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Walking Is A Way Of Knowing And Speaking To An Elephant

Sanctuary’s Anadya Singh reviews Walking is a way of Knowing in a Kadar Forest and Speaking to an Elephant by Madhuri Ramesh and Manish Chandi.

Tara Books describes itself as a publishing collective, pushing the boundaries of the physical book in an age writing its obituary. True to its word, in the technologically-driven world of Kindles and e-books, Tara Books has been publishing carefully hand-crafted publications, redefining the norms of modern storytelling for two decades. Collaborating with storytellers, designers and artists, on India’s enigmatic folk tradition. Tara Books has not only given a voice to marginalised art and literature but has also conferred a contemporary relevance to age-old traditions. Nature therefore, often forms the central theme for Tara Books. Nuggets of knowledge derived from unconventional lives led in the quiet of forests, these books have helped people gain a wider, gentler perspective. Two of their recent spring 2018 releases – Walking is a Way of Knowing and Speaking to an Elephant embrace the folklore of the Kadar, one of India’s long-standing foraging and small-game hunting communities from the Annamalai and Parambikulam hills bordering Tamil Nadu and Kerala.

The Kadars, once a forest-dwelling community, have now been relocated to permanent settlements along the edge of the forests. Under colonial rule, some Kadars became forest guides to tea-plantation owners, and others moved to the plains. But they continued to live off forest products and were well-known for their jungle craft.

Retold by researchers Madhuri Ramesh and Manish Chandi, these tales are a way of knowing the forests as ‘the people of the forests’, the Kadars, do.

Book Details

Walking Is A Way of Knowing
Retold by Madhuri Ramesh and Manish Chandi and illustrated by Matthew Frame
Published by Tara Books
Hardcover, Price Rs. 450

Walking is a Way of Knowing offers a different perspective. It is an urban dweller’s account of a long winding walk through a forest accompanied by an elderly Kadar member. An unusual narrative, the reader is introduced to the everyday life of Kadars and their local wisdom. The author is aware of his own limited connection with the forest – he writes of how he stumbles through the forest ‘like a jungle fowl’, while the elderly Kadar, sure-footed in his step, trudges on, ‘firm and silent like an elephant’. As arduous as the Kadars’ life is in the forest, it is equally transcendental. Guided by his ancestral spirits, which take the form of forest creatures, the Kadar, in his journey into the forest is never alone. Through the text, the underlying thread is to ‘know’ nature differently, to see and learn from unexpected contexts and teachers and to always be present and curious in one’s wanderings. The Kadar way of walking is not just a mode of travel , it is experiencing the forest as it reveals itself. It involves exercising all of human senses, from seeing to hearing, to feeling the undergrowth under one’s feet. And deeply rooted in this ‘knowing of forests’ is the Kadars’ strong sense of identity and pride, accompanied by a reverence for the forest and all its creatures.

The forest, the Kadars claim can fulfil all of man’s needs. The unexpressed sentiment is that though all of man’s needs can be met by the forest, his greed cannot. The tale meanders, just like the path of the forest, touching upon traditions, folklore, and the everyday life of the Kadars the changes brought on by modern society… and the larger concept of home and ownership. Indigenous words blend into the text seamlessly and compelling illustrations by Matthew Frame help the reader ‘know’ the author’s chronicle better. Extraordinary in its context, Walking is a Way of Knowing implores the readers to free themselves of binaries, and look at the world with an open mind, and an equally open heart.

Book Details

Speaking To An Elephant
Retold by Madhuri Ramesh and Manish Chandi and illustrated by Matthew Frame
Published by Tara Books
Hardcover, Price Rs. 350

Speaking to an Elephant, with its tender tales of co-existence and gratitude, is visually delightful. The book redefines reading. The art cannot be missed, as intricate drawings of animals and foliage on small black sheets intersperse the text. Each illustration draws the reader into the dense jungles of the Kadars, as Matthew Frame, skillfully uses darker colours, to replicate the raw, wild allure of the jungles.

Why is the tortoise’s shell the way it is? Why does the kumin mushroom last for just one day? Why does the grasshopper skip around restlessly? The Kadars have their own answers and, in a manner typical of folklore and fables they carry readers into their reticent world of totem, nature worship and myth-making. While some tales are an alternate take at reality, others are pedagogic in value. The creator, Kadavul, is the benevolent father, chiding his children ever so often. Kadavul’s lessons find great contemporary relevance as he teaches the Kadars to be careful and considerate in their living, taking only as much as required because the forest belongs to all its creatures. It is their common home and must be shared.

The Kadars’ sense of veneration is praiseworthy. Set apart from the consumer-driven world of today, deep in the recesses of jungles, the true ancient tribal way of living can teach us a thing or two. Speaking to an Elephant, poignant in its lessons, is a revelatory ode to living in harmony with nature.

First published in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXVIII No. 4, April 2018. 


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