A Jar of Pickles and a Pinch of Justice by Chitra Soundar, illustrated by Uma Krishnaswamy
My second book in the Prince Veera series, published by Walker Books, are reimagined stories from my childhood folklore.
Growing up in a joint family in South India, without a TV until I was 16, oral stories, comic books and the radio were my vehicles of imagination.
The stories that lodged in my brain, not just for their wit and deviousness but also the brutal justice and fairness, were the Raja Birbal and Tenali Rama stories. As an adult, I did elaborate research on these historic legends to find out why they were cast as the heroes of these trickster tales.
Raja Birbal was a poet, a soldier and a good friend of Emperor Akbar, an open-minded, intellectual Mughal ruler in 16th century India. Even though he was a Hindu, Birbal became the Mughal emperor’s confidante. He was trusted so much that his house was allocated inside the perimeters of the emperor’s palace, where it still stands today in Fatehpur Sikri, outside New Delhi.
Tenali Rama, also a poet, a few decades earlier in the 16th century, was a courtier of the South Indian king Krishna Deva Raya and became a court jester. The court jester lightened the tense moments in the King’s cabinet especially as they planned resistance towards the Mughal emperors. Of course nowadays a potential ruler might also take on the role of a court jester sporting orange hair and bad jokes.
As a child whose life lessons came in folklore form, I devoured these stories and often pondered about their wisdom. As a grown-up many of these stories are still my touchstones for evaluating the right from the wrong.
When my editor at Walker Books invited me to tell stories from India, these were the first stories I went to. I wanted today’s children, wherever they are, to learn the magic of using ingenious pranks to teach lessons in fairness. Hence they became “child-centric” with new characters rather than the stories of two ancient courtiers from the 16th century.
So I created two boys, one the son of a king, Prince Veera, and other the son of a farmer, Suku. Their worlds collide. Their perspectives fuse. The prince gets to understand the ways of the common man and the farmer’s son gets a perspective of how justice can be a difficult job.
Writing about the first title in the series, A Dollop of Ghee and a Pot of Wisdom, Ian Eagleton, a consultant with Just Imagine, says “... an excellent basis for discussion about what is right and wrong and the decisions we must face as we grow up.”
The second book A Jar of Pickles and a Pinch of Justice came out in October, this year, with more stories that table the debate between right and wrong.
I have been telling these stories to other children ever since they left me in-charge of younger cousins during summer holidays. Recently I’ve been telling these stories to children in junior schools. Their outrage at injustice and their passion to defend the fairness is inspiring. They love these stories not just for the “exotic” setting of a make-believe kingdom of Himtuk, but also for the choices Prince Veera and Suku had to make to bring justice. The pranks are a bonus.
While fairness is the central theme of the stories, outwitting the unjust mean villain is half the fun. And of course, I haven’t forgotten to add Indian street food and sweets dripping with ghee, and quintessential Indian village life full of donkeys, elephants, and superstitions.
So if you fancy a time-out from the potential Armageddon, that is the US Presidential elections filled with the debate of right vs. wrong, may I recommend “A Jar of Pickles and a Pinch of Justice”?
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