The Crow Chronicles (Ranjit Lal) – Review

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Title: The Crow Chronicles
Author: Ranjit Lal
Publicatons: Penguin Publications
Year of publication: 1996
Type: Paperback

Colonisation, one expects is over in most nations. The bitter fact is that colonization has meant only independence at a political level and what has emerged today instead of being a liberated nation, is a country besot with tyranny. Literary theories such as postcolonialism refer to this as neocolonialism. Neocolonialism does not involve direct political control; nevertheless, it involves certain amount of dominance and hegemony. Most countries that have emerged out of the colonial paradigm suffer from this aspect. A work that satirizes and reveals the truth about such a neocolonial mentality is the wonderful fictional work by  Ranjit Lal entitled, The Crow Chronicles.

Ranjit Lal, himself a bird watcher and bird lover uses the common crow to very subtly point to the power politics that is indulged in many nations. In a way, the novel sounds as a metaphor for the Indian life. The use of the megalomaniacal white crow, Shri Katarnak Kala Kaloota Kawa Kaw-Kaw is a symbol of how corruption, manipulation and cunningness are part of the political psyche. The use of white is also effective explaining the slave mentality of Indians towards the fair skin. Kala Kaloota born in  Bombay now known as Mumbai moves into the Keoladeo National Park to take over and enjoy the monopolistic rule of the park by the crows. In this sense, the novel highlights the fact of how minorities are trampled upon by a majority force. The novel is a political satire like Orwell’s Animal Farm foregrounding the break-down of the official government system. If Animal Farm was a statement against communism and totalitarian government then The Crow Chronicles is a statement against monarchy. The novel depicts how monarchy too, in the wrong hands could lead to curtailment of individual freedom as well as community freedom.

The novel is structured into four parts with overall 37 chapters. (Part 1: 4 chapters; Part 2: 7 chapters; Part 3: 10 chapters and Part 4: 15chapters). Part one is a sort of introductory, opening up the scenario at the Keoladeo park, as well as placing the various characters such as Achanak, Doodhraj Tandoori Totaji, the weak prime minister, Pinky Stink Tainted Storkji and the Royal Highness Badshah, within the territories of the park. . This section also places us the readers in the midst of the festival of Birds and the beauty of the birds. Part II is set in Mumbai where we are introduced to the birth of the Kala Kaloota and the various tyrannies of the bird. It is immensely amusing to read the way the crow builds up an army using psychological tactics: “Within days the group had been completely shattered psychologically. They were reduced to a shaking mass of feathers who could do nothing without Kaw’s permission…They obeyed him blindly” (Pg 70).
Kaw thus built up an empire in Mumbai by killing his enemy, getting hold of a loyal minister such as Craven Raven and building up an army. He not only taught the army to blindly obey him but also instilled in them, “an insatiable greed for the bright, sparkling jewels that had so bewitched himself”. The crows were brainwashed by then, to such an extent,  that they appeared as clones of Kaw. One of his action plans involved plundering a party at Willingdon Sports Club, located at Mahalaxmi. During all his endeavors, Kaw also is noticed by ornithologists at the Bombay Natural Society and as a result is hunted by the club members as a priceless catch. Kaw has to struggle to get away from their clutches and due to this precarious life in Mumbai, Kaw moves to Keoladeo.

Part III opens at Keoladeo and part III to end of part IV is the description of how Kaw takes over Keoladeo. At the same time, Kaw also gets married to Kumari Surmasundari Kalibundi. This is once again a wonderful bit of writing, pointing out how the scenario of arranged marriages works and hinting at the fact that love may not even be envisioned in such relationships. As a result, Surmasundari is trapped in a loveless marriage and her pedigree value is only for the purpose of reproduction of progeny. At the beginning of his entry into Keoladeo, Kaw indulges in making pacts with Budhboo Bundicoot, the chief of intelligence of the Badsha and Prime minister, and Lt. Gen Chakumar Jungli Billi, the feral tomcat and chief of security. Kaw manages to oust the army and take on the park. He also strikes up an illicit relationship with Ms. Gulabhi Nakhone and becomes totally enamoured by her.

Part IV in addition describes the efforts of the band of resistance workers who create a revolution to depose the wicked Kaw. The resistance work is initiated by Aachanak, the hawk and Ghughuji, the owl. They are joined by Phutki, the tailorbird, Titri, the red wattled lapwing, the Koylas, the ‘derring duo’ couple, Phuljari, the white breasted kingfisher. All of them play a great role in the revolution. The remarkable way in which Lal builds up the resistance force of the birds is amazing and beyond description. The novel hilariously uses humanity as baits of different kinds. This book is necessary read for any Indian. The use of names, the way strategies are planned would put any totalitarian government to shame.


Kalpana Rao

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