Book review: These stories from the Kadar tribe strike the right notes

Retold by researchers Madhuri Ramesh and Manish Chandi, these books from Tara are a way of knowing the forest as a home.
Book review: These stories from the Kadar tribe strike the right notes
Book review: These stories from the Kadar tribe strike the right notes

Books: Speaking To An Elephant & Walking Is A Way Of Knowing

Authors: Madhuri Ramesh and Manish Chandi

Publisher: Tara Books

There’s a running joke in my family. How Amma would visit my brother in boarding school in Kodaikanal. At a time before maps and mobile phones, she would take a taxi and use a tree lining the highway as a landmark to turn towards Kodaikanal. Who uses a tree as a landmark? What if they cut down that tree?, would be the refrain. 

Madiyappan, the adivasi elder in Walking Is A Way Of Knowing, has the best comeback, “That’s how I find my way in the forest—by using everything I have—eyes, legs and hands.” In time, as Google maps have gained popularity in India, they too have adapted to Amma’s very Indian sense of direction. They’ve moved from ‘head south east’ to ‘take a right at the SBI ATM’.

Speaking To An Elephant and Walking Is A Way Of Knowing are two books of a complementary collection of stories from the Kadar adivasi community in south India. Retold by researchers Madhuri Ramesh and Manish Chandi with exquisite art by UK-based illustrator Matthew Frame, these two 2017 books are based on stories narrated to the authors by the Kadar elders.

Kadars, literally “people of the forest”, are a small adivasi community who live in the Annamalai and Parambikulam hills bordering Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Though originally hunter-gatherers, they no longer live deep in the forest and have been relocated to permanent settlements on the edge of the forest. When the British began using the mountains for tea plantations, some Kadars became their forest guides.

Today, some of them who still live off the forest, guide tourists and scientists through their home. The others have found work in plantations or the plains but continue to live near the forest.

While Speaking To An Elephant is a collection of five short stories from the Kadar forest, in Walking Is A Way Of Knowing, Madiyappan, a Kadar elder, shows an urban youth around his home—the forest. The fables in Speaking To An Elephant deal with themes around benevolence, gratitude and co-existence. Kadavul, the creator, in these stories is portrayed as a benevolent father who gives generously but also disciplines.

It also involves an origin story that answers the question, why do grasshoppers hop around? It’s fascinating how the grasshopper is always the antagonist in fables across the world. Remember the grasshopper that spent the summer singing while the ants stocked up for winter? Similar is the story of the tortoise and the birds. Isn’t it captivating to find a version of this tale of the talkative tortoise who wanted to fly in the Indian Panchatantra, Greek Aesop’s fables, African tales and now also in the stories from the Kadars?

Speaking to an Elephant with its rich and intricate illustrations captures the dark and dense undergrowth and wildlife of the Indian tropical rainforest. Just like the unexpectedness of the jungle, the fantastic swatches of design popping out at the turn of every page adds to the fantastical quality of these images. These sketches of the flora and fauna, Aamai the tortoise, Ongal the hornbill and Pithakannu the leopard add surprise and intrigue to the narrative. Most interestingly, human figures seem to be missing from these representations, perhaps indicating that the jungle, unlike the rest of the world, is not centred around humans.

I found that there was a lot to discover in these drawings, the more attention you paid them. In true Tara books style, each of the five stories are also bookended by mesmerising black and white full page illustrations. In case you didn’t know, Tara books in their own words “is pushing the boundaries of the book form”. To them design is not an embellishment; it is basic to how a book creates meaning. Though it seemed whimsical to me at first to have such a heavily illustrated book, once I entered the forest through the first page, the illustrations transported me to that sticky hot tropical jungle where the breeze is busy playing among the treetops.

Both the books mix indigenous words with the English text quite unapologetically. While most of them make sense contextually, the tougher ones are reinforced in English. To the presumably urban reader already in unfamiliar terrain, this adds another layer of unfamiliarity.

The second book, Walking Is A Way Of Knowing pays tribute to the Kadars’ oral traditions of storytelling passed on from elders to the next generation around the evening fire. Kadar elder and expert forest guide Madiyappan, his uncle Krishnan and his cousin Padma share with the young visitor their stories of the forest—stories that inform their way of life.

Though more dramatic and philosophical in content, it does have its light moments. Madiyappan talks about spirits of his ancestors as casually as he does of the foul-smelling leopard’s poop or Krishnan of his wish to turn into a fragrant cinnamon tree when he dies. It’s a story for adults and for children. It’s a story for anyone who wants to know the forest. When asked how he finds his way in the forest, Madiyappan says that “knowing the path itself is not enough”. What he means is that one also needs to know the lay of the land. The forest is ever-changing and unpredictable and one needs to think on one’s feet to survive. Padma adds, “Good forest people are curious, we constantly explore”.

In finding their way through the forest, they find new paths which they then share with others so that together they can “add to the map of the forest”. There are many such instances of sharing one’s knowledge and living in harmony with nature. One of the underlying threads across the book is that the forest has everything for man’s need but not for his greed.

The book is dreamy and magical with beautiful descriptions of the forest. It winds its way through the life of the adivasi in the forest, talking about survival skills, how to collect honey and other forest produce, about common animals and plants and their characteristics, the bounty of nature and its seasons. Stunning illustrations show the Kadars at home in nature, getting on with their daily routine, fetching water and collecting frankincense.

Walking Is A Way Of Knowing manages to demonstrate the meandering nature of folktales beautifully with Madiyappan’s stories digressing ever so gently like a forest trail before eventually getting back to the answer. Madiyappan says that the forest is a “storehouse of smells”. Outsiders use books to understand the forest so they understand things only by sight. But most of the adivasis cannot read, so they use all their senses, their entire bodies “to hear the stories of the forest”. That’s my biggest takeaway from these two books. To be receptive to the world; to listen with all our senses. Especially in these trumpeting times. On days when the world gets me down, I see myself entering the forest again and walking with the Kadars.

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