Sea of stories: Children’s books that inspired our wanderlust

Here are some of my favourite fictional islands

As a child, all I wanted was an island of my own. Okay, I also wanted a dog, a dress for my doll, and better marks than my friend, but the island topped that list.

I hadn’t visited any islands. But when my parents refused to get me said dog or my sister and I squabbled, I’d think that it would be rather fine to live on one of those islands out of books, where I would not encounter horridness of any sort. It did not matter that lots of weird and scary things happened to the characters on those islands.

After all, adventure beckons as friends row together, finally pulling the boat on to a rocky beach. Whether it’s the remote isle in Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe, Treasure Island by R.L. Stevenson, or the many islands of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (for some reason, men seem to be taking most of these journeys), these stories have inspired so many of us to take boats to islands around the world. Here are some of my favourite fictional islands.

‘The Famous Five: Five On A Treasure Island’.

‘The Famous Five: Five On A Treasure Island’.

Kirrin Island

If you are George from Enid Blyton’s The Famous Five: Five On A Treasure Island, and someone tells you, “Children don’t usually own islands, even funny little ones…,” you prove them wrong. After all, Kirrin Island is owned by her mother’s family. It is a “curious rocky island with what looked like an old ruined castle on the top of it” and is full of rabbits and gulls. It’s surrounded by rocks and, on a still day, you can even see a bit of a shipwreck in the water. The five proceed to have thumping good picnics there as well as an adventure or two.

A quick online look suggests that Blyton’s inspiration was Corfe Castle in Dorset. However, a letter published in 1962 mentioned that she may have been inspired by one of the smaller Channel Islands, which she visited on her honeymoon.

‘Professor Shonku And The Mysterious Island’.

‘Professor Shonku And The Mysterious Island’.

Florona or Swapnadwip

The protagonist of Satyajit Ray’s short story, Professor Shonku And The Mysterious Island, has been dreaming about Florona or Swapnadip, an island “filled with strange unknown plants and flowers and fruits, but no living creatures. At least no human beings”. When seven famous scholars vanish somewhere in the Philippines, Prof. Trilokeshwar Shonku knows he must investigate. He sets off in his Shankoplane, flies over the Nicobar Islands and Sundarbans, crosses Borneo and the Pacific Ocean, rests at Sumatra, and finally gets to Long. 136 E-Lat. 16N (it’s splat in the middle of the Philippine Sea).

It’s a bewitching island, teeming with colourful, odourless flora. Visitors, if they are not careful, may experience extreme light-heartedness, or be attacked by a flower that sucks away all knowledge and skills. The mysterious business of Florona, as the scientist realizes, will never be solved completely.

‘The Land Of Neverbelieve’.

‘The Land Of Neverbelieve’.

The Land Of Neverbelieve

Norman Messenger’s gorgeous book The Land Of Neverbelieve transports readers to the Magical Lake that teems with the Balloon Frog and the Octofrog. The Giant Dragonfly (it’s a dragon, yes), Double-Cream Cow and Wader Bird can be found on its fringes. As well as the Multi-Winged Parrot that is rather shy, and the Waterfall Tree that makes a pleasant tinkling sound.

Most of all, you must stop by the Book Mountain, which “tells stories at bedtime”. The book-shaped rocks “split open to reveal book pages”, the sound resembling the crack of ice. A triumph of imagination, Messenger’s book is a reminder that plants, animals, insects, birds are all wondrous and deeply magical.

‘Why The Whales Came’.

‘Why The Whales Came’.

Bryher and Samson

Michael Morpurgo’s Why The Whales Came is a story about island life and our fragmented relationship with each other and our environment. It’s set in 1914 on the Isles of Scilly off the Cornish Coast, where best friends Gracie and Daniel build toy boats on Bryher, its smallest inhabited island. They know enough to stay away from the cursed island of Samson and the scary Birdman.

One day, Gracie and Daniel get lost in the fog and find themselves on Samson. There they learn (spoiler alert) that Samson’s ancestors woke up one morning to find a narwhal lying on the beach. As the stranded whale cried out, more whales came and the islanders butchered them for their tusks. When another narwhal is beached on Bryher, it’s up to Gracie, Daniel and Birdman to end the curse.

The Fine Art of Doing Nothing, From an Antsy Pants Traveller

The author learns the fine art of lazing on a beach holiday in Costa Rica.

Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica, 2011

“There’s a cacao farm close by,” I said out loud, highlighting the listing in my Costa Rica guide book, “and a sloth sanctuary. What should we see first?” My classmates and I were at the glorious Playa Cocles beach in Puerto Viejo in Costa Rica, a bay with soft, pale gold sand, a swathe of emerald green water and just the right amount of sun. My friend peered up at me quizzically from her beach blanket, and said, “I am staying right here. The only thing I am getting up for is a piñacolada.” With that she returned to her novel, leaving me to my devices.

I reluctantly laid out my beach towel and looked around me—another friend was juggling with a couple of kids she had befriended at breakfast, tourists were swimming or sunning themselves, rum-laced drinks were being bandied about, while I sat, hugging my knees, wondering: How is this a holiday, if we are doing nothing?

A long, detailed itinerary has been a mainstay of almost all my holidays, every day planned out meticulously: places to be ticked off, monuments to be seen, botanical gardens to be explored. An endless stack of things to see and do. My family and I have spent almost every summer travelling to a hill station, tea garden, historical site, steadily making our way through that carefully planned itinerary. Straight out of the hotel after breakfast, and back only in time for dinner. Exhausted but giving ourselves a pat on our backs for having left out nothing. When I started travelling with friends, we followed the same pattern.

And here I was, taking a long weekend in November away from my climate change studies, to do… ummm… nothing at all. I grumbled—I wasn’t a beach person, I couldn’t even swim, what am I supposed to do now. Seeing that neither of my friends were being particularly helpful, I gave up. I laid back on my towel petulantly, pushed up my sunglasses and began reading Amitav Ghosh’s latest, the one book I had hauled all the way from India with me. As I read about opium trade and weary travelers, I felt the stress of the past month—crammed with academic reading, visa woes, and homesickness—fall away from me. Every few minutes I would gaze at the Caribbean Sea, and think, I could get used to this.

Since then, I have learned to slow down and take in the sights, to hold precious one stunning vista over checking off five view points from the list. I have spent half a day sketching in Dambulla in Sri Lanka, lingered over copious cups of coffee in Monteverde, watching humming birds flit from one feeder to another; and skipped a boat cruise in Switzerland because I couldn’t tear myself away from Pablo Picasso’s “Girl with a Boat (Maya Picasso)” at the The Rosengart Collection in Lucerne.

And it was all right. That frantic fear of missing out (FOMO, if you must) didn’t tug at my backpack. Getting my money’s worth from a trip wasn’t about squeezing every minute with sightseeing, but about enjoying that moment. Holidays are now more languid, they are about spending time with my loved ones, decompressing, and savouring each day.

As for Puerto Viejo, we spent the rest of the weekend taking long walks, chancing upon deserted beaches with blobs of moss-covered rocks in the water, and eating ice cream at sunset. Holidays don’t get better than that.

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.

Homestays We Love: Mitali Homestay in Shantiniketan for Soul Food

Homemade khana and lessons in Bengali culture at this charming stay.

It was in Shantiniketan that I found the perfect antidote to writer’s block—a slow-cooked khichuri that came in a kadhai deep enough to swim in. Daubs of homemade ghee, fresh khejur tomato chutney, fried baingan slices, and papads were accompaniments to the dish, prepared to perfection by Sukanya Roy, our host at Mitali Homestay. I tucked in, devouring the rice and lentils, feeling the will to write grow stronger as the khichuri on my plate diminished. By the time my friends and I had polished off the mishti doi, I was ready to return to my computer, sated and buzzing with ideas.

Mitali Homestay epitomizes peaceful and verdant Shantiniketan. Surrounded by fruit trees and organic vegetable patches, the Moroccan-influenced bungalow, with its white-washed walls and large windows, has been a family home to the Dey family for almost half a century. In 2011, our hosts Krishno Dey and Sukanya Roy converted it into a homestay, opening their doors to welcome friends and travellers. We spent many long evenings, sitting on their rooftop terrace, swapping stories in the crisp winter air, and mornings walking around the mango and champa trees. One day, Krishno invited Baul singers and we spent an evening rapt in music.

food Mitali Homestay Shantiniketan

Sukanya meanwhile, introduced us to Bengal’s rich culinary culture, one homemade meal at a time. For breakfast, we had puffy luchis and aloo sabji; lunchtime meant steaming pots of Bengali food, like fish curry, eggplant slathered in kasundi, and dal cooked with kaffir leaves. At tea, we had kulhad chai and puchkas (the famous Bengali pani puri) and dinner was reserved for world fare such as Italian or Lebanese, but the Bangla khana is really the best. Better still, most of the produce that makes it to the kitchen is grown in Mitali’s garden, including the mushrooms.

