Friday, September 15, 2017

Stories Through a Writer-Activist’s Eyes

We know we said we’d give you a post on Excavating History but that is in the making right now. (It’s on archaeology so, you know, it needs some time!) In the meanwhile, here’s something else that’s close to our heart that we’d love to share with you.

Regular readers of Tulika’s books would have noticed that we love publishing books which are not just a good story but also say something about the wider world, especially on current social reality. In this post, we feature Rinchin, who while telling us a darned good tale gently draws our attention to the social, political and cultural issues behind it. (We will be talking to her soon asking her exactly how she does it. Watch out for this space!)

So who is Rinchin? She is a writer and activist living and working with tribals in Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh. She loves stories, and feels that everyone should have some to read that reflect the worlds around them.

What we love about Rinchin’s style is her rare and powerful storytelling technique through which she explores issues using her feather-light touch. She is our publishing gold, completely in sync with our approach.

A word here about Tulika’s publishing philosophy. Our focus has been publishing books that offer a range of experiences that is inclusive and representative of different childhoods, different social milieus and different cultural contexts. Since the books are published in eight other languages apart from English, they reach children whose lives are reflected in the stories and the children see themselves in the books. While for the young readers – and often adults – of the books in English for whom these stories show a far-removed reality, the books through the text and pictures, sensitise them to how other children live. Books that extend their ideas and sympathies beyond their privileged circumstances.

Now you see why we are so excited whenever a book by Rinchin comes to us. To give you a better idea, let’s look at some of her books that we have published. She came into our orbit with her first book Sabri’s Colours way back 2009. But we couldn’t just stop with one! So there was The Magical Fish (2013), The Trickster Bird (2016) and now I Will Save My Land (2017).

In Sabri’s Colours illustrated by Shailja Jain, Rinchin tells the story of Sabri, a Bhil-Barela girl of the Nimar region of Madhya Pradesh who loves to draw. She draws everywhere – on paper from old notebooks and the floor of her hut. She draws everything – the sun coming up from behind the hills, her Ayti and Baba and little Chakuli crawling, the chicken and the goats. One day at school, she sees paint flowing out of bottles... and her world changes. No longer is she happy to just draw – now she wants to colour the drawings as well.

Told from Sabri’s point of view, we see her world both in – figuratively – black and white and in colour. It’s a story full of yearning for something that should be naturally and rightfully hers but has been kept away from her. Through the beautifully illustrated story, we are introduced to the subtext of reserve forests, which are the people’s area but have been closed by the government to be ‘protected’ while the villagers including teachers in the school protest against it.The clashing worlds of natural justice and manmade justice resound through the story. The unfairness of the situation hits us even as the story closes with Sabri chasing her classmates who have run away with the bag which contains her precious drawings.

The story of The Magical Fish is itself quite magical. It’s a story told by Gond storyteller Chandrakala Jagat, a one-time construction worker and magnificent storyteller. Rinchin and Maheen heard this story, put it down on paper in Hindi and made a film out if it, in which Chandrakala Jagat herself plays the narrator. Translated by Rinchin into English, The Magical Fish is illustrated by Shakunlata Kushram who is a Gond and paints in the style done by her community on the walls of their homes.

The story goes that the world slowly lost its happiness. People started fighting and were always hungry and tired. An old woman, a dukariya, who could see the real problem, thought and thought about what to do. Then she heard from the wind about the magical fish which lived in a lake made by the spring behind a mountain. So she took her daughters-in-law and set off to the lake. When she got there, she coaxed the magical fish to move to the river and return the happiness of the people.

As seen in the below lines from the story, Chandrakala Jagat’s own life seems to be reflected in the dukariya’s demonstrating physical hard work, courage, perseverance and practicality:

She had built houses that never fell, ponds that did not seep, bridges that stayed strong... Now she set out to bring back happiness.

She ran home and called out to her two daughters: “Leave your sadness behind or carry it with you, but we have to go to the lake behind the mountain.” 

In The Trickster Bird Rinchin narrates with the flavour and affectionate humour of a grandma story, the history of a community condensed into a bedtime story. While listening to the story of Renchu’s grandfather who was fooled by a partridge, we get to know from the grandma the origins of the Paardhi tribals and how they were once bird suppliers to the khansama (chef) of the begum (queen) but now carry the stigma of having once being branded a criminal community. The grandma in the story narrates with such placidity and without complaint how they as a community went from being a people with a profession in their village to becoming displaced ragpickers in a big city, who live in jhuggis. The unfairness of it all again strikes us immediately.

This year, we have possibly Rinchin’s most powerful book so far – I Will Save My Land illustrated by Sagar Kolwankar. It’s the story of a small girl belonging to a tribe somewhere in North Chhattisgarh. Her name is Mati (meaning intellect) and she is on a mission to save her ‘doli’ (field) from being consumed by the big companies who are looking for coal. Carrying all the overtones of maati (earth), little Mati’s story reflects and refracts the stories of many farmer families in India.

Before we wrap up, here’s a treat: a trailer of the book I Will Save My Land. Go on, give it a watch. You can look forward to a long conversation we had with Rinchin in the next post.

Happy reading! 

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