Guardian of the Forests

By JoAnne Saldanha

“LEAVE MY BROTHERS ALONE.” These words stand out on the opening spread of Lady Tarzan! Jamuna takes a Stand, a picture book biography of the indigenous environmental activist Jamuna Tudu, written by Lavanya Karthik, illustrated by Rajiv Eipe and published by Jugnoo Prakashan. The illustrations indicate that the ‘brothers’ being harmed are trees. Jamuna’s fierce cry and arrows scare away the axemen.

As in most indigenous communities, Jamuna’s father brought her up to think of trees as her brothers and sisters. Aware of all that trees do for her, Jamuna cannot imagine a life without them. She is shocked to find that in the village she moves to after marriage, trees are being chopped by the timber mafia, ponds being filled, forests burned to clear the land for farms, and animals and birds hunted for their skin, feathers, bones and meat. When she appeals to her new family, neighbours and villagers to do something, they share their fears about being too small and powerless to take on the timber mafia armed with weapons.

But Jamuna is undaunted. Familial love runs deep and she is determined to protect her beloved ‘siblings’. She starts patrolling the forests by herself, scaring away the loggers, raising alerts when fires are started and planting trees all around her village. Her unrelenting commitment and conviction eventually convince the villagers to join her.

Stories of the brave have the ability to travel on a breeze, through the whispers of rustling leaves and on the wings of birds. Jamuna’s story reaches the ears of many, growing her little army of tree protectors into a large one that spreads across her state. Resisting threats to her home and life, Jamuna leads them fearlessly as they begin to acknowledge trees as their siblings. Together they save over fifty hectares of forest land. New traditions ensure that girls are welcomed at birth and during marriage with the planting of new trees. The people begin to call fearless and strong Jamuna, ‘Lady Tarzan’.

The power of an individual, believing in your cause, finding the motivation and courage to act, appealing for support and, more than anything else, the human-nature relationship… there is much to share and talk about with this book, particularly with children who are older than six years of age.    

There is no doubt that Jamuna Tudu faced plenty of challenges in her undertaking. Yet the narrative tends to skim over details that would be interesting to children and would help them understand the magnitude of what she had to deal with to remain true to her ideals. For instance, underplaying the danger in her story, undermines her courage. Children want to hear about this. Similarly, ‘one day’ doesn’t bring with it a whole army of supporters. Great leaders always have strong pushbacks and hefty hurdles to surmount. What was the build-up to raising her army?

The last line of the book was also a bit disorienting because while the entire story was narrated in third person, the last line is suddenly told in the voice of the trees.

Rajiv Eipe’s illustrations are wonderfully detailed, atmospheric and add little nuances to the text.

What I consider a must in picture book biographies and something that’s often missing, including in this book, is end matter that features a photograph of the person being written about, along with a few details of his/her life. This helps children consolidate their journey through the narrative, making what they are reading very real.

Despite these shortcomings, the book is an inspiring account of an offbeat environmental activist from an underrepresented community and promises to open the room for much discussion and learning.

JoAnne Saldanha is a Story Educator and Library Educator, connecting books and oral stories to topics in the curriculum, popular culture, current affairs, social justice issues, environment issues and social emotional learning.

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