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Environmentalism Through Kid’s Kathas

Living in the world that all of us do today, it goes without saying that children across the spectrum need to read books that create awareness surrounding the environment and its inhabitants. 

When I think of an Indian publishing house for children, the name that first comes to mind is Katha. What sets Katha’s books apart from others is that it is known for facilitating learning through the power of storytelling. Storytelling is a beautiful way to address some of the most pertinent issues related to the environment and climate change, and the 32-year-old publishing house has time and again called for attention towards our planet through this distinctive approach, in books such as Tigers Forever!, The Mysteries Of Migration, and Polar Bear

Books that Make You Fall in Love with Nature

Sonam’s Ladakh

One of the most effective ways of getting children to care about the environment is to simply help them fall in love with it. Some of Katha’s older books instill a love for nature with their stories and themes. Each of their books has a varied message: In Run Ranga! Run!, one gets to explore the grasslands with the fearless baby rhinoceros who needs a friend; Walk the Rainforest with Niwupah and Walk the Grasslands with Takuri are tours of rainforests and grasslands with a hornbill and an elephant, respectively; On the Tip of a Pin Was… uncovers the science behind wormholes; The Gift of Gold is a mythical story from South African folklore is about a little girl who saves her village from drought. 

Manish Lakhani’s Sonam’s Ladakh tells a story through exquisite photography about a girl belonging to the semi-nomadic Changpa tribe, wandering shepherds in Ladakh. Young Sonam informs readers about animals in the Ladakh region that are her closest friends and “better than boxes of money”. She mentions goats, dogs, her father’s pashmina herds of sheep, and yaks that help grow food and whose wool make their tents. She also points out other animals in the region—the rare Eurasian otters, horses, and Himalayan wolves. The story that is bound to fascinate most children with its sheer novelty and imagery. The books ends with a section that discusses Ladakh’s many glaciers that are gradually melting due to the earth’s global warming, increasing pollution levels and the cutting of trees. The questions posed are aimed at making children think of ways in which all of us in our own way can contribute to caring for the environment.

Keeping it Simple

In a world filled with an overwhelming amount of information on environmental degradation, young children are most likely to gain sensitivity about the situation most through personal experience. Katha’s books have constantly aimed at bringing out simple storylines with characters that relate to most children.

In Who Wants Green Fingers Anyway?, Geeta Dharmarajan explores a mother’s obsession with her potted plants kept in her verandah. When her plants start mysteriously wilting and drooping, her husband researches the subject of how to keep them happy, leading him to attempt re-potting them. What follows is a comical saga, however, the key message has been surreptitiously slipped in—that the roots of plants get tangled up when their pots become too small for them.  

More recently, in The Mystery of the Missing Soap, Tobakachi, the wicked Asura and GermaAsura, along with their Coronavirus Army, make soap disappear in Dakshinapur, one of the happiest villages in the country. By tricking people in this way, they ensure that no one washes their hands, which makes them all very sick. That is until the helpful elephant, Tamasha and the fearless girl, Lachmi, show everyone how to make soap in order to win the battle against the Virus Army. The story, beautifully illustrated by Suddhasattwa Basu and Charbak Dipta, is followed by a simple recipe for making soap at home using reetha berries. By explaining the importance of washing one’s hands in order to prevent coronavirus, the book then dives into Katha’s famous “TADAA” (Think, Ask questions, Discuss, Act, and Take Action for the community) section which details what coronavirus actually is and what one can do to prevent oneself from getting it.

Big Ideas with a Heart

After getting kids to fall in love with nature through simple stories—and hence, getting them to care for the environment—the next step is to focus on concepts that help them think about pressing environmental issues that are affecting the world. Every narrative in Katha’s books is filled with common themes—or what the publisher likes to call ‘big ideas’. For instance, all of Katha’s environment books have recurring themes such as empathy, affection, kindness, collective action, and cues to switch to alternative eco-friendly habits.

Ma Ganga and the Razai Box weaves environmental concerns like pollution, soil erosion, and desertification with mythology. The Magical Raindrop humanizes and gives emotions to Mother Earth, formulating her character in a way that the readers feel she’s a person who feels happiness, sadness, anxiety, and joy just like all of us. Katha’s Thinkbook Series has been designed in a way to introduce young readers to big ideas such as “climate change, gender, and kindness through stories that inspire, aspire, and engage.” 

