Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The story behind Dinaben and the lions of Gir

Stories, we know, can take many different forms and can be told in many different ways to children. Dinaben and the Lions of Gir came about as a concoction, blending real stories and everyday concepts. In retrospect, it seems incredible how the different elements that we individually discovered seamlessly amalgamated for the entire package. The end product, we hope, will find a sweet spot in the fiction-non-fiction spectrum for children.
Our personal friendship spanning almost three decades now, blossomed in the 80's in Chennai. Amidst rows of street houses, we played on open terraces and verandahs, rode bicycles cruising among cattle and bustling everyday street life. Fast forward to the present, we are mothers raising children of our own. Living in the United States, on opposite coasts, we have regular discussions on the mundane and not-so-mundane aspects of parenting and our daily lives. And books for children typically take up a significant portion of our talks.
The stories we shared with our little ones and the books we read to them inspired us to toy with the idea of writing for children. Quite regularly, we recalled with nostalgia many stories from our growing up years in India. One that particularly stood out involved everyday rituals of street cattle being generously fed and then milked, of fresh milk delivered and thick curds made at home. We thought it would be interesting to tell children the behind-the-scene story of cartons of milk and bottles of ghee that line supermarkets today. From this sprouted a piece of narrative set in rural India to highlight the elementary process of dairy making.
In our pursuit for a pastoral setting to give it a realistic edge, we knew from the very start, that the grasslands and wilderness abundant in Gujarat would be a strong possibility. We singled out the community of “owners of livestock”, locally called the Maldharis, who had their own ghee making traditions. Our passion for this interesting group soared and countless hours of research followed. Dinaben, our very own Maldhari woman, the central character who would later let little children peek into her household, was born out of our imagination!
Gir was also the last home to the endangered Asiatic lions.  The fine balance that existed between the people and the lions of Gir intrigued us.  The story of the endangered lions and the marginalized lives of the people that shared the forests also needed to be told.  This we came to realize, while still holding onto the simple outline we had originally created about dairy making. We had grown to love the parallel threads so dearly, it was clear we needed to tie the threads together. When the Asiatic lions gained equal prominence along with Maldharis, the jigsaw seemed complete. Typically, lions feature in fiction as unconquerable creatures.  In our case, they are real and threatened in their only home. And so are the people. The intersection between the Maldharis and the lions became the perfect backdrop.
Sandhya Rao of Tulika saw our initial presentation of the proposal as a potential candidate for the bilingual photography-based series. Creating versatile text to aid easy translation was one of the most challenging and exciting phases of the writing process.  In order to bring the story to life, we joined forces with people as passionate as ourselves, who were more than willing to share their work of art for this project. Real people who had made an emotional connection and captured moments of the people, forests and animals of Gir…what more could we have asked for? For this, we are grateful to them. Simple text and real photography in the child-friendly context of lion cubs and dairy products, we believe, will help children assimilate loftier ideas of the environment and rural communities of India. With Sandhya’s support, the visual spreads were matched well with the appropriate text.  It was a great experience to work with her. She steered us in the right direction at every stage of the process.

Scenes or sights inspire stories. Sometimes, experiences provide the material.  For us, it was a little bit of everything – a process that continuously evolved and culminated in this fabric woven out of individually rich strands. In India’s rich landscape, nature collaborates with people in so many unique ways. Dinaben and the Lions of Gir also highlights the link between everyday things we take for granted and the ecological significance of it all. Through our work, we hope to encourage young minds to celebrate this.

- Meera Sriram and Praba Ram, authors 

P.S. A review of the book is up at Saffron Tree.