Tag Archives: Katha

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. 

Katha 2017

Garden of People

“Daddy, is native a bad word?” I say softly, half hoping the urge to ask would go away.

My father leans his tall frame over the balustrade. He is inspecting his garden to make sure that plants needing protection have been tended to; each one has a small dried bamboo-leaf thatch roof supported on sticks that traps the night dew and prevents moisture from getting into the leaves where it can freeze. There is a chill in the evening air. Tonight, the temperatures are expected to dip. An overnight frost is long enough to kill his delicate new seedlings.

I grasp the importance of his job, and why he concentrates so much, and perhaps, that is why, I have chosen this moment to ask my question. I had blurted the only sentence that came to mind.

I stand on my tippy toes, bolstered by my elbows, chin resting on a flat surface of the low wall, staring at the garden. I am preoccupied with feelings that clang inside my head. Thoughts jumble themselves up till I don’t know what to say but the urge to question does not pass. With effort, I marshal my words, enough only to voice the same query again.

“Is native a bad word, Daddy?” I say, louder this time.

The wall overlooks a sunken garden with symmetric flower beds, tall trees and short shrubs. Even as a toddler, I took a keen interest in digging, mulching, weeding, watering, planting, feeding, and all manner of care that my father lavishes on his garden. He has taught me the name of every flower. There are foreign ones: Calendula, Sweet Peas, Tulips and Larkspur as well as Indian varieties of Chameli, Gainda, Gulab. I can classify what blooms when. I am proud because I can identify a plant just by looking at the shape of its leaves. He has taught me to study the different categories of root systems and so, I know how to prepare the soil for a plant even if its foliage is foreign. Despite different attributes, I can name a plant’s lineage and family to decide conditions for its nurture.

I go with him on his annual winter trips to nurseries to buy exotic plants that thrive in our cool climate in the foothills of the Great Himalaya mountains that dominate our lush, valley landscape. I listen to the questions he asks master gardeners and find the answers fascinating. He learns, not only from experience, but also by gathering information from experts. He wants facts.

That is why I know he will be truthful in his reply.

I wait.

He says, “I haven’t seen you gardening of late. What’s keeping you busy, Maya?”

“I don’t have time anymore.” I pout. “I am reading to improve my English. Remember, you asked me to check out library books, and so, I did.”

In addition to Dickens, Shakespeare, and classics in our curriculum, I had discovered new writers. So far, I had read every title by an author called H. Rider Haggard (King Solomon’s Mines and She – my favorite) and was reading Rudyard Kipling now. Their powerful imagery transported me into thrilling escapades in foreign lands but occasionally I would be jolted from this imaginary world into my world because I could not relate to the subordinate status ascribed to local inhabitants by patronizing explorers.

“Adventure stories are the best, especially those set in Africa and India. I enjoy English literature now, but sometimes I don’t understand what they mean when they write native,” I continue.

“I see,” he says. “Did something happen?”

“Somewhere I read – bloody native it seemed nasty; or is it only a description?”

He waits a while then adds, “Native is not a bad word. But first, tell me, in this garden, which flower do you like best?”

His voice floats across fifty years and thousands of miles with the clarity of the sunshine that surrounds me.

I am on the Stanford Dish, a small hillside preserve in Palo Alto, where every so often, during my lunch break, I go for a walk; alone or with co-workers. Today, I am here because I signed up for the annual United Way Day of Service with a group of South Bay volunteers to restore the area to its natural habitat. My job is to clear out space, dig a hole, plant oak seedlings and pull out the non-native species overtaking the hillside. They are overcrowding the California scrub oak. The non-native plants suck up too much water and have ridden the hillside with squirrels, I am told. I learn from biologists about the flora and fauna in these foothills. I treasure this chance to be outdoors but my heart weeps when I must pull out a healthy plant.

“I like them all, daddy,” I remember saying. “A garden won’t be pretty if we only had one type of flower.”

“I think so too,” he continues. “Native refers to a person, plant or animal originating in a particular region. In this garden, plants come from all over the world so some are native while others are not. If left untended, plants can overgrow and choke one another so we weed and trim. Other times, we must help the plants from far away, live in a different kind of soil, humidity, or temperature. With the right care, the plants adapt and then they thrive together. When they do, our garden is prettier.”

