Earth Day: Nine Indian books that teach children (and adults) the need to protect the environment

April 22 is celebrated every year as Earth Day to demonstrate support for environmental protection, but as we face what is perhaps our biggest environmental crisis ever, here is a list of books that will have readers – young and old – give careful consideration to the planet we inhabit.

The Six Spellmakers of Dorabji Street

A crotchety crone and a dreadful dragon team up to chop down the Bimbli trees in Cosy Castle. If you think this sounds like a fantasy plot, then think again. Or perhaps don’t think again. Confused? Don’t be – instead, read The Six Spellmakers of Dorabji Street by Shabnam Minwalla. A delightful modern day Mumbai book, this is the story of Nivi, Venu, and Sarita who need to use all their imagination and wits to stop their beloved trees from being felled and prevent the magic from being leaked from their lovely building garden. Svabhu Kohli’s illustrations are deliciously fable like, in keeping with this fantabulous adventure which celebrates trees but also the power of children who won’t take no for an answer.

Trash: On Ragpicker Children and Recycling

Gita Wolf, Anushka Ravishankar, and Orijit Sen’s book Trash evolved from a series of workshops they conducted with ragpicker children. Set in Chennai, the story starts with Velu arriving in the big, crowded city after running away from his village. He is soon befriended by Jaya, a ragpicker child who takes him under prickly wing. As Velu gets to work, Sen’s illustrations capture the world Velu and his new friends inhabit. Trashbreaks down complex issues of child labour and ragpicking, and gets readers to question their everyday habits and understand what is the invisible, collateral damage of their waste.

Our Toxic World: A Guide to Hazardous Substances in Our Everyday Lives

A project by NGO Toxics Link, Our Toxic World is a graphic novel by Aniruddha Sen Gupta and Priya Kuriyan and a keeper for all green bookshelves. When you meet the Sachdeva family, they seem like just another ordinary family but as readers get a closer look at them, they recognise the cocktail of toxic substances that are a ubiquitous part of their lives. From building construction, automobile and industrial pollution and green laws to chemicals, waste, food toxins, it’s all in there. The book lays out the effects of hazardous substances but more importantly, it suggests alternative routes to minimise their presence.

The Cycle’s Dream

All a little cycle wants is to grow up to be a motorcycle. After all, what a fine life would it lead, vrooming to lands near and far. Until it reaches a point where it cannot go further because all oil in the world is finished. Spoiler alert – the cycle realises that it very much prefers to be a non-fuel guzzling, eco-friendly vehicle, thank you very much. A brown paper book, The Cycle’s Dream is beautifully produced, written by Prabhat and illustrated in bold black art by Bidyut Rai. A scathing critique of wants over needs.

Something to Chew On

Rohan Chakravarty aka Green Humour has that rare ability to elicit a chuckle while getting readers to think about environmental policies, wildlife issues, and their personal role in the ecosystem. He does that very successfully with his illustrations in Something to Chew On, a book that takes a stab at explaining the weighty subject of food security. Created by Sujatha Padmanabhan, Shiba Desor, Sharmila Deo and Tanya Majmudar, this information-packed book takes a look at the history of agriculture, while tackling the complex issues of food miles, trade, and hunger. It introduces readers to the wonderful world of biodiversity through indigenous foods, cuisine and cultures. As our nation continues to be obsessed with food on social media and television, Something to Chew On helps make connections between the farm and the plate.

The Ouch & Moo Books

The Yellow Ouch & Moo Book for young readers and The Red Ouch & Moo Book for older ones look at the omnipresent plastic bag and the way it impacts the environment and animals, using the cow as an example. Written by Trupti Godbole, Govind Mukundan, and Poonam Bir Kasturi, the yellow book is illustrated by Ishan Ghosh and the red one by Girish TS. While the rhymes aren’t fantastic, the back pages are really informative – with fun games that kids can play at home to reduce plastic consumption as well as simple activities they can do to track it as well. The “Know Your Plastic” section explains the different kind of recyclable and non-recyclable plastics and what happens to them once they are binned. A super way to introduce waste and recycling to children and adults. There’s also their Ooze book series that looks at e-waste.

My Big Books

Fresh off the press is the “My Big Book” series which includes My Big Book of Earth and My Big Book of Global Warming, edited by Geeta Dharmarajan. The books are a mash of drawings, stunning illustrations, stories and poems about the planet. My Big Book of Earth comes with a translated poem from Tamil poet Avvaiyar, stories by Vijaya Ghose and M. Mukundan, and illustrations by Murali Nagapuzha, Kalyani Ganapathy, Jemma Jose, Sumati, Asudev, Meena Verma among others. My Big Book of Global Warming is also a mix of fiction and non-fiction, with tips and trivia.


The tree whisperer

Trees, writes Peter Wohlleben in his book, The Hidden Life of Trees, are social beings. They can defend themselves, share resources, and communicate with each other using “olfactory, visual, and electrical signals”.

In Ranjit Lal’s new book, The Trees of Medley Gardens (Red Turtle), they can talk your ear off. They will gossip, tease, dole out wisdom, and even play pranks on you. When Tadpole and her brother Vishwajit move with their family, they discover that the sacred grove of trees from the neighbouring Medley Gardens can talk to them. Soon they befriend the wise old Banyan Ustadji, the Peepul Princesses, and find out exactly what the Mango trees think of kids scampering up and down their branches, stealing mangoes. But the trees are hiding a secret and it all maybe unearthed if the owners of Medley Gardens decide to sell the place. It all comes down to Tadpole, Vish, and his friend Zafia to figure out what to do.

