old, this book enraptures you, leaving a musical note in your heart and on your tongue!

A Small Rhyme, that Shall Help you Decide

“As each page you turn,
Awaits a tale none can spurn,
For the Frog, monkey and flea,
There is only Vikram’s lyrical plea!
So, come one – come all,
Some great and some small,
Let’s unravel the beastly tales,
Lest your copy goes-up for sale…”

Divvya Nirula

Thank you for joining me on this journey of reviewing and sharing these books from my personal library. In the words of Vikram Seth,

Poetry, I think, intensifies the reader’s experience. If it’s a humorous facet of the story, poetry makes it more exuberant. If it’s a sad facet, poetry can make it more poignant.

Vikram Seth