When she wasn’t cooking, or clucking after us like a mother hen, Sukanya made batik prints and clothing. Her earthy apparel is available at her boutique, housed in an earth cottage adjacent to the main house called Bhab Kutir. Everything is crafted with attention to detail. And like the store, Mitali’s rooms too are lovingly maintained, with bookshelves on every other wall. Our “Honeymoon Suite” had hand-painted cupboards, a kitchenette, a terrace, and an additional room. It effortlessly embodies the “home away from home” that most places strive to achieve.

We didn’t spend much time outside Mitali, but I did visit the Visva Bharati school (1.5km away). The institution follows Rabindranath Tagore’s philosophy of education in harmony with nature and has several schools of learning, including music, fine arts, education, and rural reconstruction. Between bouts of writing, I discovered Shantiniketan’s other charms: steaming hot rosogollas made from palm jaggery, cotton saris at the Alcha Store in Ratan Pally Market, and Lipi Biswas’s studio for pottery in the Boner Pukur Danga village. Over the weekend, the Shanibarer Haat (Saturday Market) by the Khoai grounds in Shantiniketan is a must-visit. Stock up on cotton khes sarees, bedsheets, toys, and handicrafts, crafted by local artisans.

Cabbages Mitali Homestay Shantiniketan


Mitali Homestay has six rooms, a mix of doubles and singles: three in the main house, and the others in the annex and Bhab Kutir. All rooms are air-conditioned, except Bhab Kutir. Standard tariff includes breakfast, but it’s best to book all meals here. (Doubles ₹3,000; +91-9433075853, +91-9433898067. More details here.)

Getting there
Mitali Homestay is located in Phuldanga village in Shantiniketan. It is 167km/4hr by road from Kolkata, and 5.6km/20min from Bolpur and 2km/7min from Prantik, which are the closest railway stations. Toto (electronic autorickshaws) rides cost approximately ₹200 from the stations. Kolkata has the nearest airport. Taxis can be organised by Mitali Homestay on request.

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.

Why did the leopard cross the road?

Here’s a riddle.

Why did the leopard cross the road?

Because she was hungry, and she saw a zebra crossing.

Actually, that’s not true. Unlike us, leopards don’t understand that you need to look first left, then right, then left again, before crossing the road. They don’t know the rules behind the zebra crossing stripes on the road either (honestly, who can blame them, motorists also don’t seem to know that they shouldn’t stand on the zebra crossing; pedestrians have the right of way there). All these rules are made by humans, and it is silly of us to pave a road in the middle of a forest, and then expect leopards or elephants or other animals to know road crossing rules.

Nor do animals get boundaries. Your house or apartment block must have a wall and a gate to mark its perimeter. You know that you can’t just jump into another person’s house (unless you know them) because one, it’s not polite, and two, it’s not safe, and hello, it’s trespassing. But these are man-made boundaries. We don’t ask for permission from forest animals before mowing their trees down to build houses, grow crops, or mine for minerals. According to the World Wildlife Fund’s Living Planet Report 2016, the Global Forest Resources Assessment reports that since 1990, on a gross basis, we have lost a total of 239 million hectares of natural forest!

This means that there is lesser forest cover for animals to call their home, and it’s not that surprising when you hear news of a leopard coming into a school on a Sunday. After all, we can’t expect them to know these man-made boundary walls.

Further, our roads are becoming a point for human-animal conflict. Roadkill — that is wildlife killed on the road by motor accidents — has become a major threat to conservation. A study conducted by Panthera showed that 23 leopards were killed in Karnataka between July 2009 and June 2014 because of road accidents.

In a research paper titled Roadkill Animals on National Highways of Karnataka, by Selvan et. al, the authors conducted a survey to understand how many animals were killed on National Highways NH212 and NH67, which pass through Bandipur Tiger Reserve in Karnataka in 2007. They found that 423 animals of 29 species were killed between January and June. Isn’t that awful?

According to the Wildlife Conservation Foundation (WCF), at least three large animals are killed in accidents on these highways. And these include tigers, elephants, leopards, deer, sloth bears, snakes and birds. The good news is that in 2010, the group, with the help of the Wildlife Trust of India and the High Court, was able to ban night traffic in Bandipur. A good thing because 65 per cent of wildlife roadkills until that time were being documented at night.

This is, of course, only Karnataka. But there are so many instances of leopards and other animals becoming victims of accidents — either road or rail — across the country. What can be done about this? Plenty. For instance, not allowing roads or rail networks to be built inside forests or corridors, which animals use to pass from one jungle to another. Many forest departments now have installed neon boards and speed breakers to slow those hurtling vehicles going at top speed in the night. Or like the WCF managed to do — restricting vehicular traffic at night.

