This book is a keeper… one takes a first glance, then another deeper one, and then goes back to it to savour every detail.
The forest is the life of every tribal group. In this seminal account, the intricate and intensely evocative drawings by Gangu Bai bring out the story of the Bhils and their daily interactions with trees. In sickness and in health, in birth and death, at times of festivals and celebrations, and in good practices and bad, the forest is their lode star. It guides them, protects them and at times even intimidates them, but they can never be separated from it.
Gita Wolf and V. Geetha have wisely refrained from adding any extraneous words to Gangu Bai’s simple, yet profound narrative. She tells us how it was, and with no acrimony, shows us how it is now. “Things are a little different now,” she says with a gentle tone that sets the background for the book. We hear of the children playing and plucking berries to eat. How do they learn which are poisonous? By watching and learning from the adults. We see goats and other animals climbing the trees to get at the leaves. There are dangerous moments and lighter ones too. But it is all a part of the cycle of life.
Without wishing to romanticise the life of the tribal communities in our country, many questions arise while looking at this book and listening to Gangu Bai’s voice. The role of the government, the responsibility of each and every individual, and the life-long work of activists are all underlying themes of the exquisite drawings and honest narrative.
There is a sense of play, of freedom and of leisure that permeates the book. “These are the horses,” Gangubai says about her drawings of horses in movement. Then she adds, “We’ve started dotting everything… and so the horses too…!” She speaks of the great god, Badadev, and Kasumer, the god who helps people in need. There is a mother of the forest who lives deep in the jungle and protects those who go there for legitimate reasons. “We need to venture in deep when we gather firewood. But…” she adds, “we don’t take anything that’s still green and alive, only dry twigs.” There is much to learn from this spokesperson for the Bhils and indeed for all tribal communities.
A special word of thanks to Gita Wolf and V. Geetha who show sensitivity in receding into the background while Gangu Bai tells the story of the strong bond between her community and the trees in the forest. The book is the richer for it.
Produced in hard cover, the book is library-friendly. However, the price may put this book out of the hands of the common people. This is a book that must reach as far and wide as possible. Would Creative Commons or a government subsidy help?
By Usha Mukunda
Authors: Gangu Bai, Gita Wolf and V. Geetha
Illustrator: Gangu Bai
Tara Books, 2015
Subject Category: Contemporary/Non-Fiction/Picture Book