Walking is a Way of Knowing: In a Kadar Forest – Book Review
Authored by Madhuri Ramesh and Manish Chandi, illustrated by Matthew Frame and published by Tara Books.

Books for children often indicate the reading age-group they are targeted at. Sometimes this kind of labelling is very obvious; often, though, it’s hard to tell. For one, the age categorization is only a recommendation; for another, reading choices are entirely subjective and not necessarily only based on reading ability, they also depend on interests and experiences.

Walking is a Way of Knowing defies categorization. It is for everybody and yet could be for nobody in a classroom. Confusing? Not at all, not when you pick up this slim, attractive, green-and-brown-toned book and enter the forest, following closely on the heels of a local, Madiyappan: ‘It is always dark inside the forest and the sky is green. The sunlight filters through the layers of leaves and lights them up in parakeet green, fern green, viper green, and dark spinach green. Only here and there does it reach all the way down, past the leaves, to glint off a rock.’ If you have ever been in a thick forest, you will be transported there once again. If you have never been in one, you will still be transported there.

This book is a tribute to the way of life of the Kadars, a small indigenous community that once lived in the deep forests of south India. Although they are now resettled in villages on the periphery of forests, they still walk regularly along old, familiar paths that cut through the forests. These walks rekindle and reinforce their memories and teach those who walk with them about ways of knowing. As Madiyappan explains, ‘Good forest people are curious, we constantly explore. We often do it for fun, but it can save our lives if we ever lose our way or are blocked by an elephant or a bear. At such times you cannot take the straightest route home, and this knowledge makes all the difference.’

Such a profound observation: knowing that you cannot take the straightest route home can make all the difference! Madiyappan shows them how to look: at the knobs on trees, the smudges on shrubs, the peep of the sky; he instructs to smell: the scent of a bear, the stink of poop like over-ripe bananas, the fragrance of leaves; he shows them what they can learn from touch and feel and sound. As Madiyappan points out, ‘Outsiders like you walk like jungle fowl when they enter the forest: they move in spurts and are noisy, the leaf litter goes all surra burra surra burra, whereas we walk silently and firmly like the elephants.’

Understanding the Path

In a few, vividly written pages bringing alive the experience of being in a forest, we understand that there are innumerable ways of gathering knowledge; you don’t always need books. ‘Most of us can’t read a word,’ says Madiyappan, ‘but we use all our senses, our entire body, to hear the stories of the forest. We can smell the smoke of a forest fire and feel gusts of its fierce air much before we see it. In fact, if we can see it, it probably means that we are much too close to it!’

There’s no doubt Walking is a Way of Knowing is philosophical, but it is also down to earth and nudges the reader to reflect upon her/his life. At the same time, it is light and laced with humor in the manner of people who live close to nature – this last observation comes from having recently watched the riveting Kannada film, Kantara, in which the forest and forest-loving people feature prominently!

So, how will a book like this appeal to children, you ask. Well, as mentioned upfront, this book defies categorization, a feature that makes it accessible to everyone. The walk through the forest can be shared as a read-aloud with little ones; it can bring the forest alive to intermediate-age readers; it can certainly reveal many things about the world and themselves to older readers. Therefore, I would recommend that all librarians read this book so that they can introduce their wards to it. All those caught up in the hurry-burry of city life, please stop, take time off, read this book. It will calm you down without taking you on a guilt trip.

This is a one-of-a-kind book: good for the brain and good for the soul. Good for the body too.

Walking is a Way of Knowing: In a Kadar forest is part of the Parag Honour List 2020. You can buy it here.

Sandhya Rao is a Chennai-based journalist, children’s writer and editor.

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