The good folks at the Nature Conservation Foundation – India have come up with a fabulous strategy in Tamil Nadu. They have installed seven canopy bridges in the rainforests of the Valparai region — aerial bridges (high up above the ground) that connect tree canopies that were otherwise too far apart across the roads. And it’s already showing results — lion-tailed macaques can cross the road without having to look left, right, and left again, and they don’t have to get down from their trees and dodge passing traffic.

What else do you think can be done? We’d love to hear from you with your ideas. Write to us at

Play mats


Keeping kids occupied at mealtimes just got a tad easier thanks to these activity placemats

Restaurants often offer puzzle placemats to keep diners occupied while waiting for their order. Spot-the-difference puzzles, word games and number challenges serve as appetisers until the real food arrives. Now, entrepreneurs are creating interesting placemats that can keep the little ’uns occupied at the dining table at home as well.

My Mumbai (Rs 500) is a set of eight colouring placemats that introduces Maximum City to children. Perfect for children aged four and above, the black-and-white posters by Yellow Pinwheel Kids Project offer a slice of Mumbai’s life. In one of the placemats, commuters are seen wending their way around the city, passing through the sea link, boarding a local train, and hopping on board a BEST bus. Another one is crammed with the city’s people — street vendors frying vadas for vada pao, Bollywood actors, Koli fisherfolks, paan wallahs, and of course, the dabba wallas. And the third is a glimpse into festivities. The illustrations are done by Abhishek Panchal, who founded Bombay Pencil Jammers.

The placemats encourage children to explore their city with the help of trivia pull-outs. Young explorers will engage with Mumbai’s architecture, the diverse cross-section of its people, and understand its geography. There’s a DIY map of Mumbai, which children have to draw themselves — the map starts at Gateway of India and ends at the Sanjay Gandhi National Park in Borivali. “My Mumbai is targeted for an age group of four to 10. It seems wide but the activity is different for each age segment. The four to six-year-olds will possibly use it just for colouring, but older children will use it as a mapping exercise to discover their city,” said Shinibali Mitra Saigal, who created the activity kit along with Shivani Lath. The entrepreneurs are former journalists, while Mitra Saigal is the co-founder of Kahani Karnival, a Mumbai-based children’s festival.

The Mealtime series by BrownBox Toys (Rs 450) is another charming set of sticker placemats that offer a culinary tour of India, China and England. Each set comes with four posters of typical Indian, Chinese or English meals, with stickers of the food items. The series introduces toddlers to different cultures and helps them understand food habits across the world. For instance, Mealtime England has a poster for fish n’ chips, complete with stickers of tartare sauce, mustard, crisps, peas, vinegar, and other sauces and condiments. Toddlers paste the stickers on the brown paper illustration on the page, to learn what a complete fish n’ chips meal would include. Mealtime India has a range of samosa, thali, kebabs, and dosa and idli. The selection is a mix of familiar and new food, which encourages children to try new dishes as well. The idea is to spark curiosity in young minds.

Then there’s PoppadumArt’s adorable Chalkboard Puzzle Mats (Rs 390) with a range of shapes such as sheep, goats, and bunnies. The animal’s head detaches to become a coaster. Children can write on the mat with chalk, wipe it off, and then scribble again. Made out of medium density fibreboard with a foam backing, the placemat is easy to wipe and reusable, said Saanwari Gorwaney, who started PoppadumArt four years ago to make what she calls “happy things to make spaces happy and bright”. Gorwaney, who is now based out of Gurgaon, worked in advertising before she embarked on this online venture. Out of the three, the chalkboard puzzle mats are easily reusable when it comes to dealing with messy hands. Both Mealtime and My Mumbai would need to be laminated before they can be used as permanent placemats. Of course, they might just end up being displayed on the refrigerator as works of art instead.

To order My Mumbai, visit The Mealtime series can be ordered online on and the Chalkboard Puzzle Mats on

Entrepreneurs are creating interesting placemats that can keep the little ones occupied at the dining table

9 Green Gifts For The Festive Season

Spread the holiday spirit by cheering on artisanal, social, and eco-friendly enterprises.

POSTED  ON: OCTOBER 21, 2015 12:00 AM

These single-origin chocolates are handcrafted in Karnataka. Photo courtesy Earth Loaf

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Artisanal Chocolates

What’s sweeter than gifting chocolates for Diwali, Eid or Christmas? Making sure that those treats are organic and handmade. Mason & Co. sources their organic cacao beans from a family-run smallholding in Tamil Nadu. Try their 75 per cent Zesty Orange or 70 per cent Sea Salt Dark Chocolate that they make at their factory in Auroville. A far bigger temptation is their eight-bar dark chocolate collection gift pack.