Educating through Stories

Katha’s founder, Padma Shri Geeta Dharmarajan, is an award-winning writer, editor, and educator. Her published works alone include more than 30 children’s books, many of which are Katha publications. Needless to say, environmental issues are very close to her heart. She is credited for having created Katha’s unique concept of StoryPedagogy, which combines India’s oral traditions and the 2,000-year-old Sanskrit text on the performing arts, Natya Shastra; an idea that she has seamlessly integrated with an earth-friendly curriculum.

While the stories get children to empathize with the characters and their situation—and thus, understand and imbibe an environmental concept—Katha’s final goal is to make children think deeper and take initiatives to act and make a difference. The insightful exercises that appear at the end of each book are created using the SPICE model (Student-centred, Problem-based, Integrated, Community-based, Electives, Systematic) as well as observations, teachers’ feedback, and research among children in the Katha Lab School.

Katha Lab School is a model and a center of creativity for the slum cluster of Govindpuri in New Delhi. Thus, Katha takes the storytelling approach a step further beyond its books too. The Katha Lab School, for instance, uses no traditional textbooks or a one-size-fits-all syllabus. Instead, its system of education is based on StoryPedagogy, a technique that is delivered through Active Story-Based Learning, which helps children to learn language, science, and mathematics, while developing general awareness and critical thinking skills through various stories and activities.

Katha’s StoryPedagogy is the new age of education – one that we can all benefit from adopting.

Neha Kirpal is a freelance writer based in Delhi. She is the author of Wanderlust for the Soul, an e-book collection of short stories based on travel in different parts of the world. 

Tender Renewal of Spring

Spring has a charm, at once joyous and peaceful, almost unparalleled.

Over the last few weekends, gardens everywhere are coming alive with the tender palette of green and the skies put on their best shows of blues, indigo, saffron, and gold.

The birds that peek soon swell, open up in brilliant colors or earthy shades, greeting the sun and the wind, braving the rain, invite the bees and butterflies to dance around, hum and feed, and share. Cheery little hummingbirds join the dance, flitting and fleeting, lapping and tweeting, tiny arcs of sheen and energy, leaving us mesmerized as they find their nectar in the tiniest of flowers! 

Then there’s birdsong, tuneful, rhythmic, full-throated, right from announcing the arrival of dawn, singing for mates or for sheer joy, forming patterns in company, some bringing notes from other lands and seas and humbling with their graceful might!

The scents of the flowers vie with the riots of hues, some sweet, others emphatic, nonetheless unique to each, perhaps to woo the bees and butterflies.

And….. along come the critters that nourish the soil and garden, mostly at work unseen, at times wiggling and poking out of the rich, brown earth and looking surprisingly clean, smooth! Imagine if we’d had a dirt bath… how much of a wash it would take! There are the nifty hiders with legs aplenty, the husky rollers, the shelled footers who are so clever at their feeding, I almost want to leave them on the leaf or stem!

The nourishing clods, and grains, which with the added sun and rain create the magic of food as has churned on and been the source of energy for creatures large and small.

Vellai Pookkal (white flowers)

The freshness is intoxicating, never tiring, year after year. I wish I’d been keeping track of all that we’ve planted, thrived, liked, disliked over ever so many seasons – like the Algerian tangerine that I had the pleasure of going to a lesser-known nursery with our dear friend and children’s music teacher, Jane. I also learnt of the sprightly Peruvian lily from her, the leaves that have an earthy scent and flowers of happy colors.

More recently, our son planting and grafting fruit trees has given yet another purpose to our garden, with great variety and promise.

As the day moves on, the sun mercifully burns the fog, though the crisp mist and slight chill are refreshing to begin with. Soon the rays beat down on me, the jacket needs to be shed and sweat starts to bead up. I often realize only too late I’ve set out with no hat. I’m quite a mess… wind-blown hair, bronze tanning and sweaty trotting back and forth, clearing, planting, snipping, all the while being almost lost in the garden meditatively with great admiration for all things in nature!

At times it may not look a whole lot different, but the closer I look as the sun begins arcing down, the drier old branches are spread or out to compost, wilted flowers cleared, new plants or seeds in, some flowers, greens discovered, admired and my muscles, joints in a happy well-used tiredness! And certainly with hopes for seedlings to poke through!

Spring this year has a whole new meaning, one of gratitude, for the selfless frontline workers and scientists during this coronavirus pandemic, for loving families and friends, educators, food and farm workers and everyone who’ve been tirelessly adapting! It is one of hope and prayers for new, empathetic and well-reasoned beginnings!

Madhu Raghavan is a pediatrician who enjoys writing, exploring our great outdoors, gardening, and art as a pastime.

