Dams · Free flowing rivers · Riverine Literature · Rivers and Culture · Rivers in Literature

Saving the Dalai Lama’s Cranes: An adventure, swift as the river!

My son is twelve years old and a voracious reader. His favorites include series like Percy Jackson, Heroes of Olympus, Spy School and Space Runners. In short, nothing of the sort I read as a kid. I do not know these books and am frankly, a bit bewildered at the mix of mythology, science fiction and middle school dilemmas.

And hence, when I kept a copy of Neeraj Vagholikar’s “Saving the Dalai Lama’s Cranes” in his hands, I was a bit unsure. There were no kids here with gadgets, but a youth in robes studying to be a monk, his friend from Tawang and a wildlife biologist!

three friends copy
The three friends Illustration: Niloufer Wadia

However, in keeping with their habit of proving their parents wrong, Nachi read the book in a matter of hours and told me that that it was “very cool”. In one reading, he knew about a new river, several new species and a new way of life. In his words, “I loved the part when three friends take upon themselves to get hold of report to save many animals and a river. It’s an adventure. And Nyamjang Chhu is the longest river names I know.”

“Saving the Dalai Lama’s Cranes” is a slender 50- page book written by Neeraj Vagholikar and illustrated by Niloufer Wadia. Neeraj has been working for the past two decades on issues related to governance of rivers, forests and communities, especially in the North East. Disclaimer: Neeraj is a dear friend and colleague and is impeccable and matter-of-fact in his work and therefore I must admit I was hugely curious about his first book. A children’s book at that!

I curled up with the book with an intention of glancing through. But I had to finish it. It is a beautiful and a simple tale of three friends, based in Tawang, Arunachal Pradesh, a corner of the country we hear little about. They are an unlikely bunch of adventurers: Tenzin studying to be a monk, his friend Pema and a feisty wildlife biologist Tara. The trio races against time to save their river and their beloved Black-necked cranes from being permanently affected by a dam, pushed by a false report. In doing so, we get a glimpse of the way Nyamjang Chhu river meanders in Tawang, its unique wildlife, and its safekeepers. Tenzin, the monk grapples with his own dilemmas about the adventure and ably transforms into Tenzin cheekymonkitus!

Tenzing copy
Tenzing illustarted by Niloufer Wadia

The story is wholesome, fast-paced and swift like a river in the hills, but what also makes the book special are its illustrations. Niloufer Wadia has illustrated the book beautifully in bold colors and traditional motifs. Some drawings of the river, its wildlife and especially the sixth Dalai Lama, flanked by a pair of cranes, are truly remarkable.

cranes, nyamjang chhu river
Black-Necked Cranes on the banks of Nyamjang Chhu Illustrated by Niloufer Wadia

There is a lot to be said about the dam planned across Nyamjang Chhu and how the book contributes to simplifying a complex but essential facet of environmental governance or how it trusts its young readers enough to include a short, lucid section on Rivers, Dams and Choices. But essentially, it’s a tale of three friends, out to save a river and cranes they love. Three friends, who do not have fancy gadgets or iPads, who do not wear branded denims, who grapple with moral issues, but at the end of the day, have a lot of fun. My only gripe: I wish the story was longer. Neeraj has more to tell. The region has more to show. I hope this is but a beginning of stories we will get to hear from Neeraj.

While working on issues related to environment and reading everyday about the tragedies that befall our forests and communities, we somehow lose touch with the sheer joy that wilderness infuses in us and in our children. We become preachy, despite our best intentions.

Read Saving the Dalai Lama’s Cranes. Its for you and for the kids. Nothing brings us together like a good story. Let the river meander into curious hearts and minds on its own, without sermons. Like Steinbeck says, “… there are certain creatures so delicate that they are almost impossible to catch whole for they will break and tatter under the touch. You must let them crawl of their own into your bottle of sea water.” And perhaps that might be the way to this book-to open the page and let the stories crawl in by themselves.

As I write this, I hear that the first flock of wintering Cranes has arrived in Arunachal Pradesh. A good omen, if there was one: for the story, for our rivers and for us.

Cranes book Flyer, English

Saving the Dalai Lama’s Cranes

Author Neeraj Vagholikar
Illustrator Niloufer Wadia
Year of Publication
Publisher Kalpavriksh
ISBN-13 978-8187945819
Dimensions A5
No. of pages 56
Reading Level 10+ yrs

Parineeta Dandekar, SANDRP (parineeta.dandekar@gmail.com)

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