Earth Loaf’s organic chocolates are handcrafted in small batches from cacao beans from a single estate in Karnataka, and their gorgeous wrappers are silk-screened by hand in Mysore. Try their 72 per cent Raw Dark Chocolate bar and the Gondhoraj & Apricot one.
Available at

Handcrafted Pottery

Curators of Clay pottery is perfect for those with a sweet tooth. Photo courtesy Curators of Clay

Curators of Clay pottery is perfect for those with a sweet tooth. Photo courtesy Curators of Clay

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Bhairavi Naik and Rohit Kulkarni’s ceramic studio, Curators of Clay, will make you want to trade your space-saving, stacking Tupperware for their bespoke pottery. Their tableware and home decor accessories are handcrafted in small batches by the two potters in Bhugaon, Pune. Tea drinkers will be delighted by their gorgeous range of teapots, creamers, tumblers, and mugs. For those who have a sweet tooth, Curators of Clay pottery is perfect for baking; they even have custard jugs! They also have handcrafted porcelain tea lights for the festival season.
To order or customise a gift, drop in at their Pune store, visit their Facebook page or write to and

Fairtrade And Organic Tea Hamper

Look for the Fairtrade and Organic Mark on a tea carton.

Look for the Fairtrade and Organic Mark on a tea carton.

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If you’re planning on assembling a food hamper, choose a tea carton with the Fairtrade and Organic Mark. The Fairtrade Mark means that apart from meeting social and environmental standards, an additional premium is paid to the producers for the purchase you make. Oothu green and black teas come directly from the Nilgiris, while Monteviot and Makaibari Tea have a dazzling range from Darjeeling. Pukka Tea’s Vanilla Chai, Supreme Matcha Green, Clean Green, and Cool Mint Green are perfect for detox after a festive binge. Best of all, you can feel zen knowing that the money will be democratically spent by farmer and producer committees on community projects such as education, eco centres, and smokeless chulhas.
Available on Amazon and Makaibari.

Single-Origin Honey

Over the last few years, Under the Mango Tree has become known for its fair-trade sourcing practices, in which they procure honey directly from beekeepers. Their fabulous Bees for Poverty Reduction programme enables farmers to generate additional income through honey, with the bees boosting yield through cross-pollination – a sweet deal for both bees and farmers. UTMT has a range of single-origin honeys – Eucalyptus Honey is perfect to soothe sore throats after a night of inhaling firecracker fumes, while their Sweet Clover Honey is a delicious addition to sweets.
Available at most grocery stores and on

Handmade Books

It's hard to part with these gorgeous children's books. Photo courtesy Tara Books

It’s hard to part with these gorgeous children’s books. Photo courtesy Tara Books

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We’ll be honest: it’s hard to actually give away Tara Books’ stunning children’s books to kids. The Chennai-based independent publisher of picture books for adults and children has an eclectic list of titles created by writers, tribal artists and designers. To Market, To Market! by Anushka Ravishankar and Emanuele Scanziani charmingly portrays an Indian market, and is perfect for curious toddlers. Adults will love The Nightlife of Trees, an award-winning handmade book by Gond artists Bhajju Shyam, Durga Bai, and Ram Singh Urveti. The arresting visuals are a tribute to the magnificence of trees, and draw from the art and folklore of the Gond tribe. Don’t forget to check out their stationery section for the one-of-a-kind Flukebooks, perfect for jotting down organic recipes.

A funky Flukebook is great for jotting down organic recipes. Photo courtesy Tara Books

A funky Flukebook is great for jotting down organic recipes. Photo courtesy Tara Books

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Bengaluru-based Little Latitude has a range of books and toys which are not only beautiful but also environment-friendly. For instance, Vinay Diddee, who started Little Latitude, makes toys with rubber wood that is not treated with harmful chemicals.
Available at Find the store list for Little Latitude here.

Organic Cotton

Organic cotton is not only good for your skin but also for the soil, and farmers. With the use of integrated pest management measures, the soil retains its fertility, and farmers practise inter-cropping, which ensures their food security. Good Earth’s Gumdrops kids collection is eco-friendly and adorable. There are elephant soft toys, sleeping sets for infants, and quilts to choose from.