“The idea came about because I felt that trees were just taken for granted (and cut down at will) and ignored – way out of proportion to their worth, and considering what they do for us – and all of life,” said Lal, over email. Lal’s love for both flora and fauna is well-documented in many of his books, whether it’s The Tigers of Taboo Valley (Red Turtle), The Caterpillar Who Went on a Diet and Other Stories (Puffin), or Every Dog has its Tale (Scholastic).

Lal insists that he doesn’t talk to trees in real life and which is why he turned to fiction for that conversation. “Am nuts enough without actually having to go and have conversations with trees (nor do I hug them as some nasty ‘Rottweiler’ of an ant is sure to bite me in the armpits) so I made the kids do that in the story,” he said. “I think the most ‘memorable’ conversation [in the book] has to be the one where it is pointed out to Ustadji, that while he may be the grand old ‘tree of knowledge’ and a ‘keystone’ species blah blah blah, he and his ilk are still dependent for their survival on a minuscule wasp. Something we need to remember otherwise too.”

That is one of the key takeaways from the book – how everyone’s survival on this planet is inextricably linked with each other. “All you have to do is to is to take time out and think a little – and it’ll all become very clear how dependent all life forms are on trees and plants,” Lal explained. The children in the book realise that they can talk to pretty much any tree, flower, or animal. Sometimes it’s annoying because really some of the plants can be a bit of a sap like the hypochondriac Neems that are always whining. It can also be scary when they meet the dreadful Julifloraa that are armed to the teeth with spiked thorns. While at other times, they have some fabulous chats about life on planet Earth, whether it’s seed dispersal or events in history.

Lal manages to do all this without preaching, and at the same time he ensures that the reader is chuckling and guffawing through the book. “If I start yawning or nod off or start fidgeting while writing I know I’m being preachy and also of course totally boring,” said Lal, about his own writing. For instance, at one point, the mischievous (and pompous) grasses burst out in song, praising themselves, “Without us grasses, you won’t have bread! Without us grasses you’ll all be dead!” they then go on to talk about how they, the grasses, have taken over most of the land in the world – “You came, you planted, we conquered!” Food Security lesson 101.

Lal is concerned that children are more and more disconnected with nature today. “Yes, they’re less connected to nature thanks to the Internet, TV, video games, social (or rather anti-social) media etc,” he said. “They need to go out more – and not to malls! What gives one hope is watching kids play on and around trees, whenever they’re presented with the opportunity and their parents/teachers are not hovering around armed with hand sanitizers and having hysterics! I still believe if you leave a kid near a tree – give him/her some time and space and take away the smartphone etc – he/she will be halfway up the tree within the hour!” Honestly, after reading The Trees of Medley Gardens,that just be one side effect your children may end up with – climbing and talking to trees.

In fact, Lal points out that even grown-ups need to do the same. “We stop ‘talking to’ trees as we become adults because we think only kids should do so,” he said. “Actually you don’t have to talk to trees, you just need to sit beneath one, or on one and listen. We do too much talking and too little listening anyway!”

Safaris in a Box

Having worked with a number of animal advocacy and wildlife conservation organisations, most of my friends assume that I know everything there is to know about animals. Especially birds. So, when we hear a bird call on a nature trail, they look at me expectantly. They are waiting for me to name the species, and that too without the help of Google or a Rememberall. Of course, I can name a few– a flash of blue means kingfisher, a flutter of a black and white tail and I can wisely whisper, “tree pie”, or declare with some swagger that the birds circling in the air above are raptors. Try it sometime. It sounds clever and everyone believes you if you say it confidently enough.

Fortunately, help has come to me in the form of wildlife games, which have now become a staple at gatherings and a trusted travel companion. Of course these are actually meant for children, and are fantastic tools that teachers can use in the classroom as well.

Last Wilderness Bingo and Dominoes: When going away on a vacation, card games are an easy travel companion. They are light and easy to slip into any bag. Which is why I was thrilled when I came across the Last Wilderness Foundation’s Wildlife Bingo. The bilingual game’s simple – you have to collect nine stones to begin the game. Each player is given one bingo card which has different trees, animals, birds, and reptiles drawn on them. The stack of individual animal cards go into a bag. To play, you pick out a card from the bag and call out the name of the animal, which is written in English and Hindi. Show the card to players and put it aside. The players that have the particular animal on their bingo cards place a stone on it. The first player to have stones on all nine species yells “Bingo!” and wins.

Of course, I have put a new spin on the game and call it Story Bingo. Each player makes up a story with the bingo card they get; and all the species on the card need to be in their tale. We have come up with tall tales of a Chow-Singha that loves eating and a Barn Owl that has insomnia. The cards are beautifully illustrated and promise hours of fun.

Then there’s the Dominoes game – there are 30 cards divided in half, forming two squares. One square has the name of an animal, and the other a different animal’s name. Players have to find the matching animal and place it next to its correct name. There are lots of possible combinations and it gets harder to place the cards correctly as the game progresses. Available at

Nature Conservation Foundation Bird Flash Cards: These set of 40 flashcards introduce children (and me) to 40 common birds of India. One side has photos of the bird and the other details about its natural history, habitat and food. There’s also a quiz, which I tanked the first time around, but I promise you I am getting better at it.

The cards double up for a memory game, just like the playing cards memory game. And from their website, you can even download a free instruction PDF on how to use the flashcards for different games such as drawing and quizzing.

I also use the cards as writing prompts when conducting workshops with children. The free e-kit comes with a common birds’ sound folder – and you can listen and identify the sounds of the Asian koel, black kite, and white-throated kingfisher, among others. All birds that I can now identify. Mission accomplished! Available at

Kaadoo: Kaadoo is a board game, and the makers call “a safari in a box”. What I love about this game is that the pawns are crafted by Channapatna toy makers and the animal sighting cards hand-painted by wildlife artists. The games are available in different versions including the Nilgiri Biosphere, African Savannah, Western India, and Central India editions.

