John Jackson's Tales for Great Grandchildren I was blown away. It’s rare to come across a children’s book with the production values of a bygone era – John’s book is such a one. I'm not the only one who likes the stories either. Jamila Gavin calls them "immaculate; timeless tales…that children will pore over time and time again." and she's quite right. The attention to detail is no less than marvellous – beautiful design throughout (including endpapers and exquisite chapter openers) – with original pictures by Daniela Jaglenka Terrazzini which have a touch of both Arthur Rackham and Anthony Browne. The stories themselves are told with a light touch and a fine sprinkle of wit, and I particularly liked The Magic Goat. As a reteller myself, I know how a quality book of myths should feel. This one ticks all the boxes, and (for me) has the added plus of introducing me to some wonderful new stories from Nepal and northern India. For those of you with an iPad, it's also available as an app, and I've had great pleasure looking at the animated pictures on that too.
I'd never heard of Chhepu before, and I'm willing to bet most of you haven't either. I'm therefore delighted to hand you over to John, who will tell you all about this delightful creature.
C for Chhepu
Guardian Against Evil
JJ: I encountered Chhepu whilst I was rummaging through the myths and legends of the Nepalis.
I arrived in Kathmandu at the end of the monsoon season, October 1978. At that time the Nepalese government had made it possible for the first time to trek around the Annapurna Himal, a section of the Himalayas in north central Nepal and one of the eight highest peaks in the world. I’d always wanted to go somewhere where Europeans had not been and I knew there would be people there, particularly children, who would be seeing Europeans for the first time.
Mike Cheney, a former Captain in the 10th Gurkha Rifles, who was now living in Kathmandu helped me prepare for my journey which would take four weeks and cover about 300 miles or 483 kilometres. Mike entertained me with little snips and scraps of Nepalese stories, including one about a particularly interesting character, that would feature in the first of my Tales for Great Grandchildren.
Chhepu is the central character in a legend about the creation of the valley in which the ancient city of Kathmandu stands. In that legend, one of a number that can be traced back to the 4th or 5th century AD, Chhepu lived first in the muddy bottom of the lake which filled the valley. And then, when the lake had emptied through a gap made in the surrounding hills by an inquisitive giant, deep under the valley’s floor.
I suspected that a boulder I observed, rounded by wind and rain and shaped like a head, which lay half buried in the earth near a temple in the oldest part of Kathmandu was all that remained of a statue erected long ago in Chhepu’s honour. Considered one of the bravest and most truthful of all creatures, his image can often be found above the main entrances of temples and shrines as a guardian against all things evil.
Their mother had begged her husband to help her have a son who would be ‘the bravest, the most truthful and endowed with all superiority.’ She was told to wait but being too impatient she looked in the nursery to discover whether he was born or not. She found Chhepu in a premature condition with only his head formed.
So, in the traditional image of Chhepu – a giant head eating nagas (snakes) with only his face, and sometimes his hands, visible – his unformed body is always concealed.
When she was researching him the illustrator of Tales for Great Grandchildren, Daniela Jaglenka Terrazzini, had found this story of Chhepu’s creation. He is seen in his story, for the first time possibly, with a body. Daniela also studied his depiction in traditional paintings before adding her ‘little touch of rhinoceros.’ ‘The rhinoceros is an animal that I find incredibly fascinating in his strange mix of primordial, aggressive and cute at the same time,’ she says.
As envisaged by me, Chhepu was a large, hideous, scaly monster but with a gentle disposition. In all probability, I was influenced by ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ an awareness of the interplay between external beauty and hidden, internal beauty which lies deep in all of us. It is an example of how ‘knowledge’ buried in what Jung called the collective unconscious and what Freud called archaic remnants, both shared by all of us, surfaces and influences human perception and behaviour.
We do not need to be told by our parents that it is fundamentally wrong to tell untruths, however harmless, or even desirable, the consequences may seem to be. We ‘know’ it – instinctively. That is the theme of another one of my stories – The Lie. The same is true of our ‘knowledge’ that right is on the side of the small and courageous holding fast against the large and tyrannical. In my story, Vijaya, the brave little rabbit is David and the elephant is Goliath.
I believe that much of the pleasure gained by readers of such stories, of all ages, flows from the recognition of ‘truths’ that they have ‘known’ for a long time. Jung with his collective unconscious, Freud with his archaic remnants and those faiths which accept the notion of reincarnation, all say in their own way that we are born with an inheritance of ancient knowledge embedded in us. I think my book, Tales for Great Grandchildren, reflects that.
I don’t know yet whether Chhepu is going to appear in another one of my Tales but if he did shamble in I should be very glad to meet him and say ‘Namaskar,’ ‘I bless the divine in you.’ I am very, very fond of him. I feel that he and I started on the journey towards Tales for Great Grandchildren together.
SCC: Thank you so much for visiting, John. That was a really interesting post, and I definitely want to hear more about Chhepu, so I hope he does shamble into your life again.
Next week: John Dougherty spills the beans on C for Clurichaun