No Nasties clothing uses organic and Fairtrade cotton. Photo courtesy No Nasties

No Nasties clothing uses organic and Fairtrade cotton. Photo courtesy No Nasties

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Grown-ups can head to No Nasties to buy colour-block pocket tees made with organic and Fairtrade cotton. Each purchase comes in organic cotton bags and recycled cardboard tags made by a women’s self-help group near Pondicherry. While you’re at it, slip in a little Doug accessory as part of your gift. No Nasties’ Once Upon A Doug project supports women cotton farmers who make these adorable clouds with a silver lining, from scraps of recycled cotton during the lean season.

Once Upon A Doug supports women cotton farmers. Photo courtesy Once Upon A Doug

Once Upon A Doug supports women cotton farmers. Photo courtesy Once Upon A Doug

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If you’re looking for something more ethnic, check out Ethicus and Tula, two fabulous seed-to-stitch enterprises that are revolutionising the cotton supply chain.
Available at all Good Earth Stores. Shop at,,, and

Natural And Seasonal Cosmetics

It’s tough finding cosmetics that are made completely with natural ingredients. SoulTree is certified by BDIH Germany. The brand pays fair price to farmers, ensures that plants are not picked clean of flowers or fruits, and that harmful chemicals are not used in their products. They have a wide range of beauty products, but check out their Traveller Essential Miniature Kit which has 30ml bottles of moisturiser, shower gel, and shampoo. Their lipsticks use organic ghee as a base.
Available at

Coffee Subscription

Fuel that caffeine addiction with a coffee subscription to Blue Tokai. The hand-picked, single-origin coffee is roasted and then ground as per your specifications and delivered to your doorstep. Whether you like the full-bodied, low acid Monsoon Malabar coffee or the dark, oaky Vienna roast, there’s plenty to choose from. If you are not sure of which blend to gift, choose the Mixed Bag.
Available at

Gentle Detergents And Cleaners

Most homes get a thorough cleaning before Diwali, so eco-friendly soaps and detergents make an offbeat but handy gift. Common Oxen products use safe or natural ingredients, and are also a great gift to yourself. Their detergent Swish Wash is free of synthetic fragrances, phosphates, and carcinogenic chemicals. It is made of botanical oil soap, washing soda, baking soda, borax, rock salt, and lime and orange essential oils, and leaves your laundry smelling of the sun. Common Oxen also has kitchen dishwashing soaps, bathroom cleaners, and body soaps.
Available at

When Bijal Vachharajani is not reading Harry Potter, she can be found pottering about in the jungles of India. In her spare time, she works so she can fund the trips and those expensive Potter books. She did this by working as the Editor at Time Out Bengaluru. She writes about education for sustainable development and sustainable livelihood.

11 Books That Will Get Children To Explore The Wild

World Habitat Day Special: Let a book lead you into swamps, seas and more


POSTED  ON: OCTOBER 5, 2015 12:00 AM

Hitch a ride on the back of a glorious book about wildlife.

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Children’s books can work like portkeys to nature. Turn the pages and you can be whooshed into a dense green jungle full of mysterious tigers and merry bears, transported to a bleak desert landscape, or plunged deep into the ocean, swimming with sea turtles and dodging jellyfish. On World Habitat Day, we pick 11 books that will enchant young readers and introduce them to habitats where the wild things are.

Sundarbans with Tiger Boy

In Mitali Perkins’ Tiger Boy, Neel’s parents and teachers want him to study hard for a scholarship that will take him from the Sundarbans to Kolkata. But Neel loves his home – he can splash like a river dolphin in the freshwater pond, climb tall palm trees, and forage for wild guavas. Besides, he has a bigger problem than geometry and algebra to worry about: there’s a tiger cub missing from the reserve. With the help of his sister Rupa, a spunky girl who has been forced to drop out of school, Neel decides to find the cub and save it from being trafficked by the evil Gupta. After all, who knows the island better than him?

Tiger Boy takes children into the swampy forests of the Sundarbans. Perkins paints a vivid picture of what it’s like to live in a place threatened by climate change: islands bolstered against rising sea levels by sandbags and furious cyclones tearing away mangroves. Yet, Tiger Boy is a story of hope; it’s about the splendour of the mangrove forests and islands, the magnificence of the tiger and its vulnerability, and human resilience in the face of adversity.

Also see:The Honey Hunter by Karthika Nair and Joëlle Jolivet is a sumptuously illustrated book that brings alive the richness of the Sundarbans. Nair’s story takes children through the mangrove forest, while Jolivet’s candy-coloured illustrations bring to life the honeybees, tigers, and trees of the Sundarbans.