Children’s Classic or Colonial Fantasy

I am glad I come from that vanishing generation which actually read books in­stead of waiting for the movie. Other­wise I might have thought that The Jungle Book was the story of the romance between a young man brought up in Indian jungles and the British woman who brings him to civilization.

Actually, the book Rudyard Kipling wrote was about a boy named Mowgli brought up by wolves and his battle with a tiger named Sher Khan. But the new Walt Disney movie tosses that story to the wolves and comes up with its improved 1990s version, complete with a treasure hunt, some romantic interest, and in­evitably the Indian rope trick. The folks at Disney still call it Rudyard Kiptillg’s The Jungle Book, though Kipling would probably have not recognized the story as one he wrote.

Movie poster for Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book (1994)
Movie poster for Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book (1994)

He would not have recog­nized the hero either. Mowgli, the little Indian man-cub, has grown into the strapping Jason Scott Lee. While Mr. Lee’s glis­tening pectorals and flat abdo­men (developed no doubt at the Walt Disney Jungle Gym) are in­deed impressive, he is no Mow­gli-for the simple reason that he docs not look Indian despite the liberal daubs of shoe polish.

While I am aware that the studio conducted several open casting calls for Mowgli, it is un­pardonable that they could not come up with a South Asian to play the role. It is amazing that the Indian-American commu­nity–which now numbers al­most a million, a not insignificant size-has not protested this. The East Asian American community was vociferous in its condmena­tion of a similar casting mishap for MissSaigon.

What is even more unpar­donable is that this film’s produc­ers and executive producers count a few Indians among them. I believe they owe us all some answers. Would the same pro­ducers give the role of a classic American icon like Dennis the Menace to a South Asian actor? But for Mowgli, anyone with tawny skin and black hair is deemed good enough. One Asian is as good as another anyway!

The film uses real animal ac­tors (in fact, it has more animal trainers than animals in the cast). While the animals art: very ex­pressive–from the monkey hordes to the dancing bear–they cannot do as much as they could in Kipling’s imagination. So the story is changed into Mowgli’s introduction to civilization, his learning to speak, dress, and dance.

A still from the 1994 movie of Jason Scott Lee as Mowgli and the real bear used to play Baloo
A still from the 1994 movie of Mowgli (Jason Scott Lee) and the real bear used to play Baloo

As this story slowly takes cen­ter stage, we are sometimes left wondering if we are watching The Jungle Book or some curried version of My Fair Lady with Monty Python alumnus John Cleese attempting to provide some comic relief by playing Henry Higgins to Jason Scott Lee’s Eliza Doliltle.

While racist and imperial­ist overtones color much of Kipling’s work,The Jungle Book was less tainted because the original story did not have any sahibs or mern­sahibs in it. In this new version, British India comes gatecrashing into the story, and here the film­makers, perhaps unwittingly, in­troduce their own brand of ra­cism.

The Indians in the cast are the foot soldiers of the movie, the fillers in the crowd scenes. Apart from two slimy villains, we hardly meet any of them, let alone remember their names. In­terestingly, while the evil Indians have the “wery vickcd” accents, the few good ones like Mowgli’s father sound like they went to missionary schools.

But when not doing things all genuine Indians are supposed to do-like walking over burning coals or rope-charming-the In­dians in the movie sometimes do the most unlikely things. In an initial scene we see Mowgli’s widower father offering a red hi­biscus to some nameless woman and then attempting to kiss her–­in full view of everybody, includ­ing his son! Gosh, those hot­blooded natives-and in Victo­rian times, too!

A still of Colonel Geoffrey Brydon (Sam Niell) and Mowgli (Jason Scott Lee)
A still of Colonel Geoffrey Brydon (Sam Niell) and Mowgli (Jason Scott Lee)

The scenery is breathtak­ing. The deaths gory. The treasure fabulous. The Jodhpur palaces majestic. Ele­phants trumpet and tigers roar. The British maiden is winsome. And in deference to our politi­cally correct times, Mowgli deliv­ers little homilies on the evils of hunting for pleasure and asks wide-eyed soul-stiffing ques­tions like “What is hate?”

Director Stephen Sommers pulls out all stops–from a little cuddly bear cub to a dancing orangoutan to death-defying stunts. Watching little Mowgli’s edge-of-the-seat ride into the jungle on his flaming horse-carriage, I felt I was on a Disneyland ride. Perhaps next summer visitors to Disneyland will in fact get the Jungle Book ride. And with that the Jungle Book experience will be complete. You’ve seen the movie. Now experience the ride.

But once there was a man named Rudyard Kipling and he wrote a book, a very different book.