The book On the Wild Side is surprising in many ways. The cover seems like an example of ‘child art’, a happy, colourful picture of a jungle seen through a child’s eyes, with a smiling tiger, an avuncular elephant, a bird, a butterfly, a snake and other flora and fauna in bright, cheerful colours.
The content is more complex and more interesting.
The introduction by Bittu Sahgal (an authority on wildlife, with vast knowledge of the subject and years of field experience) suggests that the author has a mission ‘of sorts’; that she is trying to reach children, who – as the citizens of tomorrow – need to be educated on how to change the world. He says that the artists, the philosophers, the dreamers… (all the people who are not the policy makers, the doers) along with children are the ones ‘who will change the world for the better’. I wish I could agree with him that the world will be changed by the sensitive, the aware, the concerned, the caring. I do agree with him, however, that Katie Bagli in this book, will touch all Nature Lovers, all the ‘children’ from 18 to 80 (and even beyond) with the funny, quirky, wise, witty, profound, surprising (and many more adjectives I can’t think of now) glimpses she gives us of how Nature works.
The first anecdote is about an owl and her babies (which look like a child’s ‘soft toys’). There is a comic moment when the author in her zeal to take the picture of a lifetime, backs and falls bang in the middle of a pile of spiny thorn seeds. The seeds settle into her trousers, and even after many washes, pop up rather painfully. She says (rather ‘tongue-in-cheek’?) that this experience taught her a lesson she wants to teach us, that we must ‘Never Trust Wild Nature’, but be cautious.
Other stories are also valuable to the reader. The lifestyle of the termites in the Dance of the Ants talks about the ‘dance’ and ‘wedding’ of the ants. The next story ‘A Whale of a Problem’ is a tale of how a beached whale is rescued by fishermen. A touching detail is included of how all the village women decide to tie together their softest saris in a rope around the whale’s abdomen so that the whale is not hurt, and then using regular ropes and towed by the fishing boats, the whale is taken out to sea.
A ‘Labour of Love’, ‘The Hunt’ and a few others show us the harsher side of Nature (‘red in tooth and claw’). We can also see people and animals against the backdrop of Nature in her different moods, and the ferocity of the elements (Fire, Drought, Rain, Floods). In the story ‘The Revenge’ the protagonist asks after the flood has destroyed her home, ‘Was it man who had brought on its (Nature’s) wrath?’ It’s a rhetorical question, though, and already answered in the title. Another important question echoes in the elephants’ minds when they are driven out of their corridor by humans: Where can they go? Is there a place not taken over by ‘mighty man’?
Some stories inform us of the interesting, subtle, complex ways in which Nature so superbly ensures that things work just so. The chapter on the silk-cotton bugs and the silk-cotton tree shows us an example of symbiosis. ‘The Best Nest’ is a lesson on animal architecture and shows us how cleverly the Baya Weaver bird builds its nest. ‘The Guest’ is where the author is briefly visited by a Barn Owl, and ‘My Beautiful Blue Umbrella’ tells us about her encounter with a venomous snake. In both these, the author feels enriched and honoured by these experiences.
‘Life after Death’, ‘The Return of the Feathered Performers’ and ‘The Lonely Goatherd’ are stories which deal with more complex ideas. The goatherd asks herself how the mountains will look after the old goatherds die and the young people migrate to the cities. Won’t the mountains look bare without the goats roaming on them? she wonders. We are awed by Ramu’s generosity when he leaves his fields fallow, so that the birds who had been driven away come back. We are also wonderstruck by the grandeur of the cycle of life and death in ‘Life After Death’ and ‘Why are New Born Leaves Red?’
The author reminds us that the beauty of Nature is all around us. With a little watching and waiting, and a lot of respect, we feel blessed by its bounty and beauty. When we feel ‘blessed’, we realize that we should not interfere with or harm what we have been gifted. The nice thing about Katie Bagli is that she reminds us of this, without being preachy or didactic. There is humour and a light touch which both children and adults will respond to. The illustrations, by the author herself, have this element and complement the text. This book is not serious poetry, and it is not meant to be. For the Nature lover, the book will be a fond companion he/she can return to every now and again. For the person who has never looked at birds, butterflies, animals, insects… I say READ THIS BOOK. And then share it with your children.
The reviewer has been a teacher for many years, and now heads The Peepal Grove School, a residential school in Chittoor District, Andhra Pradesh. She particularly enjoyed reviewing this book because it is about Nature, which she loves. She can be reached at [email protected].