The Blue Horse: And other amazing animals from Indian history, by Nandita Sengupta, published by Hachette: Book Review

I was so chuffed after reading this book that I got on the phone with the author to tell her just how great the book was, sent her copies to sign, and gifted them to several children. That’s how wonderful these bunch of stories are. And to think they are all based on real-life characters, with names and personalities and loyalties: Akbar’s cheetahs, Alexander’s Molossian mastiff, the Nawab of Junagadh’s Roshanara, Rani Durgavati’s elephant, Shivaji’s Waghya, King Jayakesi’s parrot, a dog called Kali who has a hero stone in his name and, of course, the Blue Horse of the title, Maharana Pratap’s Chetak.

As Nandini says in the introduction, ‘This book is an effort to look at the world from an animal’s point of view’ because most of the time we remember the humans associated with them, but not the animals themselves.

Loyalty Above All

It’s not exhaustive; there are innumerable true stories of the heroism and personality of animals all through the history of the world. In this book, the focus is on some instances from Indian history. Telling it all, as the author says, would be like the Arabian Nights! The stories would never end.

Every story is based on historical fact and deep research. In fact, at the end of each story, the historical context is presented briefly so that anyone who is interested can do further research. Of course, Nandini Sengupta has used her imagination and immense creative talent to enter the minds of the animal characters to present their perspective, something she says she simply loved attempting to do. What we have, then, is an exceptionally engaging book that resonates with passion, humour and affection.

It’s not as though these animals are sweet, meek and mild; no, they are themselves. A horse is horse-like, a hound houndlike. Cheetahs are as cheetahs will be; Rani Durgavati’s elephant is all elephant. The author does not ‘sweetie-pie’ them, not at all. She presents them in their own skins, their own personalities. The only difference is that she helps us ‘look’ past their owners and actually ‘see’ them for who they were and how they lived and what they did. This is a very important aspect of the book because it gives us perspective.

Many of the stories end sadly. That’s because, as Nandini says, ‘legends usually remember heroic animals, and heroism often comes at a great cost. Chetak has become a fabled mount because he died such a noble death. If he had simply grown old and died in his stable, he wouldn’t be the blue horse that bards sing about to this day in Rajasthan’. True. However, we do also have a fun story about the wedding of two dogs, love affair and all! Another interesting aspect to these stories, as is pointed out in the intro, is that some of the stories are backed by memorials that exist in the animals’ names. As for why Alexander’s horse and dog are featured in this collection: well, they died in India. Further, two cities were named after them!

This is a book, these are stories, that anybody and everybody would savor. They inspire the reader to dig out more information, in the process discovering history and heritage and role models and, sometimes, realizing how mindless and miserable it is to engage in battle. Every library needs to stock copies of this book. Every child should be encouraged to read this book. Every story needs to be read aloud.

The Blue Horse: And Other Amazing Animals from Indian History is a part of the Parag Honour List 2022. You can buy it here.

Sandhya Rao is a Chennai-based journalist, children’s writer and editor.

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