Grace Paljor was a child when her grandmother showed her how to identify Sheene-Pippen (the Streaked Laughing Thrush), a bird that is found in Kashmir and considered to be the harbinger of rain. That ignited her interest in nature and birdwatching, which has now resulted in a three-series children’s book about the local flora and fauna of Kashmir, along with fables and rhymes related to nature and the local culture.
Each book in the Sheene-Pippen series – Chinar Trees, Shikara and Samavar, which are meant for children in the age group of 3-6 years, comprises 20 rhymes, two stories and 15 Kashmiri and English names of birds, animals, trees and insects indigenous to the region. Of these, some are Paljor's original works. For instance, you have a story about Sheene-Pippen and his brother, another on a folklore character Shalkak (which translates to uncle jackal, similar to the blue jackal in Aesop’s fables) and Kawakoor – the crow girl – among others. There is even a poem on Samovar, the traditional samovar tea kettle, which is a particular favourite among the students, says Paljor, who runs the St. Paul's International Academy, a K-10 school in Srinagar.
By showcasing the natural habitat they live in, Paljor believes it will help children enjoy and relate to what they are learning. One of her biggest disappointments has been not finding reference to local biodiversity or culture in text books or educational material.
“Our country is so biodiverse but it’s no reflected in the books. I couldn’t find regional specific stories depicting our state. For a Kashmiri child, the habitat portrayed in these texts would seem foreign. Textbooks would mention Peepul tree or plantains, which a Kashmiri child has never seen. I thought someone should write a children’s book based on our ecology for the children here,” she says.
Finally, the covid-19 pandemic pushed Paljor to give her dream to shape as she had lot of time to spare staying at home. With time in hand, Paljor started penning down rhymes about Chinar trees, the whiskered bulbul, pine trees, and so on. “At some point, my husband started teasing me that all he had to do was press a button and I would churn out a poem,” says Paljor.
It was also a way for her to preserve the rich storytelling tradition of the region. “Kashmir used to have a traditionally rich storytelling culture, which is nearly lost now. Many of the characters in the stories are part of Kashmiri folklores like Shalkak,” says Paljor, who self published the books.
For local nomenclatures and folktales, Paljor took the help of a retired forest guard, IAS officer and some wildlife experts. The process has been highly rewarding, Paljor says, as she also got to learn local names. “Not just children, even adults are enjoying the book as many don’t know what a frequently seen bird, insect or tree is called in their mother tongue. We are only familiar with the English names,” says Paljor, who hails from Ladakh.
The most exciting and challenging bits for Paljor was to depict Kashmiri culture through illustration and rhymes. “I also wanted to bring the focus to our culture and oral storytelling and take pride in it, beyond the political unrest and turmoil the state has been in,” she adds.
The book also holds a sentimental value for Paljor, as the logo of the books is a simple line drawing of the Sheene-Pippen bird, which her father taught her when she was a child. “I wanted to share it with the children, as they pay attention to every detail. It will also encourage them to draw it. It’s a way of preserving my father’s memory as well,” she says.
The books, Paljor hopes, will be adopted by more schools in the region – at present, four schools have included it in their curriculum. Published by the Srinagar-based Kashmir Book Depot, the illustrations are done by Ahmedabad-based artist Riya Pai. The books are available on their website, local bookstores and priced at ₹195 each.