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Looking to learn

Posted in Books by Rrishi on 15 June 2008

Nature guides that can show your children (and you) how to observe

WWF-OUP Nature Guides

Butterflies of India, Thomas Gay, Isaac David Kehimkar, Jagdish Punetha
Trees of India, Pippa Mukherjee
Fishes of India, Seashore Life of India, B F Chhapgar
pp 52-108

It could be said that these are timely books — timely in the sense that it’s about time we had books like this about India. But similar books about animals, plants, environments have been in the market for years. They don’t get much attention, and not just because some of them are not very good. It’s the adults who shop, even for children’s books, and how can butterflies compete with the blockbuster fantasy fiction that everyone else in school is reading?

What sets these books apart is the seriousness with which they attempt to work at child’s-eye level, laying the ground for a category of Indian children’s non-fiction that is non-textbook, non-preachy, non-jargonistic, and non-specialised. These books, let it be said now, will not help your children pass exams.

They may, however, help them to learn how to look at living things, and to take observation seriously. This is possible even if you live in a 10th-floor apartment with few trees around and a park that has given way to a concrete jogging track. There’s still plenty of natural life around, especially at child’s eye level (and very little of it is dangerous).

That said, the publisher is marketing these books as teaching aids, aimed at the lucrative school market. It’s a reasonable idea, and so are the prices, but will books like this really allow teachers to break the stranglehold of “syllabus” that even very young students are subject to? It seems doubtful.

These four books are released as a new series in partnership with WWF India, but in fact some are new editions of older books — about 11 years older, in the case of B F Chhapgar’s books on fishes and seashore life. It’s difficult to see these four books as a complete series in any real sense, since it is hardly comprehensive: fishes, seashore life, trees, and butterflies. The unifying element, perhaps, is the treatment, with uncluttered pages, plentiful illustrations and pleasing, matter-of-fact text.

Chhapgar, a marine biologist, was curator of the Taraporevala Aquarium in Mumbai and worked with the state fisheries department. It’s a rounded set of accomplishments — researcher, educator, technocrat — that makes his books both well-written and well-organised for the uninformed reader, whether adult or child, and conveys his love for the subject.

In the middle of his book on Seashore Life, about the animals and plants that live at or close to the tide line on various kinds of Indian shores, is a section titled “Flotsam and Jetsam”. In it he describes the Portuguese man-of-war, a jellyfish-like creature that is actually a colony of tiny animals cooperating for their survival.

It’s only several paragraphs into the description that Chhapgar mentions the venomous stinging cells for which the creature is famous. He tells us exactly how potent the toxin is, what it is, and what to do about it if you’re stung, and then, without fuss, he goes on to the man-of-war’s sailing habits.

With this judicious treatment, the creature won’t be automatically filed in the reader’s mind under “poisonous and nasty”. That kind of mistake comes from the lazy use of adjectives, such as “the poisonous Portuguese man-of -war”, in which qualities are already ascribed before the facts are presented. That’s bad science and prejudiced observation.

A similarly exhilarating level-headedness enriches his introductory sections, where he discusses how to explore the seashore, where to look and what to look for — and how to take and preserve samples, if necessary. In this book for young readers, he describes the use of formalin and alcohol, warns us to be careful when using them, tells us what to do if we’re careless, and then leaves us to it. How delightful.

Pippa Mukherjee’s (she has taught environmental science, biology and geography at school) Trees of India is similarly capacious in its treatment, if simpler, since she deals with just 42 species of tree.

But the multi-author Butterflies of India doesn’t work nearly as well (one is tempted to argue because none of the authors are educators), because it is not as well organised, is textbookish and misses nearly every trick to engage the reader and provide that crucial interactivity.

With luck, the publishers will find equally passionate and articulate authors to expand this series. Possible topics include “street life of India”, “urban birds of India”, cattle, “farm life” (farmlands as an ecosystem), river life, and perhaps even “high-rise life”, which can visit the creatures we share our homes with.

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