“Am I a native, Daddy?” I had persisted.

“Yes, you are, Maya. So am I. So is Mahmoud. Many of our friends and relatives have moved here from somewhere else. Meena Mausi moved here from Punjab. Mr. and Mrs. Roy moved from far away Bengal, where the weather is different. They had to learn a new language, eat new kinds of food and wear different types of clothes. Still, they are classified as native because they are Indian. Your English teacher, Mr. Martyn is from England where the weather is much the same as here, but he is not native to India. However, he has lived here almost his whole life so you could say he has become native to the area like Meena Mausi.”

“So, when someone calls you a native, is it good or bad?” I dogged on.

“After some time, it is not possible to differentiate native plants from non-natives irrespective of appearance. We grow a prettier garden. It is the same with people. Native does not imply good or bad. A garden of people living happily together is what we call a civilization.”

I had stomped away.

I remember thinking he does not understand the gravity of my question; but of course, he did. It was just that I was growing up too fast, and he wanted another year of innocence from his child.

He fulfilled my curiosity with a literal answer but he did not address the underlying question about judgement implied in the usage of native in books I was reading.  I was too young to be satisfied with the greyness of his reply; I wanted answers in black and white. He was wiser; he knew that one day, I would appreciate the image he had unfolded for me. And, when needed, I would know how to act.

I relax.

I sit back on my haunches, soak in the sun and take a well-deserved break. I turn my head around to see my fellow gardeners. I recognize no-one; yet the group camaraderie of individuals engaged in a common purpose is as physical as the benevolent sky above me.

I reminiscence about my father’s choice of words and rephrase: natives as well as immigrants flourish here. I live in a civilized country.

I believe I am obligated to preserve the character of my adopted country. Also, I must fulfill this duty; for my daughter’s sake who is born native but feels a foreigner in her own country. I must; for my sake.

With my brown skin, I don’t appear native to Palo Altans. However, I am home here and a foreigner in my native India; where my father and mother survived tumultuous years of colonial rule that culminated in an independent India in 1947, and where they died at peace with themselves and the world.

My colleagues, friends and relatives share with me the dream of justice, equal opportunity and fair-play. My principles are reflected in the actions of individuals around me. But now I worry that the people I know are but a small slice of America, and so, on this hillside today, I am acutely aware of changing political climes and I reflect that maybe, it is changing my behavior for the worse.

The other day, mistaken for a Latina at the grocery store, I was rude.

“I bet I’ve lived here longer than you,” I said.

Recent migrants to California who have not seen persons with my features set in brown skin, often err this way. Usually I smile to prevent awkwardness as I tell them I am from India.

Yesterday, I had snapped. Perhaps, because I confused a friendly overture for insolence? I cannot allow that behavior. It is honest to acknowledge differences; indeed, it is the essential step before discovering similarities.

I am first generation immigrant from India and easily mistaken for Hispanic or Native American. Unlike India, where races have intermingled for ages, America is young and curious about where we came from; DNA studies offer no conclusive proof, but there is enough evidence to show that the earliest settlers came here in boats on rising tides. Or they travelled across the Aleutian Islands from Siberia and parts of Asia, further south. The current popularity of software applications identifying ancestry and the easy availability of DNA typing tests, is another indication of our collective obsession with race and origins.

We know we come from all over. I want an America where we care and create community; where we smile at strangers on our lunch-break walks. I respect the land I have adopted and, I rationalize, so must the strangers around me.

I raise my head and look up into the sky till the sun warms my skin.

Bright as the clear sky, content as the companionship of gardeners, a feeling grows within my heart. My garden of people will prosper if I express love, understanding and trust. Whether I am mistaken for a native, or I am mistaken for a foreigner, I am here to flourish. Whether they believe that I belong here or that I should leave; whether they think they own the rights to the resources of this land and I do not; no matter what they reason – I must cultivate this garden.

I look at the stranger next to me and smile.

“Aren’t we lucky to be outdoors and have the opportunity to make new connections?” I introduce myself, shake hands and we pause our work to admire the hillside. I marvel at the ease with which, despite differences, we have found common ground.

I plant a seedling, pat down the soil to cover and nurture its roots and promise to do my part in this civilization called America.

“Thank you, Daddy.”