Haunted tales of history reborn
Author Apeksha Rao turns the clock back to the 1500s and gives a contemporary touch to the famous fables of Akbar and Birbal, in her latest book
To reprise a crowd-favourite formula is dangerous territory. Whether it is the beloved high school gang of Riverdale or a garba singer’s 2000s hit of the payal clinking variety, nostalgia brings with it rather intense scrutiny. Which is why Apeksha Rao’s Akbar- Birbal and The Haunted Gurukul was met first by my scepticism.
Disbanding the trope of the adult duo posing (Akbar) and solving challenges (Birbal) — that we all know and love the author explores their childhood to the backdrop of a gurukul. “When I was considering writing something for kids, I was thinking of a boarding school story and while brainstorming, my agent said it would be fun as an Akbar Birbal story.
I thought about it, and it was so improbable that Akbar and Birbal would be together at a gurukul that it made it fun to write. In reality, Birbal was much older than Akbar. So, I had to think of possible situations where they could be together in gurukul and that’s how I delved into history to figure out what could be a possible reason , ” Apeksha recounts.
From the pages of history
And history did serve, even if in slightly grim ways. Kamran Mirza’s attempt to assassinate Akbar for the throne became a fitting plot point for the young prince to need a hiding place, perhaps a gurukul on the banks of the Yamuna? Here, Akbar, canonically, found a ragtag group of friends, featuring some familiar faces from history.
“I wanted to bring together the navratnas in some way, so this is a very cheeky nod to them. It is unlikely that they would have come together as children but you can take those literary liberties,” she adds. And so came about Akbar’s friends Birbal, Man Singh and Abul Fazl. With them, a determined Akbar sets on the journey to unveil the mystery of the ghost that haunts the gurukul’s corridors.
Is it simply a disgruntled spirit draped in white or a larger plot at hand? The story is a fun read, part scary (for children mostly) and part adventure. Apeksha’s writing pulls you in with quick pacing and even a sprinkle of humour. It is reminiscent of the kind of reading you would do during summer vacations and Apeksha concurs.
Where the dynamic between the two protagonists is unlike original tales, it does not take away from the enjoyment of the story (unless you go into it with a certain expectation). Despite the story’s timeline in 1552 and rather unrelatable circumstances, the author showcases a teenage perspective that is still relevant with discussions on fitting in, adjusting to new accommodations, and even worrying about grades (even if it is a study on herbs and botany).
But the story and pacing are not the only standouts, for the illustrations done by Doodlenerve (Shiladitya and Subhadeep) bring alive the text in a comic style. Like Apeksha, the illustrators too were raised on stories of the iconic duo and say that it was only a dream that they would one day get to illustrate such a story.
“It was mostly their characteristics that we kept in mind. For all the characters, there were oneliner descriptions given about how they would look or what their personality is like. For example, Akbar at that age was a curious, but courageous boy. At times he was scared too, but we couldn’t portray him to be that frail since he was the Prince.
So we gave him a characteristic in his stance and looks, that would make him look brave as well as spooked out at times. Similarly, for Birbal, it was all about giving him a wise and thoughtful look, like someone who could think their way out of a situation. We’ve seen many versions of Akbar and Birbal over time, so now we hope people really love and relate to our version of the duo,” they say, adding that the introduction illustrations of Gul Phuppo (Akbar’s aunt) and Humayu were their favourites.
“Our other favourite scenes would be the caravan-travelling scene of Akbar and Phuppo — since it was kind of a long shot showing the camels and the premonition of an upcoming journey; and the spooky story-narrating night between Akbar, Birbal and Man Singh. Our most favourite illustration is the cover itself showcasing the characters in full colour and glory,” they share. This book will have you revisiting beloved characters but with no resentment or complaints fuelled by nostalgia.
Publisher: Puffin Books
Price: Rs 250