Review by Lisa Barrow
The London Jungle Book
Bhajju Shyam had never experienced anything like London. Born in a tribal village in central India, the painter had never navigated the bureaucracy of international travel, imagined an underground train or witnessed couples kissing openly on the street. “I went,” he explains in The London Jungle Book, “because someone in an Indian restaurant there had got to know about my work, and invited me over to decorate their walls. An artist goes where there is work.”
Shyam’s combination of memoir, art book and anthropological study is the result of this first trip abroad. Through stylized paintings that incorporate traditional Gond tribal symbols and motifs, and vignettes describing Shyam’s experiences as an artist and a human being in a strange city, the book presents London through genuinely fresh eyes.
Animals abound in these non-literal paintings, in which the goal is never to replicate reality—the Gond people, Shyam says, are interested “only in how things are imagined in the mind.” Big Ben, then, is embodied as a rooster, a symbol of time for the Gond people; the Tube becomes an earthworm, known to rule the underground realm; and swarms of English people emerging to pubs after dark are rendered, delightfully, as bats socializing among the branches of a sacred Mahua tree.
Throughout, humorous observations mesh with the consciousness of having become, almost by accident, a foreigner. The London Jungle Book has the look and feel of a well-made children’s picture book—and most of it could easily make for an interactive read-aloud—but Shyam’s reflections lend an added emotional heft. “When something means the world to you, and absolutely nothing to someone else,” he writes, “that is the gap that only language can fill.”
At the time of his trip, Shyam spoke only Hindi. The London Jungle Book came about a year later when he met Gita Wolf and Sirish Rao, the owners of Tara Books who would write down the oral stories that went with his paintings and translate them into English. A big success for the little publishing house, Shyam’s book has been reissued in celebration of its tenth anniversary with a complete redesign, resulting in a fresher layout and more readable text. Though mostly an improvement, in a passage comparing an airplane to a flying elephant, Shyam remarks, “I have put the trees upside down in the sky, and the clouds below, because flying turned my world upside down.” Pictured are an elephant with wings and a tiny stylized airplane—but no trees or clouds. Since the book’s previous edition included them, it seems strange (or mistaken) that they were left out now.
But of course, that’s a pretty minor quibble. The London Jungle Book is a lovely, eye-opening volume, at once charming and sly, the kind of thing that can reaffirm your faith in humanity after a tiresome day. Set it on your coffee table and see which guests can’t resist flipping through its pages—because those will doubtless prove to the very best, most interesting kind of people.
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