Playing is simple – you roll the dice to move around the “forest” board, and get to collect animal sighting cards. It involved math and natural history both. What is amazing is that the game instructions are available in 17 languages! Their newest game, Jungle Patrol, requires the player to assist forest rangers to outwit notorious brigands from entering the core of the jungle and wreaking havoc. If only real life could be this awesome. Available at

P.S. If I encounter a bird or insect that I can’t identify despite these games, I promptly message my wildlife friend, Radha Rangarajan, and she answers all my queries. But unfortunately not everyone has their own phone-a-friend option, which is why, game on.

What are you reading this Earth Day?

11 delightful children’s books on nature and environment

Here’s a list of books that are must-haves on your children’s bookshelves. And we wouldn’t be surprised if you ended up borrowing them to read as well.

 The Honey Hunter

Karthika Naïr and Joëlle Jolivet

Young Zubaan

This marvellous book done in pop colours takes you to the Sundarbans, introducing children to mangroves, the honey hunters, and the tiger. Karthika Naïr’s prose is eloquent, while Joëlle Jolivet’s illustrations will make you want to linger over each lavishly produced page.

Baaware Beej

Vishakha Chanchani

Tulika Books

Tree babies, as a friend calls seeds, are magical things. And if there was a book that would make you love Hindi and prose, it’s Baawre Beej (roughly translates to wild and mad seeds). This picture book by Vishaka Chanchani is about farmer Beeju Bhaiya and talks about seeds, earth and soil. The tempo of the prose makes it a perfect read aloud story – at the end of which you will be giddy with joy and itching to go and plant some seeds.

Talking of seeds, also check out Deepa Balsavar’s The Seed (Tulika Books), a wonderful bilingual book which will make the young ones toddle off to garden.

Nature and Environment STEM Books


Pratham Books StoryWeaver

For the last couple of years, the Pratham Books’ StoryWeaver platform has been creating STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math – books. I got the opportunity to edit a set of books on nature and environment for them. There are books on a range of subjects, including climate change, littering, green heroes, environment and migration, seeds, seasonal foods, and canopy forests. Many of these books are also available in multiple languages! You can read about them here:

When I grow up I want to be a Tiger

Prerna Singh Bindra and Maya Ramaswamy

Speaking Tiger

Meet T-Cubs, a darling little tiger cub who does what tiger cubs do. He plays, he frolics, and he learns to hunt alongside his mother. All is well in his forest, until one day his Ma disappears. Suddenly the threats that face T-Cub become alarmingly real. Will T-Cub get to grow up to be a tiger? Maya Ramaswamy’s gorgeous illustrations plunge you into the marvellous forests of India. And it’s a joy to learn about the tiger’s characteristics through Prerna Singh Bindra’s writings.

Birds from my Window and the Antics they get up to

Ranjit Lal


When it comes to nature writing for children, Ranjit Lal’s books are a wonderful gateway into that world. He writes with his characteristic dry wit and astute understanding of animals. In Birds from My Window, he writes about the everyday feathered friends he observes – from the little brown sparrow to the jungle babblers. Budding ornithologists will love this book. Also, check out The Tigers of Taboo Valley (Red Turtle) by Lal. It’s the story of a Rana Shaan-Bahadur, the alpha-male tiger of Sher-Kila National Park, who finds himself lumped with the care of four tiger cubs. It’s a hilarious story with some hard truths about the perils our forests face today.

The Sea in a Bucket

Deepa Balsavar and Priti Rajwade


In just ten pages, The Sea in a Bucket tells the story of the water cycle. Sonu is heading to the community tap to fill up a bucket of water, but he ends up learning about its journey from the sea to his bucket. Deepa Balsavar’s illustrations make for a lovely pullout poster at the end of the book with the entire ecosystem on it.

Trash! On Ragpicker Children and Recycling

Gita Wolf, Anushka Ravishankar and Orijit Sen

Tara Books

In the note to Parents and Educators, the authors explain that the book “evolved from a series of workshops” that were conducted with rag picker children. “We decided to write this book on the complex issues of child labour and the environment because we believe that problematic themes have a place in children’s literature. Books can deal openly and honestly with the harsher realities of life, which children see around them every day”. Trash! tells the story of Velu, who runs away from his home and comes to Chennai, a city in South India. Here he is befriended by Jaya, a ragpicker. The book is peppered with exercises such as Houses from Trash – where readers have to observe a slum settlement and think “what some people throw away as waste is valuable to others”. They then also have to identify the waste that often goes into the making of slums.

Our Toxic World: A guide to hazardous substances in our everyday lives

Aniruddha Sen Gupta and Priya Kurian

Sage Publications and Toxics Link.

Our Toxic World is a graphic novel co-published by Delhi-based NGO Toxic Link. The book is divided into 12 parts that look at Construction, Automobile pollution, Environmental laws, Industrial pollution, chemicals, Electronic waste, Plastics, Heavy metals, Food, Household waste, Recycling, and Festivals.

The story is told through the eyes of a family and in the form of a graphic novel. The comic form works very well, making a complex subject easy to understand and accept. Further, panel pages alternate with fact sheets that talk about hazardous substances and also offer solutions for non-toxic everyday products.

Alphabet Books


You are never too old for alphabet books, especially for fun ones like these books. Prabha Mallya looks at collective nouns in The Alphabet of Animals and Birds (Red Turtle). Learn about a pride of lions as well that a group of owls is called a parliament! There’s also the wonderful Book of Beasts (Duckbill) by M Krishnan, with some beautiful illustrations by one of the country’s most beloved naturalists.

