I WILL SAVE MY LAND
Many Lives of Land
Moving the conversation from land to lands in contemporary India and beyond
Workshop on 16-17 April 2019, International Centre Goa, Dona Paula, India
The children’s books I am going to take you through reflect ‘the many lives of
land’ as described in the concept note for this workshop:
“Land as a store of value, collective history, memory, and our connection to the
earth. It may be territory and our sense of identity and security.”
Big ideas, but captured perfectly in the imaginative text and visuals
of children’s picture books.
The title of this presentation is I WILL SAVE MY LAND — taken from Tulika’s
book by the same name by writer-activist Rinchin.
Children have the ability to ask the most direct of questions or make the most
direct of statements, laying bare uncomfortable truths. Remember the child
shouting out, “But the emperor has no clothes!” in that well-known story
At the end of I Will Save my Land, the little girl, Mati clutches on to her spade
and declares sleepily, “I am saving my land.”
Mati pesters her grandmother and father for her own plot of land in the big
field. When she does get it, she works hard. And then she hears that a
company wants to make a coal mine in their village — the enormous black
pit that will eat up all their lands, like it has in the next village.
As always, writer-activist Rinchin powers her questions through irresistible
storytelling. The little girl’s anxiety about losing her land to “a monster
machine” cuts close to the heart as it takes head-on an issue that is ravaging
tribal Chhattisgarh, where this story is set, and every other place where there
is ‘development’ at a cost.
This is a children’s book that bravely raises questions about who owns land,
what land means to the people who inhabit it. It raises questions about
women’s right to land, the power of the state, and the idea of development
that poses a threat to preserving and sustaining land.
From threats to villagers’ fields from big mining companies, we see
how a single tree is being saved by a whole village in
Out of the Way! Out of the Way!
A dusty path runs through a village. The path turns into a lane, then a street,
then a road, signalling the rapid development that transforms the landscape
from a quiet, sleepy village into a busy town. A little boy plants
a sapling and protects it with a ring of stones. The story, told like a folktale,
shows how the tree and village grow together. It underlines the urgent need
for nature and development to go side by side if we want to
protect our land.
Like I Will Save My Land, this story also deals with a challenge we encounter
with land and development — the changing use of land in the face
of unstoppable growth. But in this case, the story simply and gently shows
change going harmoniously hand in hand with nature. It makes the point of
sustainable growth through the tree that grows over time across the pages,
the refrain “Out of the way! Out of the Way!” suggesting that this tree gets
pride of place. And it is the people of the village who make
If it was people who allowed the tree and village to grow side by side, it is a
little bird that now greens a barren mountain in
A Mountain That Loves A Bird
This well-loved story by Alice McLerran draws from universal truths as it
tells a lyrical tale of a small bird that changes the life of a cold and bare
mountain. The power of the story is that it works at so many levels. It is
about the friendship between a bird and a mountain and how a little
life-giving force transforms barren land. It is also about migration and
ecology and the ways in which nature finds ways to regenerate.
This picture book explores the interdependence of land and other life
forms. The illustrations draw attention to awe-inspiring landscapes — barren
at first, and then brimming with colour after the infusion of life through the
agency of the bird. A great lead in to the inspiring stories of the eco warriors
we read about today, who have created acres of forests and fields out of
barren, arid land, sometimes single-handedly.
In The Bhil Story we see through a local myth how the Bhils started
painting on their walls to appease the rain gods, who then sent
abundant rains to their drought-stricken villages.
The story begins with the poor rooster who can’t crow because his throat is
so parched. There is not a drop of water left in the village pond. The
villagers go to a badwa, a shaman, and ask if he can get the gods to send rain.
He asks them to go home and paint! And when they paint trees on the walls,
clouds gather. There is thunder and lightning and it rains and rains.
The people dig wells, following the example of snakes and turtles, who show
them how to collect water by making holes in the ground. The wells soon
overflow with water. As days pass, the trees
turn green, water flows into the fields...
and the rooster crows every day!
