For the first time, Pratham Books is launching a digital version of a book ahead of the printed book. Written by eminent scientist Dr. Madhav Gadgil and beautifully illustrated by wildlife illustrator Maya Ramaswamy, ‘Muchkund and his Sweet Tooth’ is a tale about a fictional bear called Muchkund and his bright gang of ghosts who negotiate with bees and come up with a clever way to live in ecological harmony. Fact and fiction go hand in hand to give you an entertaining presentation of ecological realities.
Our editorial team caught up with author Dr. Madhav Gadgil to chat about his latest book ‘Muchkund and his Sweeth Tooth‘. Dr. Madhav Gadgil is a field ecologist, in love with the hills and forests ofIndia; their denizens- animal, vegetable and human. Educated at Pune and Harvard, he spent long years at Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore. Along with scientific papers and books, he wrote a fortnightly children’s column for The Hindu. His distinctions include the Harvard University’s Centennial Medal, Volvo Environment Prize and the Padma Bhushan.
1. You are a renowned scientist and ecologist. You have authored books and written articles for various newspapers. What made you write for children, and that too fiction – a story?
Yes, I am a scientist and very fond of my profession and certainly do enjoy writing technical papers to be read, primarily, by fellow scientists. But I am also a lover of nature, of poetry, of literature, of outdoor sports and have always enjoyed writing for the general public. I started on this at the age of 15, and have been very encouraged by the response, over more than five decades by now. I guess I am a child at heart and all my life I have played, first with my children and their friends, and now with my grandchildren. Children love nonsense rhymes and tales of natural world and for over five years I wrote a fortnightly column called ‘Sense and Nonsense’ on these themes in The Hindu Young World Sunday Supplement. So when the newest arrival in my family, my granddaughter, Tara, demanded that I not only tell her stories, but new, original ones, I was happy enough to give it a try. The result was this Muchkund story, and many other Muchkund and other tales. I enjoyed the experience very much and so did Tara, and later Tara’s younger sister Revati, too.
2. Muchkund is quite a unique and lovable character. How did the character get developed? Was it challenging?
I was born next to Pune’s Vetal hill and after a 40 years’ gap, live next to it again.
Although an atheist, I am very fond of Lord Vetal and his gang of ghosts, and of stories such as Vikram and Vetal. JBS Haldane, one of last century’s greatest biologists, and one of my scientific heroes, was a passionate believer in communicating science to people. He not only wrote popular scientific articles, as I have been doing for years, but also many charming children’s quasi-science
books whose hero is a magician, ‘My Friend Mr. Leakey’. I have also enjoyed Rudyard Kipling’s “Just so stories” and the “Jungle Book”. So when Tara wanted an original tale, I thought of a member of Vetal’s gang, who, like Leaky, could perform magical, even miraculous acts, and the story flowed, set in the Indian jungles where I have been spending many, many enjoyable weeks every year, for the last 40 years.
3. Many people believe that scientists are rationalists who do not care about myths. You have brought in ghosts and folk beliefs into this story. What according to you is the role of fantasy in a child’s life?
All people, and most certainly children, live, at least partially, in a world of fantasy. When I was young I had a firm belief that in a decade or so, all of the world’s energy needs, for all times to come, would be more than fully met by atomic energy. It turns out that I was living in a world of fantasy! So we keep fantasizing, and enjoy the fantasies, some admitted to be so, others not admitted to be so. My grand-daughter Revati dwells quite happily in a world populated by figures from Indian mythology and
from the cartoons of Chhota Bheem. To me this is natural and just fine.
4. What makes the three ‘B’ s- Bears, Bees and Blossoms the enchanting building blocks of our natural world?
Humans experience beauty in contexts of sensations characteristic of a world in which they find abundance of food, water, safety. Where there are blossoms, delicious fruit is expected to follow and where there are bees delicious honey will follow; so we love blossoms and bees. Bears are in many ways like us, of similar size, and often walking around on two hind legs. They are associated with honey, of which we are naturally quite fond. The three also represent a natural food web. So ‘Bears, Bees and Blossoms’ are enchanting to us.
5. How can the interest in nature be kindled in children so that they understand and enjoy these fragile yet strong bonds among various elements and creatures?
By exposure to the charms of nature, by encouraging them to understand the natural world in many different ways.
6. Do you see an increase or decrease in young people’s interest in ecological sciences?
I have witnessed a distinct increase over the years.
7. Any older traditions based on harmonious coexistence with nature that can be revived?
Certainly, we have many precious traditions such as sacred trees like peepal, sacred groves, sacred birds like peafowl, sacred ponds. We must strive to understand their present day significance, and continue the protection using modern day devices such as provided by the Biological Diversity Act.
8. Any memorable moments while writing this story or while reading it out to your grand daughter?
The original story was a little tame, without the scoundrel Vali. I recounted it to my writer friend, Anil Awachat, who suggested that I must add a conflict and its resolution to make it truly interesting. I did so, and remember with pleasure how Tara and Revati burst out laughing when I narrated the incident of burning off all the hair from Vali’s bums! By the way, I never read the story to them, it was always told, in Marathi, when they were in bed and the lights were off.
‘Muchkund and his Sweet Tooth’ is available in English, Hindi, Kannada, Marathi and Telugu.
Read more interviews with Pratham Books authors and illustrators.