The Six Spellmakers of Dorabji Street

Shabnam Minwalla

Hachette India.

Journalist Shabnam Minwalla’s charming book is based in Mumbai. Nivi and Nikhil move to the city with their parents and quickly befriend other children who live in Cosy Castle on Dorabji Street. However, Nivi and her new best friend Sarita find that their lovely hideout, a gigantic tree in the community garden, is going to be felled by two evil neighbours. Using their wit and with a little bit of magic, they set about foiling their plans and saving their beloved tree.

Farmer Falgu series

Chitra Soundar and Kanika Nair

Karadi Tales

If you’re looking for a book where a farmer is the protagonist, then turn to Chitra Soundar’s Farmer Falgu series. In Farmer Falgu Goes to the Market, the farmer must get his produce to the market. Off he goes on his cart, but the journey is filled with lots of disasters! Will he get to the market in time? In Farmer Falgu Takes a Trip, the farmer takes a holiday from his farm and heads off on his cart. Does he find the solace he wants? Farmer Falgu Goes Kite Flying is also part of the series.


Tigers are people too

All T-Cub wants to do is grow up to be a tiger. And really, it shouldn’t be this hard — he is a tiger cub already. And that’s when we meet him, in When I Grow Up I Want to be a Tiger, a picture book by Prerna Singh Bindra and Maya Ramaswamy, where he is splashing about in water, jumping at his copy-cat tiger reflection, learning to hunt through play. Life’s good for T-Cub, until one day, his mother vanishes, and the cub and his sibling are left to fend for themselves. Which makes you wonder, with all the threats that the species faces, will T-Cub grow up to be a tiger?

Joys of childhood

Published by Speaking Tiger, the picture book brings together the wonders of the forest and the magnificence of the tiger, along with the many threats this animal faces today. At the same time, it’s a book about the joys of childhood, and the wonderful bond between parents and their children. Beautifully produced, When I Grow Up is designed by Pranav Capila, editor of Second Skin Media, an editorial and design agency focused on wildlife conservation.

As a journalist, Bindra has written over 1,500 articles on nature and wildlife, and authored The King and I: Travels in Tigerland and Voices in the Wilderness for adults. When I Grow Up is her first book for children. “I ran a nature column for children for maybe a year. I did it for The Asian Age,” said Bindra, who has also worked with Sanctuary Asia. “See, the world of conservation is a grim one. Full of ‘bad’ stories of forests being destroyed, elephants being crushed by trains, tigers and pangolins being poached, leopards being beaten to death, rivers being dammed and polluted… you get the drift? It’s a constant battle, and the despair hits you. So, I sat back, and thought, why do I do this? And the answer is: Because I care! Because nature is magical, mysterious, it inspires wonder, and awe. I decided to pen this book… to revive that little bit of magic.”

And the book inspires wonder, more so because of Ramaswamy’s illustrations — they are lush and awe-inspiring. A hornbill flies out of one page, and on another, a tiger’s tail disappears around a verdant corner. Ramaswamy, who is known for her wildlife art, conjures up a forest with her brush, the animals and birds rendered with painstaking detail. “Maya got the pulse of the story,” said Bindra, “and she has made T-Cub and his ma, and his sister come alive… the illustrations are gorgeous, and I fell in love with T-Cub all over again.”

T-Cub is the amalgamation of the many tiger cubs that Bindra has met over time, during her trips to the forests of India. Snippets from fellow conservationist and forest staff have gone into the book, making it a veritable trove of information about tigers. “I remember when I went to Bandhavgarh, I saw a tigress sleeping with her three cubs. One of them, the forest guard told me, was a male and a curious kid. And bold. The cub got up to take a closer look. As her got a little too close, the mamma got up in a second, snarled, and gave him a sound whack which had him scurrying back to her! She was disciplining him, just like our mothers do!

Wildlife faces a crisis

There’s a sense of beauty, followed by a feeling of urgency in the story. Bindra’s work — she has been a member of India’s National Board for Wildlife and its Standing Committee from 2010 to 2013 — has always fuelled the discussion around wildlife conservation. “There is a sense of urgency in the wildlife scenario today,” said Bindra. “Wildlife is facing its worst crisis ever; we are in the age of the sixth extinction. How can one ignore that, or not care? It’s intrinsic to the work I do, it is why I do what I do. And yes, the sense of urgency, or the conservation message does weave in my writing, whether it be travelogues or for children. The sense of beauty moves you to care for the tiger, the forest and what you care for, you fight for.”

But mostly for Bindra, this book is important because she feels the need to share the tiger’s story with children. “It is also because I find children increasingly very removed from nature, the outdoors, these days,” she said. “I hope it will bring tigers alive for them, show them that tigers are people too (only better!), that animals, even tigers have personalities.”

Mountain Getaway: Himalayan Comforts at Grand Oak Manor in Binsar

Stilling views, Kumaoni thalis, and forest hikes at this heritage retreat in Kumaon.

As a child, I spent hours reading and re-reading Enid Blyton’s The Magic Faraway Tree. Like the characters in the book, I too yearned to visit the Enchanted Wood, climb up the sturdy old tree, and visit the Land of Birthdays and the Land of Dreams. This year, I met my own magic faraway tree, tucked away in the Kumaon hills of Uttarakhand. As my friends and I drove up in a jeep to the Tree of Life Grand Oak Manor in Binsar, we were greeted by an imposing oak tree that stood guard at its entrance. Its many branches fanned out, stretching to infinity, home to magical lands for birds, bees, and insects. Behind its canopy, we could glimpse the Himalayas. We were smitten.