This is one of two folk stories from India’s tribal lands that capture the fragile
relationship between land and water. It is significant that these stories emerge from
water starved or drought prone lands, whose people understand the fragility of the
connection and the need to do what it takes.
The close interaction of the Bhils with the natural world finds abiding expression in
their art, called Pithora. Each dot in the vibrant, colourful patterns represents an
ancestor whom they invoke for the well-being of all forms of life on their land.
While this is an adventure-filled origin myth about their art, it foregrounds the
thirst for rain, and water conservation — important for people living in the dry
western and central parts of India. No creature is too small or insignificant in their
web of life. Birds, snakes and turtles become critical characters in the story, leading
villagers to water and ways of saving it. The badwa too shows them how to take
control of their own lives and environment, as should we!
The Magical Fish is yet another story about a drought stricken land where
the people are very unhappy. The Gond storyteller uses a magical fish to
make the land green and fertile, which in turn makes the people happy.
In typical folk style, the storyteller erases the boundaries between real and
magical to convey her message.
There was a time when happiness began to leak out of the world.
Everything dried up. No colour, no food, no smiles — only hunger,
sadness and quarrels. One old dukariya decided that
something had to be done, and she heard from
the wind about a magical fish that lived in
a green-green lake...
This is a story told by Gond storyteller
Chandrakala about a magical fish that lived
in Adhar Talab in Jabalpur.
Having worked as a daily labourer building houses and ponds, much of her
own strength and determination is reflected in the spirited old woman of this
story. The illustrator, Shakunlata, too is a Gond.
The story and the visuals convey the enduring relationship between women
and land, as it is women who very often bear the brunt of droughts and water
scarcity, and it is they who come up with innovative solutions. Drawing on
the wisdom of folk narratives, the book evokes the unending challenges that
nature throws up, and the ways in which people whose lives are closely
linked to their land and its resources are guided by a deep concern and
reverence for nature.
In the next book, In Bon Bibi’s Forest, we move on to the well-known
Bon Bibi myth from Sundarban which, like many such myths, creates and
defines a deep-rooted, complex relationship between human beings
and the natural world.
The quiet villages of Sundarban are terrorised by a monster with wild eyes,
sharp teeth, striped skin and pointed nails — Dokkhin Rai! Until finally,
Bon Bibi, protector of the forests and people, asks him a simple question:
Why do you do this? The answer to this question is central to the age-old
theme of human-animal harmony that has inspired many stories, including
this one. Set in a lesser known part of Bengal, the lush and mysterious
Sundarban, the textured narrative and dramatic, detailed illustrations evoke
the distinct culture of the place — the natural confluence of Hindu and
Muslim mythologies, and the rhythm and concerns of everyday life
at the edge of a forest.
This myth of Bon Bibi looks at land as primarily wild terrain and the place
of human beings in it. Human-animal conflict is a complex problem that has
surfaced in many towns and cities that border forests. And Sundarban is no
exception. It is home to the Royal Bengal Tiger, and to many families who
live across some of the mudflats and islands crisscrossed by rising and
ebbing river waters as the sea rushes in and out every night and day.
The habitat is difficult to negotiate for both humans and animals, existing as
they do so close to each other. Living in the shadow of the tiger is daunting,
but the people feel protected by it. The locals regularly re-enact
the story of Bon Bibi and Dokkhin Rai to renew the
promise to use the forest with a pure heart. So this retelling
reminds us that if the tiger, an equal occupant of
the land, is healthy, this ecosystem with its mangroves,
one of the most biodiverse regions of the world,
will also be healthy.
Another myth, this time an origin myth about how the earth was created.
Traditionally told as the scenes are painted on a wall by the storyteller, it has
creatures big and small as well as a lazy, reluctant god playing their part in
And Land Was Born is a story from the Bhilala tribe who live in Central
India. The fantasy element in the story reflects the unfettered nature of the
oral tradition. This book brings together picture and word in the spirit of that
freedom and celebration. In the beginning, the Bhilalas believe, there was
only water. The harassed and wet subjects beg their lazy god to create land
so that they can get dry and stay that way. Poor god is put to all sorts of
trouble before this wish can be granted.
