There and Back Again: Bijal Vachharajani on the Andaman Literary Festival
A traditional Nicobari welcome.
And many smiles and chuckles.
That’s how we were greeted at the second leg of the Andaman Literary Festival that took place in Car Nicobar in October of this year.
The photos on our WhatsApp group showed us a preview – stacks of chairs, a long table, and a hand-painted banner that read, Andaman Literary Fest 2019: organised by ITDP, 1st time in Car Nicobar. But it really didn’t prepare us for the warmth and welcome that greeted us at the island.
There were three of us – author Sejal Mehta, illustrator and cartoonist Rohan Chakravarty, and me (editor and author) who had been invited to visit Car Nicobar by the Department of Arts and Culture. Along with authors Kiran Manral and Debeshi Gooptu, we had just spoken at Port Blair. It was an honour to be part of the first ever literary fest on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, and we’d spent the last few days meeting fellow authors, talking to college students, and soaking in the sights of the beautiful islands.
Car Nicobar, of course, was special. After a helicopter ride, we were taken to the library building. We started by talking about animals and birds around us, and the students and teachers joined us in mimicking the tock tock of geckos, the cawing of crows, and the cooing of the Nicobar pigeon. From there, Sejal and Rohan narrated, Watch Out! The Tiger is Here, a picture book that brings alive the sounds of the forest when a tiger comes prowling.
Then Sejal, who is part of the Marine Life of Mumbai collective, read from latest book for Pratham Books – Whoop, Goes the Pufferfish, a delightful story about a baby pufferfish who gets stuck in a shallow tide pool. With the help of Pia Minakshi’s beautiful illustrations and photographs, Sejal brought alive the world of marine animals in the hall. The starfish, the octopus, the pufferfish were already familiar species, little wonder that the children enthusiastically talked about marine life and asked questions about their natural history characteristics.
I read from my latest climate book, A Cloud Called Bhura, and the children and teachers had lots to say about the climatic changes they’ve been observing on their island. After a writing exercise where everyone stepped into the teeny tiny shoes of an ant to understand character, it was Rohan’s turn to introduce cartooning to the students. They drew a dolphin – smiling, angry, laughing – with loads of emotions.
At first, many of the students were shy. But soon started talking as they wrote, drew and answered questions. We left after taking lots of group photographs, with promises of reading more. And questioning more. And observing more.
As Rohan, Sejal, and I, along with our friend Rithika, boarded our ride back, all of us looked back at the island and couldn’t help but agree – perhaps we had learned more from the children. And we also agreed, that the memories of this festival will always be special.
Bijal Vachharajani is a Senior Editor at Pratham Books and author of What’s Neema Eating Today?, The Seed Savers, A Cloud Called Bhura and So You Want to Know About the Environment. When Bijal is not reading Harry Potter, she can be found traipsing around the forests of India. She is constantly stressed about climate change and turns to chocolate to keep those worry dementors away!