Grand Oak Manor has ample natural and manmade heritage. Nestled in the heart of the Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary, the property was once the home of General Sir Henry Ramsay, the British Commissioner of Kumaon in the mid 1800s. About a century later, in 1931, it was bought by a gent called Rai Bahadur Harkishan Lal Sah Gangola. Since then, it has passed down from one generation to another to our hosts Sindhu Gangola and his wife Shikha, a gracious couple that made us feel at home immediately.

Living in different cities, my friends and I look forward to our annual holiday together to reconnect away from the chaos of our work and daily routines. And there was no better place to do this than the balcony of our room. On most days, cotton candy clouds stole around us, softening the folds of the surrounding hills. It was a deeply comforting place: perfect for long conversations, but also for companionable silences, where the only sound we heard was leaves gently falling to the ground. Our very own magical land, especially at dawn when the Himalayan peaks shined like molten gold.



Our mornings began with generous breakfasts of aloo parathas slathered with butter, and views of jewel-coloured minivets darting about the oak tree. With every meal, we learned a little more about Binsar’s habitat. We had bhang chutney made from locally grown plants, bottles of peach preserve made in Almora, and a Kumaoni dinner starring kathpalyo, a fragrant yoghurt broth flavoured with Himalayan spices. Almost every evening, we would leave our dining table groaning, declaring that we couldn’t possibly eat again—until the next meal when our noble intentions vanished like the sun on a foggy day.

We spent most of our time on the balcony or reading in Grand Oak’s handsome study, but occasionally, we’d venture out to go exploring. Binsar’s forest is bewitching, with its moss-covered trees, orchestra of cicadas, and abundance of birdlife. In the company of our guide, Hemjoshi, we discovered that the Kumaoni names for flora is often more poetic than their English names. Like kakudimakodi, the violet, bell-shaped flower that is named after a spider that spins her web in its hollow. When one friend and I cursed our fitness levels (it’s an easy hike by the way), Hemjoshi grinned and told us that we will go “mathu, maath”, slowly-slowly in Kumaoni.


Mathu, maath embodies the philosophy of Grand Oak: It’s a space to wind down, take deep breaths of brisk mountain air, and live deeply and significantly, if only for a few days. My stay was about the small joys: the crunch of autumn leaves beneath my shoes, the warmth of close friendships, the velvety feel of moss under my palm. It was a rejuvenating break, and a timely reminder of what American naturalist Henry David Thoreau said, “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.”

Photo courtesy Tree of Life Grand Oak Manor


The Tree of Life Grand Oak Manor has nine rooms, on the ground and first floor. Standard tariff includes breakfast, though it’s best to book on a breakfast and dinner plan while making reservations. (Doubles ₹9,900, including breakfast and dinner; +91-9602091000; More details here.)

Getting There

The Grand Oak Manor is located inside Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary in Uttarakhand. It is 380km/9.5hr from Delhi and 125km/3.5hr from Kathgodam, which is the closest railway station. Almora, 25km/50min away, is the closest town and Pantnagar 150km/4.5hr is the closest airport.

From Delhi, the best alternative to driving is taking the overnight Ranikhet Express or the Shatabdi, which leaves Anand Vihar terminus at 6 a.m. and arrives at Kathgodam at 11.30 a.m. Grand Oak can organise a taxi from Kathgodam railway station (Innova, ₹4,500 one way).

Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary

Sanctuary gates are open between sunrise and sunset so entry and exit must be planned accordingly. Entry fee is ₹150 for Indian nationals and ₹600 for foreign travellers. Vehicle charges are ₹250.

The Secret Life of (Tree-Loving) Travellers

Getting to the root of the matter.


I was all of ten years old and utterly miserable. I had just moved to Mumbai, I missed my friends, and my bedroom window was caged off with box grilles. Too shy to talk to humans, I would spend my time staring at the mango tree outside our apartment, drawn to its gnarled branches, and its leaves extending like many green fingers towards the sun. It was home to a flock of rose-ringed parakeets, whose orchestra of squawks and screeches would wake me every day. Every morning, the parakeets waited impatiently for my mum to lay out their breakfast of jowar seeds and water. With time, I noticed the other inhabitants of its canopy, an intricate overhead lace that was home to armies of ants, red and black, spiders and butterflies, birds and bees. It was like a show, of which I never tired.

Trees are an undeniable part of our urban landscape, and yet, most of us barely notice them. I hear friends—and sometimes even myself—complain about the constant need to escape the city to get closer to nature, but I forget that nature is right here, outside our windows and balconies. And despite being often smack dab in the middle of traffic, trees are a mysterious world of their own.

My climate science professor in university used to call trees “his community”—and that’s what they really are. In The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate, author Peter Wohlleben tells us how trees are actually complex beings, that are very social in nature. The umbrella thorn acacias from the African savannah for instance, pump their leaves with a distasteful poison when giraffes begin to munch on them. Simultaneously, they also emit ethylene gas in to the air, warning neighbouring trees of the presence of a predator. They too pump toxins into their own leaves and within minutes, the giraffes have to move to greener pastures. The book is filled with wondrous anecdotes that illustrate how trees communicate, nourish their ailing companions, and support their young. The human race could learn a thing or two from them.

When I travel too, it is trees to which I am drawn. They are part of my mental scrapbook of the places I visit, the way other people collect memories of food and monuments. In Shantiniketan last December, I sat by a champa tree, happily sketching and procrastinating, instead of writing my children’s book. In Costa Rica where I studied for a year, I stared agape at the rainbow eucalyptus tree, its many-coloured trunk—green, orange, and crimson in parts—like a living, breathing oil-painting masterpiece. I couldn’t stop myself from hugging a mighty baobab in Mandu in Madhya Pradesh, its branches stretched out, as if welcoming me in its embrace; while in Binsar in Uttarakhand, my attention was divided between a grand old oak tree, and a bare-branched walnut tree.