From the very real problem of who owns the land, in the first book, this one
goes back in time into a mythical world to tell a story of how land itself was
born. And in this creation myth, it is the jugni matas or mothers of the
universe — the feminine force — who badger a capricious god in their
search for land. The journey motif in the quest for land brings together
disparate creatures, rituals and plans, to culminate with the birth of a
bountiful land. It captures everything that is magical about creation and
celebrates the emergence of a living, breathing land.
From land we move to water in the next book, Water Stories from Around
the World. This stories in this collection are stories about land too.
The writers draw upon the oral traditions of the Ivory Coast, China, India,
Greece, Australia, North America, Spain, Nigeria, Botswana and places
beyond names to reflect upon a fundamental connection between our lives,
land and water. For instance, Who Owns the Water, a story set in rural
India, starts out with a mother bird looking for a shady spot to lay her
eggs. From this seemingly unremarkable beginning, the story expands to
weave a tale of gratitude, greed and power, questioning the prevalent
tendency to lay claim on nature when, in reality, it belongs to everyone.
The stories in this anthology enable children to make the connection
between water and its importance to the survival of land and the diverse
forms of life on it. In a world that is heading towards water scarcity,
it is a plea to treat water and, by extension,
all life, with respect.
Now we come to a story that is frighteningly familiar, as it happens in
different parts of the world and is waiting to happen again and again.
How do we prepare our children for this?
Floods and other natural calamities occur, children do get caught in them,
and other children see it all on television. How do they make sense of it?
Big Rain was written when the author tried to explain to her three-year-old
how the devastating floods in Kerala had affected family and friends and so
many, many others. The book talks to children through very simple text and
evocative visuals, ending with the important reminder that if you look after
nature, nature will look after you.
At a time when we are aware that the planet our children are going to inherit
is at a dangerous tipping point, this book tackles the theme of land in the
broader context of nature. Using a direct approach, it gets the illustrations
and the seemingly gentle refrain “Lots and lots and lots…”
to show nature’s fury. It makes the case for introducing very young children
to serious issues, through sensitive stories that create awareness about
climate change and about how their everyday actions can affect nature.
Children have to cope with the all-pervasive media that bombards them with
images of natural disasters — in fact, every kind of disaster — and books like
Big Rain open up the space for allowing them to ask
questions and express their anxieties with parent and teachers.
In Stitching Stories, craft traditions preserve memories of homeland and its
loss, not once but over and over again. Through those memories are
conveyed the fragility of land and how traditional crafts help in reclaiming
a community’s space.
Stitching Stories is about how Raniben and her family left their village in
Pakistan, crossing the harsh desert to live in a refugee camp in Gujarat,
how they rebuilt their lives, lost everything again in an earthquake,
and began once more. It is the story of women who have lost their land,
having been displaced time and again. Through it all, the craft of needlework
sustains them as they embroider their thoughts and stories.
Art becomes their story, memoir, biography, and a way to record their fears,
memories and hopes. This book tells the all-encompassing story of land as
not just a piece of property but a storehouse of collective histories
and ways of life.
The many lives of land as seen in these books are reflected in the many
stories of land. Children have the ability to absorb and engage in the here
and now and it is important they hear different voices, both mainstream and
marginal, in the books they read. The stories from different writers, poets
and artists offer diverse narratives with varied perspectives.
Stories about land and sustainability in children’s books are usually about
saving the environment — a kind of green rhetoric that gets reduced to
banning and recycling. This is not to be dismissed but there cannot be one
overarching, simplistic narrative about saving land.
We have to be alert to the “danger of a single story”, as Chimamanda
Adichie puts it. If children are to grow up with ecological empathy and
respect for people’s rights they — and us adults — need many
stories of land.
Whether it is myths, folktales, imagined or real stories, these many stories
reveal in different ways the interconnectedness between our lives and the
land we live in. And they offer diverse representations of land — as a
resource, repository of civilisation, symbol of identity and, more than
anything else, an ecological reality that needs us all to ensure its survival.