Africa with The Akimbo Series

“Imagine living in a place where the sun rises each morning over blue mountains and great plains with grass that grows taller than a man.” This is where Akimbo lives, on the edge of a large game reserve in Africa. Readers will be enchanted by young Akimbo and his home. British author Alexander McCall Smith is best known for The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, but he has a delightful repertoire of children’s books as well, which includes the Akimbo series.

Set in the heart of Africa, Akimbo lives alongside zebras that graze in the plains and lions, leopards, and baboons in the hills and forest. Man-animal conflict, poaching, conservation, and endangered animals are all part of the narrative. In Akimbo And The Elephants, his father who works on the reserve points out an animal and cautions him, “Don’t make a noise. Just look over there.” If only everybody on a safari would listen to Akimbo’s father, we would have so many more quiet and pleasant trips into the forest.

Also see: You’ve watched the movie Duma, now read the book it is based on.How It Was With Dooms is the story of Xan Hopcraft who grew up with a cheetah at his home in Nairobi. There are some lovely photos by his mother Carol Hopcraft in the book as well.

The Western Ghats with The Adventures of Philautus Frog

If you thought frogs lived only in ponds, then Kartik Shanker’s book will make you think again. Shanker’s protagonist is Philautus or Thavalai, a tree frog who has never ever come down from his Big Tree home. One day, Thavalai decides to hop off to look for the big blue sea. He has many adventures, including getting directions from a snake who could have easily swallowed him whole.

Maya Ramaswamy’s illustrations recreate the dark, deep shola forest, the surrounding hills and grasslands, and their many denizens. A hornbill sits placidly in one corner of the page, while a balloon frog puffs up in purple glory on another. Venomous snakes slither across the book and a dragonfly flits over the words. The book is packed with nuggets of information, such as that grasslands are hot in the day and cold at night, but the shola is always cool. Readers also learn that Thavalai often gets teased because Philautus frogs bypass the tadpole stage and froglets hop straight out of eggs.

Also see: Children can Walk the Grasslands With Takuri, a pygmy hog who is the protagonist of this book by Nima Manjrekar and Nandita Hazarika. Part of the same series is Aparajita Datta and Nima Manjrekar’s Walk The Rainforest With Niwupah, where a hornbill takes readers on a tour of his rainforest. Both books have been illustrated by Ramaswamy.

Hingol National Park with Survival Tips For Lunatics

Shandana Minhas’ Survival Tips For Lunatics is a rollicking tale that throws together a motley bunch of characters. There’s a squabbling pair of siblings, a Protoliterodragon who cannot stand bad poetry, and an angry black bear “with a dislike of the species that had put him on the endangered list”. The story is set in Hingol National Park in south-west Pakistan which is home to Chandrakup, the largest mud volcano in South Asia.

Changez, 12, and his brother Taimur aka Timmy, 9, go camping with their parents. Next morning, Changez wakes up to realise that the parents left them behind by mistake. Help is at hand in the form of a talking sparrow and other animals. The unlikely group end up across the Pakistan-Afghanistan border where they find that the human world holds more dangers than the forest. Survival Tips For Lunatics also explores the multifarious wonderful and fraught relationships that humans and animals share, and while doing so, holds up a mirror to our flawed ideas of civilization. But Minhas’ touch is always light, keeping the reader chuckling and turning the page.

Also see: Jungu The Baiga Princess by Vithal Rajan is set in the jungles of Madhya Pradesh and spotlights conservation and tribal rights. It’s a story about the Baiga tribe and their commitment to protecting their forest.

Around the World with The Snail And The Whale

What happens when a snail has an itchy foot and wants to see the world? He hitches a ride on the tail of a humpback whale for the journey of a lifetime. Illustrated by Axel Scheffler, Julia Donaldson’s picture book is a real treat. Young readers will join the snail and the whale to see “towering icebergs and far-off lands” where penguins frolic in the water. Then they go on to “fiery mountains and golden sands” to say hello to monkeys and turtles. While Donaldson doesn’t dwell on any particular habitat, the book makes for a fun guessing game about possible locations. For instance, where in the world are caves beneath waves where sharks with hideous toothy grins lurk?  Or which place is sunny and blue and has thunderstorms?

Also see: In The One And Only Ivan, Katherine Applegate talks about the tyranny of captivity and the yearning for the wild. The story is narrated by Ivan, a silverback gorilla who lives in a glass cage in a performing mall. Ivan introduces himself in the most heartbreaking manner by saying, “I used to be a wild gorilla, and I still look the part.” Ivan chooses to not remember his real home, where his father had a bouncy belly that was the perfect trampoline for his sister Tag and him. It’s the only way he can cope with living in a cage. Based on a real life story, Ivan is both beautiful and moving – a poignant reminder of the absence of home.