One autumn in the German city of Bonn, I stared reverently at an ancient ginkgo tree, tucking away a delicate, golden fan-shaped leaf in my notebook. A piece of history is now pressed between its pages, for the ginkgo is the only living species of the division Ginkgophyta, found in fossils some 270 million years ago. A testament to the fact that trees have stood by us for eons.

Trees have fed our literary, artistic, and cinematic imagination since forever—whether it’s the talking and walking Ents in The Lord of The Rings or the vicious Whomping Willow in the Harry Potter series, or Winnie the Pooh’s honey tree. Our folk tales and mythology are woven with stories about trees offering shade, food, advice, and enlightenment. What would Bollywood have done without trees to run romantically around? Glass buildings just don’t make the cut when it comes to serenading and wooing your beloved.

My own love affair with trees has deepened thanks to a book called Discover Avenue Trees: A Pocket Guide by Karthikeyan S. Now, I don’t just look up at a tree and its canopy. I look down at its roots, the flowers and seed pods strewn below it. I pick up the Cassia javanica tree’s seed pod, listening to the hollow sound it makes when rattled. I whirl the core of the mahogany seeds and watch as it spins down, its wings turning like the blades of a helicopter. And when I am in a more ponderous mood, I stand inside the bamboo grove in Cubbon Park. As the wind begins to lift, the leaves begin to rustle, gently at first and then louder, until it rises to a crescendo, eclipsing all thoughts and sorrows. It works every single time.

It’s a poorly kept secret, and allow me to let you in on it: Trees can be the best of companions. They’re patient, entertaining, and generous. You only have to seek them out.

Fantastic Beasts shows muggles there’s no magic in a world without the wild

Newt Artemis Fido Scamander reminds us that without animals, Earth isn’t a place called home.

Newton (“Newt”) Artemis Fido Scamander went down in wizarding history for many of his achievements, including writing the seminal Hogwarts textbook Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and bringing about the ban on experimental breeding. But after the biopic on him, I think Scamander will, perhaps, be best remembered in the muggle and No-Maj world for his wildlife conservation beliefs.

In the movie Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, magizoologist Scamander (played by Eddie Redmayne) comes to New York in 1926 with a suitcase full of magical creatures. Things begin to unravel when some of these fantastic creatures escape into the city, plus there’s an inexplicable force wreaking havoc at the same time. Fantastic Beasts is a charming film, full of wondrous bits. It’s set in the familiar world of magic, but with a new narrative that also makes a strong case for conservation.

A suitcase packed with wild things

In the eponymous book that JK Rowling published as a Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry textbook in aid of Comic Relief UK in 2001, we first learned about Scamander who, at the age of seven, “spent hours in his bedroom dismembering Horklumps” and then went on to travel across dark jungles, marshy bogs, and bright desserts to learn more about the “curious habits of beasts”. I couldn’t help but imagine Scamander as a cross between David Attenborough and Gerald Durrell. More so, when we got to examine the contents of his suitcase in the movie.The suitcase (spoiler alert) is a world unto itself for magical creatures, and it’s reminiscent of the many animal rescue and rehabilitation centres around the world. Such as the Wild Animal Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre on the outskirts of Pune, managed by The Indian Herpetological Society (IHS) that offers specialised care for injured and orphaned animals, and helps rehabilitate wild animals back into their natural homes. Or Wildlife SOS’s Agra Bear Rescue Facility, a centre for rescued sloth bears. Like Frank – the thunderbird, many of these animals have been trafficked or chained up and some will be returned to their homes in the wild.

Unpacking speciesism in the Anthropocene

In his book, Scamander questions the wizarding world’s earlier attempts at designating non-human magical creatures as “beasts”, as compared to “beings”. “Being”, he says, is a creature worthy of legal rights and a voice in the governance of the magical world. A stark contrast to the idea of speciesism, an idea that humans have greater moral rights than animals.

These are concepts we should reflect upon – as the planet hurtles towards a warmer period that is hastening the loss of biodiversity, as the green light is given for forests (home to the muggle fantastic animals) to be cleared for “development” projects, and as we enter the Age of Extinction for many species. The destruction is apparent, as are its consequences. The year 2016 is set to be the warmest in temperature records since 1880; climate change may be the reason behind the extinction of the small mammal Bramble Cay melomys in the Great Barrier Reef; and in India, we are already looking at horrific pollution levels and unprecedented weather patterns.

In a paper titled “The New Noah’s Ark”, research scientist Ernie Small pointed out that “Most of the world’s species at risk of extinction are neither particularly attractive nor obviously useful, and consequently lack conservation support. In contrast, the public, politicians, scientists, the media and conservation organisations are extremely sympathetic to a select number of well-known and admired species, variously called flagship, charismatic, iconic, emblematic, marquee and poster species.” Another thing that we can take away from Fantastic Beasts.

A friend pointed out that she loved that not all that animals in the movie were cute or even attractive. “Because it sort of drove the point home that you don’t preserve animals just because they’re photogenic,” she said. Whether it’s the enormous erumpent, the luminescent ashwinder, or the fragile bowtruckle, they are all as important for Scamander, like the tree frog, the grey hornbill, and the royal Bengal tiger are for wildlife conservationists.

A case for conservation in the muggle world

In fact, as Scamander writes, “Imperfect understanding is often more dangerous than ignorance”, and that’s often what determines our interactions with nature. Superstitions about unlucky owls, myths of the potency of the rhino’s horn or the fallacy of speciesism has led to owls being injured by stones, birds being imprisoned in tiny cages, and rhinos being poached to near-extinction. When it comes to his fantastic creatures, Scamander says that he hopes to, “rescue, nurture and protect them”, and gently attempt to educate his fellow wizards about them. And let us hope, some Muggles along the way.

