Clearly, the author is a man with a mission: to get children sensitized to the issue of tribals in India. The nub of this story – a city boy’s encounter with a Baiga girl in the forests of Madhya Pradesh/Chhattisgarh — is articulated in the following exchange between Vish, a high-ranking government official and Matt, an anthropologist:
‘One thing I will promise you, Matt, I will personally see to it that Jungu is put into a primary school, though she would be much older than the others, and I will pay for her education out of my own pocket, if she will study up to matriculation. If she is diligent, I will even see if she can be appointed as an attendant in the local district kutcherry!’
The professor looked at him unbelievingly. ‘You will make her a peon. A Peon! A Princess into a Peon! I cannot believe it!’
I don’t know how many children – or, for that matter, adults – appreciate the tragedy of highly skilled artists, craftspersons, farmers and others in India being forced by circumstances to dig holes and carry bricks in order to survive. Many of the government’s programs to create income-generating jobs are well-intentioned and they enable them to put at least one meal together. Many for whom these programs are intended belong to tribal communities with long histories and rich cultures. But we can miss the irony of imaginative, nature-loving, creative people engaged in meaningless, menial activities. Privileged children, readers of this book, cannot be expected to comprehend the extent of this tragedy, but they will understand when the professor exclaims, “You will make her a peon. A Peon! A Princess into a Peon!”
Indeed, this exchange establishes, for me at least, the authenticity of the author’s voice. Therefore, everything else seems secondary.
That said, let’s go to the book itself. It features a boy called Sunil Kalra (that lends itself to a typical kalra-cholera joke, cracked by Jungu) who spends his vacation with Uncle Vish in Madhya Pradesh, “or maybe Chhattisgarh” because his parents have gone off to Ann Arbor in the US to settle his sister into university life there. Vish is Environment Secretary, an important government official, on an assignment to draw up plans for demarcatinga tiger reserve. Now the Baiga tribals live in this region, and the government’s move means they will be displaced. A French anthropologist called Mathieu Lambert also joins the party: he appeals to Sunil to help him convince Vish not to disturb the Baigas.
Sunil sometimes accompanies his uncle on field trips, sometimes he’s on his own. On one of those ‘me time’ occasions, Sunil wanders into the jungle, meets Jungu, a Baiga princess (as he comes to know later), has adventures with recurring dreams and real-life dacoits, and learns about their deep connection with the environment. In the process, he begins to empathize with their cause. Of course, there’s also a sun, moon and stars-emblazoned silk coverlet that his teacher gives him to make him feel secure. One is not entirely sure what role this is intended to play in the story, but it’s there.
There are more details, of course, but this much should suffice for the purposes of the review. The plot’s not that different from a whole lot of environment-related books you see for young readers, but of course these themes can never run dry or become irrelevant.
First off, it’s a quick and fairly gripping read. As mentioned earlier, it seems as though the author has a genuine connect with the theme, and that rings through. The writing is largely unselfconscious, although some typos seem to have slipped through the net. But it is clearly a plot-driven story, although uncomplicated, so there’s not really all that much effort to build character or mood, provide logical links, or even give the plot some rootedness. For instance, when Sunil has his first adventure with Jungu, he’s gone for quite a while. No one seems to have noticed his absence – that’s possible, so that’s okay. Even the author makes no mention of this – that seems a bit odd.
Sometimes the statements that are made seem out of proportion to the story, the targeted readership, and plain incomprehensible. One morning, Sunil is wandering around the dak bungalow on his own, poring over some old books he finds. The narrative continues:
“He read on, picking up book after book at random. Sometimes he would close the book he was reading and look out of the window dreamily. His daydreams gave life to what he had read and he understood the writer all the better.”
Instances of vague generalizations like this leave you thinking ‘Now where did that come from?’But these are infrequent enough not to matter.
There’s one other thing: a 17-page afterword that provides a background to India’s tribal history, the Forests Act, and organizations that work with/for tribals. This is not likely to appeal to all readers, but those who do go to these pages will be taken beyond the story and into the real world. With over 600 tribes officially listed in the Constitution, the book does its bit to establish in young minds their integral place in Indian life and society. And although the story is ‘purposefully’ told and it carries a torch for tribals, it doesn’t exoticize them – surprisingly, really. Overall, therefore, it’s a good read.
And yes, although there are those who dislike pictures in paperbacks, I like them in Jungu. Srivi Kalyan’s drawings are warm and the eyes are alluring.
But one silly question keeps popping up: how old is Sunil?
By Sandhya Rao
Jungu the Baiga Princess
By Vithal Rajan
Published by Young Zubaan