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Monday, May 23, 2022

Nature comes alive in two books for pre-tweens by writers Bijal Vachcharajani and Akshay Manwani

Of loss and grief and a showdown between right and wrong -- books on nature that fuel the imagination and feed curiosity

Written by Paromita Chakrabarti | New Delhi |
May 9, 2022 7:46:23 pm
books, books for kids, children's books, book recommendations for kids, Savi and the Memory Keeper, The Tiger, The Bear and The Battle for Mahovann, parenting, indian express newsHere are some interesting reads! (Photos: Amazon.in)

Savi and the Memory Keeper
Bijal Vachharajani
Hachette
242 pages
Rs 350
Appropriate for: 12+ years

books, books for kids, children's books, book recommendations for kids, Savi and the Memory Keeper, The Tiger, The Bear and The Battle for Mahovann, parenting, indian express news (Photo: Amazon.in)

In 2020, in a poignant essay on grief, published in Adda, the online literary magazine of the Commonwealth Foundation, writer and editor Bijal Vachharajani wrote of the gut-wrenching sadness of losing the love of her life out of the blue, “leaving all pronouns to degenerate from ours, us; home to mine; I, house.” In the blur of days and nights that followed, Vachharajani shunned company and sought solace in nature, in its ceaselessness and its circularity. “The Earth is so much a part of my personal loss and at the same time such a comfort… It didn’t turn back the loss. It didn’t heal my grief. It made the bearing of everything a little more possible,” she wrote.

Reading Savi and the Memory Keeper, Vachharajani’s novel that came out in December, is to look at grief afresh, this time through the eyes of its nearly 14-year-old protagonist Savitri Abhay Kumar, better known as Savi. From a family of four — that included her parents and elder sister Meher — and her father’s beloved 42 plants, they had been reduced to a family of three without warning. “It had been six months, four days and three hours since Dad had gone for a staff meeting and never returned. He’d had a heart attack and in four minutes and twenty-five seconds, he’d been declared dead. Just like that.”

It had shattered their little universe, but Savi’s sense of grief and anger is compounded by the fact that she’d had to leave Delhi and move to her father’s hometown, Shajarpur, that place that boasted of the best climate in the world and was a magnet for people looking to make a happy corner of the city their home.

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But as the city’s reputation draws in more and more people, the demand for urbanisation, an euphemism for expansion — more flyovers, malls, skyscrapers and motorable roads — does what crowded metropolitans around the world are fast realising to their peril: it changes the climate that had once been the city’s gift. As Savi reluctantly makes room for Shajarpur in her life, with new friend and a new cat, an eco club that she, once among the “most lethal plant killers”, finds herself a member of, and her father’s old plants that she is now determined to keep alive, she feels a mysterious pull towards a giant ficus tree in her school campus. What is it that the tree and her father’s plants are trying to tell her and what do the mysterious visions, with a familiar young boy in some of them, really mean?

If the themes appear sombre, Vachharajani’s intuitive writing and her innate sense of humour ensure they never weigh heavy on the reader. She leans in on her own grief and solastalgia — a deep sense of distress at the rapid environmental degradation around us that she speaks of in the 2020 essay — to weave together a warm, wistful tale of climate emergency, loss, aching loneliness and the profound realisation of love that lies at the core of all healing.

The Tiger, The Bear and The Battle for Mahovann
Akshay Manwani
Red Panda
280 pages
Rs 299
Appropriate for: 8+ years

books, books for kids, children's books, book recommendations for kids, Savi and the Memory Keeper, The Tiger, The Bear and The Battle for Mahovann, parenting, indian express news (Photo: Amazon.in)

Nature lies at the heart of film and culture writer Akshay Manwani’s children’s book, The Tiger, The Bear and The Battle for Mahovann, too, except, here, it is a fable in which the animals hold centrestage as they play out a familiar tale of greed, betrayal, anger, hurt, and, eventually, wisdom and love.

Dark shadows of dissonance loom over the once peaceful forest of Mahovann when its aged tiger king Veera consigns his trusted aide Bhairav, the bear warrior, to incarceration after an unfortunate incident of abjuration of duty. Bhairav’s son Taranath is incensed by what he considers to be an act of injustice. And, so, after Veera’s retirement, when his son Ustaad assumes the throne, Taranath, incited and abetted by the wily fox Daaga, closes in for revenge. He ousts Ustaad in a coup and exiles the family. Now Ustaad and his partner Sultana must fight for their children and their lives and for all that is right for themselves and for the larger community of Mahovann.

A fable, by its very definition, comes with a moral. To Manwani’s credit, he ensures the journey towards that resolution is not jaded or reductive. Instead, he lets the story lead the reader to an implicit awareness of it, relying on their ability to follow the cues strewn across the narrative. And so, while The Tiger, The Bear and The Battle for Mahovann paves the way for an archetypal showdown between right and wrong, good and evil, it also slips in hints about the chiaroscuro that makes it difficult to read life in absolute terms.

But more than its message, it is Manwani’s cinematic description of nature that brings the forests and its inmates alive. From the flora to the fauna, Manwani renders in vivid detail the diversity of the forest and those who inhabit it — a glossary at the end, for instance, carries species information about the characters in the book. It is an engaging read, marred only by two minor quibbles from a reader’s perspective — a tighter edit would have certainly taken away the sporadic narrative flaccidity and the delightful illustrations by Devashree Damodare would have been more fetching in colour.

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