Which is what Fantastic Beasts really manages to do – remind us that without these animals, the world would be a much drearier place to live in. Scamander writes that magizoology matters because it ensures that “future generation of witches and wizards enjoy their [fantastic beings] strange beauty and powers as we have been privileged to do”.

Kind of like what Attenborough once said, “It seems to me that the natural world is the greatest source of excitement; the greatest source of visual beauty; the greatest source of intellectual interest. It is the greatest source of so much in life that makes life worth living.”

Our planet would be a poorer place without house sparrows taking a dust bath, a funnel web spider spinning her web with a funnel at its centre, or a mother elephant protecting her calf by gently pushing him behind her trunk. Without them, Earth isn’t a place called home.


A most unusual friendship

Maya G. Leonard’s fictional tale of a boy and the world of beetles is written with humour, warmth and respect


What happens when you’re terrified of insects? You write a book about them, of course. Or at least that’s what Maya G. Leonard did, and the result is the brilliant Beetle Boy (Scholastic), the first of a three-book series.

“I was writing a different story, about a villain who I imagined living in a place filled with insects, which I recognise now is a terrible cliché,” says Leonard, who lives in Brighton and works as a digital producer with the National Theatre in London. “Insects are often used to suggest a negative otherness,” she adds.

Fascinating insects

As Leonard began researching insects, she found herself fascinated by them. “I Googled different types of insects, to describe them accurately, and I was genuinely shocked when I learned about beetles and how adaptable, important and beautiful they are,” she says, in an email interview. “I don’t know if it was my own fear of insects, lack of education in the natural world or plain ignorance that meant I’d grown to adulthood without realising how wonderful these creatures are, but I was interested in that ignorance. I’m very ordinary, and I thought, if I didn’t know how essential beetles are to our ecosystem, then there is a good chance that most people don’t know. I decided to do something about my ignorance, something positive, and tell a story where the insects are the good guys.”

About a boy

The book, Beetle Boy, is the story of Darkus Cuttle, a 13-year-old boy whose father suddenly disappears from his workplace, the Natural History Museum. The mystery deepens when Baxter, a clever rhinoceros beetle befriends Darkus. So many questions: how does Baxter understand Darkus, are these mysterious events connected with the evil Lucretia Cutter who has built an empire of insect jewellery, and can Darkus count on his new friends, Virginia and Bertolt?

Of course, Beetle Boy is a triumph in that it underscores the value of unlikely friendships and makes for a thrilling read. “Children’s hearts and eyes are open to the wonder of the world and they are slow to judge,” says Leonard. “The story had to be about children discovering the wonderful world of beetles because adult’s opinions are often already formed and resistant to change. At the heart of this story is the powerful relationship between a boy and a beetle, and the friendships he makes in the face of adversity. It is those friendships that give him the courage to be heroic and find his father.”

But what also makes it an unusual story is the manner in which Leonard conjures up a sense of wonder about arthropods. You can’t help but marvel at her descriptions of the stag beetles with their “monstrous antler-like mandibles” or frog-legged beetles with their cherry-red exoskeleton that shimmers as it moves, or wonder at dung beetles and Hercules beetles. There’s awe, humour, warmth, and respect in Leonard’s portrayal of beetles. Suddenly, you want to be out there, peering at every blade of grass, observing these beautiful, wondrous creatures.

“I did all of the research for Beetle Boy by myself, over four years,” says Leonard. “I read everything I could, watched every video, looked at a billion images and filled my head with beetles. I care greatly that I do justice to the beetles, and in writing about entomologists, I wanted to show the importance of the science and the work they do.” When Leonard got a publishing deal with Chicken House, she decided to get an entomologist to look at the story. “I wouldn’t have let it be published without a scientist approving of the content,” she says. “That’s how I met Dr. Sarah Beynon, who is a specialist in dung beetles and runs The Bug Farm in Pembrokeshire. She was amazing, and edited the book for factual accuracy, pointing out my rookie errors. For example, I’d referred to a beetle’s exoskeleton as a shell, which I corrected.”

Cast of characters

Leonard also throws in a handful of unforgettable characters: human and insects, one of the most compelling being Lucretia Cutter. “I love a good villainess, because they shock or frighten a reader by violently bucking the gender stereotypes of women as fragile, maternal or compliant,” says the writer. “For me, a great villainess has to have intense desires, a searing intellect and an intriguing glamour or mesmerising repulsiveness.

I knew before I started writing Beetle Boy that my power-hungry scientist and super-villain would be a woman. I named her ‘Lucretia’ after the infamous Lucrezia Borgia who has inspired many villainous incarnations and ‘Cutter’ for the tailoring job it describes, as well as the literal meaning of the word. There is nothing soft about Lucretia Cutter, she’s all malicious intent and sharp edges. I can’t say much more about her without ruining the story, but she will horrify you.

Respecting nature

A recurrent theme in Beetle Boy is respect for nature: there’s sinister genetics engineering at play, and at the same time, you realise how unique the insects are, without being tampered with. “When I was researching for Beetle Boy I discovered that humans have already genetically engineered insects, fruit flies and mosquitoes,” says Leonard.

“The debate around the possible dangers of meddling with genetics and the impact on the ecosystem interested me,” she says.

“I wondered what might happen if you genetically engineered the most adaptable creature on the planet, which is of course the beetle. As far as I know, there has been no genetic engineering of beetles, which left me free to imagine. I love the Frankenstein story and am drawn to questions of this nature, because there is no right or wrong, just responsibility and consequence.”