Five Indian children’s books on tiger everyone must read

On World Tiger Day, it’s time to show your stripes for India’s national animal.

GROWING PANGS  |  4-minute read |   29-07-2015

It’s time to show your stripes for India’s national animal on World Tiger Day. We give you a round-up of five books about this magnificent animal that should be part of your children’s bookshelves.

1. Ambushed by Nayanika Mahtani:


The ten-year-old Tara is a gadget geek, she even thinks her Papa’s birthday cake should be shaped like his BlackBerry phone. Which is why when her banker-turned-photographer father decides to take her to Ranibagh, a tiger reserve in the Himalayan foothills for the summer, she’s horrified. After all, nothing ever happens there, does it? But then Tara lands splat in the middle of an adventure – who would have thought that the forest was not only home to the beautiful tiger, but also to an international gang of ruthless poachers? Satya, a tribal boy, enlists Tara’s help to literally save the skin of a tigress and her cubs.Ambushed is a fast-paced read that puts the spotlight firmly on conservation. Nayanika Mahtani’s debut novel is peppered with trivia, such as tigers are hard to spot and that some hundred years ago, there were over one lakh tigers in the world. While doing so, she also touches upon themes of social inequalities and the politics of conservation and poaching.

2. Ranthambore Adventures by Deepak Dalal:


For any child who has visited Ranthambore Tiger Reserve, Deepak Dalal’s Ranthambore Adventures is sure to transport them straight back into the Rajasthan forest. Aditya is planning to join his friend Vikram in Ranthambore, when he stumbles upon the diary of a tiger poacher. Aditya is grabbed by the poachers and his friend Aarti follows their trail, all the way to Ranthambore. At the same time, readers are invited into the world of Genghis, a magnificent tiger and his family. An action-packed adventure, Deepak Dalal’s story is an informative read about tigers and their home, the forest. It’s also a story of friendship and courage, harking back to timeless books such as Enid Blyton’s Famous Five series. Although Ranthambore Adventures was first published in 1998, its message about tiger and forest conservation remains as evocative as ever.

3. The Tigers of Taboo Valley by Ranjit Lal:


One of the best explanation of a poacher comes from Raat-ki-Rani, a tigress who lives in Sher-Kila National Park. She explains to her cubs that “A poacher is one of those two-legged hairless cowards who will kill you if he can. He might use any revolting method he can think of – poison, traps or guns”. Tragically, the brave tigress dies at the hands of poacher Khoon-Pyaasa, leaving an unwilling boss tiger Rana Shaan-Bahadur to take care of his four cubs, Hasti, Masti, Phasti and Zafraan. But like many forest, this one too is brimming with gossiping animals, a vulture squad called Diclo-Fenac, a photographer from the National Geographic, and an underground group of porcupine terrorists who have it in for tigers. Ranjit Lal offers a hilarious wild rumpus, where readers learn about the fascinating animals, while sparking concern for the forests and its denizens.

4. Tiger by the Tail by Venita Coelho:


Venita Coelho’s book comes with a tagline, “Save the Animals, Save the World” – which happens to be the motto of the Animal Intelligence Agency (AIA). The back of the book explains that the AIA is “a multi-species non-governmental agency. Specially trained animal and human agents work undercover to save animals and save the world. Some of them have the licence to kill”. One of the agents with a licence to kill is Agent No 002 aka Bagha, a member of the Panthera tigris species. The tiger is 250kgs of sheer intelligence and muscle. He’s really what one could call a cool cat. Bagha and Rana, a boy who can communicate with animals because he can JungleSpeak, embark on a mission to investigate the disappearance of tigers from wildlife reserves across South Asia. Tiger by the Tail is a wonderful read, interspersed with pages of trivia and facts about tigers.

5. Tiger on a Tree by Anushka Ravishankar:


Published in 1997, Tiger on a Tree is one of the most iconic books about the big cat. Resplendent in orange and black, the picture book has been illustrated by Pulak Biswas. Anushka Ravishankar tells the story of a scaredy-cat tiger who gets stuck on a tree. As the villagers “Get him! Net Him! Tie Him Tight!” they need to decide what to do with this tiger. Written in verse form, Ravishankar talks about the man-animal conflict, courage, and kindness, in a simple yet beautiful way. Biswas’ illustrations carry forward the tale, bringing the forests, the river and the village alive with his brush.