The second book in the trilogy, Beetle Queen, is slated to be published in April 2017, with Leonard promising that the “adventure gets darker, funnier, and travels further than Beetle Boy”.

If we were beetles, our antennae would be quivering with anticipation.

Three things you must know about the author

Favourite beetle

“My favourite beetle changes every week because with over 3,50,000 known species to choose from, it’s impossible to pick one. I find the tiger beetle very funny. A tiger beetle runs so fast it can’t see, so sprints in short zig-zag bursts and has giant bulbous eyes to orientate it when it stops.”

Writing stories

“I’ve always been drawn towards performed stories, and have worked with a rich variety of artists in my professional life from The Royal Ballet to Shakespeare’s Globe. I struggled with words and grammar when I was at school, which was why dance was the initial area of the arts that interested me, but as I’ve grown and become more practised with language my desire to write my stories down has increased, and I don’t mind admitting I’m proud of Beetle Boy.”

Once-upon-a-time fear of insects

“My fear of insects is important because I have come to realise that fear stems from a lack of understanding. It was an interesting challenge to use positive language to describe the insects because my brain initially gave me words with negative associations. In striving to think of the beetles positively, describing them as friendly and wonderful, I have somehow reprogrammed my own brain.

“A spider can still startle me, but I keep a pair of rainbow stag beetles at home now, and I love them. Perhaps if this book had existed when I was young, I wouldn’t have spent 20 years frightened of mini-beasts. The imagination is a powerful thing.”

Bijal Vachharajani writes about education for sustainable development, conservation, and food security. She’s the former editor of Time Out Bengaluru

From Landour with Love


Sitting in a city, surrounded by buildings, enveloped in smog, Ruskin Bond’s books are like a breath of much-needed crisp, fresh mountain air. Bond’s writing takes readers into a world that for many of us is reserved for “vacation time”.

His words take us on a journey through the winding roads of the mountains, where tigers and leopards lurk in deep forests, fallen pine cones and dried leaves crunch beneath footsteps, spooky caretakers and ghosts haunt forgotten houses, and children make imaginary friends.

Even now, bookstores and e-stores are filled with titles from Bond, charming readers. A year and a half ago, when I spoke to the writer about the sheer number of his books that are out there, he said, “When I go to the bank, as I did on Saturday, and I find my bank balance has become alarmingly low, I rush back and immediately get to work at my desk.”

Inimitable humour

His inimitable sense of humour aside, Bond is a compulsive writer. “Even if it wasn’t my profession, I would still write for myself,” he said. “I am fond of writing; I enjoy it, whether I am writing an essay, a story, or a poem.”

Now, almost a decade later, Bond is back with one of his most beloved characters in Rusty and the Magic Mountain . In his ‘By Way of an Introduction’, the author writes, “But I’ll never write another,” said Rusy, “after so much bother.”

And here he is, at his desk near the door… telling a new tale. In this instalment, the Anglo-Indian boy’s “adventure wind” was calling to him. And he sets off to explore Witch Mountain with his friend, little Popat Lal, and wrestler, Pitamber, who is always eating whatever food he can lay his hands on. It’s an odd bunch, Bond’s books offer a deeper understanding of human nature.

Some characters he writes with wit and cleverness, others, he paints with a brush of benevolent malevolence, and some, with compassion. Whether it’s the eccentric Uncle Ken, the food-loving Aunt Mabel, or the shy Mr Oliver, his characters are quirky and colourful.

In Rusty and the Magic Mountain , the three friends find themselves on a fantastical quest: there’s a mysterious one-eyed caretaker who never removes his hat, a cat who has a penchant for blood, a community of dwarves whose forefathers worked in silver mines without sunshine and fresh air, and an evil Rani and the gorgeous Reema. Bond tosses together the supernatural with adventure to put together a hilarious tale that Rusty’s old and new fans will love.

Wayside stations

Bond’s stories evoke a strong sense of place — whether it’s a tea stall tucked away in a dusty corner or a sylvan forest in the valley of a mountain. For instance, he describes a pond in Friends in Wild Places: Birds, Beasts and Other Companions , “To the inhabitants of the pond, the pond was the world; and to the inhabitants of the world, maintained Grandfather, the world was but a muddy pond.”

In another story, he writes about his fascination with small wayside stations. “…these little stations are, for me, outposts of romance, lonely symbols of the pioneering spirit that led men to lay tracks into the remote corners of the earth.” How hard is it then to imagine a muddy pond that’s home to croaking frogs, deserted railway stations, or quaint hill stations? Not very. But mostly, Bond’s stories evoke awe, concern and respect for all things wild and wonderful; whether it’s a blue periwinkle that Rusty plucks from a bush or a leopard crouching in a railway tunnel in Friends in Wild Places .

Lavishly illustrated

This book, lavishly illustrated by Shubhadarshini Singh, brings together stories, some old and others new, about his real and imaginary friendship with animals, birds, and trees.

Bond reminisces about the urban wildlife of Delhi, a tree that gives him a basket of walnuts every year, and a baby spotted-owlet who lived under his bed.

For Bond, his relationship with animals and plants is deep.

As he put it, “After all, animals only kill for food, don’t they? And we humans kill for land property, greed, envy, jealousy — these are our motives for killing. Animals need space, that’s all they want really. Let them have their forest and wilderness.” And maybe, that’s what resonates in his book, reverence and love (and some humour) for humanity and the environment. And that’s why we keep returning to his stories.

Bijal Vachharajani writes about education for sustainable development, conservation, and food security. She’s the former editor of Time Out Bengaluru .

When I find that my bank balance has become alarmingly low, I rush back and immediately get to work at my desk

Ruskin Bond

Bond tosses together the supernatural and adventure to put together a hilarious tale