All about figs – book review of ‘The Secret Garden’

Books on nature and wildlife for children set in the Indian context are few and far between, though in the last decade, there are several available. It has definitely improved since my childhood, when I read a lot about nature and wild species in far-off places but had very little to read on about Indian wildlife.

I still lament that many Indian children (and their parents) would have heard of toucans and gorillas and armadillos but not about hornbills and lorises or civets. And these are still the better known more popular animal species.

The cover page of the book authored by Shruti Rao and illustrated by Rohan Chakravarty
The cover page of the book authored by Shruti Rao and illustrated by Rohan Chakravarty

 ‘The Secret Garden’ written by Shruthi Rao is possibly among the first few nature books from India for children that focuses on plants and plant-animal interactions. The concept and scientific inputs have been provided by several ecologists who work on these systems.

The book is about the natural history of figs – many species of which are familiar to most people even in the cities – such as the Banyan (Ficus bengalensis), the Goolar (Ficus glomerata), the widely cultivated and edible Anjeer (Ficus carica) and the Peepal (Ficus religiosa) – one of the commonest and well-known fig trees in India. These are some of the well-known species, but there are over 750 species of Ficus in the world, mainly in tropical forests.

Although fig trees are familiar to most people, few people know about its fascinating biology and its dependence of a range of animals for pollination and seed dispersal. The story of the complex tight mutualism between the fig tree and its fig-wasp pollinators is told in a simple, clear and fun way. The narrator is the Peepal tree who tells the story of its unique and remarkable relationship with Kanaja, the tiny fig-wasp (Kanaja = fig-wasp in Kannada).

One of the most challenging aspects of writing a book for children on nature is to make it interesting even while providing facts and information. This book has done this job beautifully – being both educational and a fun read.

An appealing aspect of the book is the clever and intriguing title. It refers to the hidden garden of flowers inside the figs which no one knows about or sees. People may have wondered where are the flowers of the fig tree – actually they are hidden inside the receptacles (syconia) that outwardly many would simply consider to be the unripe fruits.

My 7-year old son after reading it with me, was fascinated on learning this and very amused when he understood the reason for the title. He also thought the book should have been called ‘The Peepal’s Secret Garden’.

The wonderful cartoons by Rohan Chakravarty that accompany the story and facts are quirky, delightful and apt and had my son giggling on every page. In children’s books on nature, a bit of humour is an important component that is often missing. This book has this on every page.

The paintings by several other artists and images and the design of the book is also appealing. The knowledge and information is delivered with a light touch, woven into the story-telling by the Peepal tree. Some facts and numbers are provided separately, represented as writing on a lined notebook. Some more tidbits are given in yellow boxes as in sticky notes.

The book goes into every aspect of fig biology and their importance for a host of animal species. It talks about intricate aspects of the tight co-evolution of the fig-fig-wasp mutualism, then about the parasitic wasps that try to get the benefits without helping in pollination, and talks about the threats from human impacts to fig trees. The later part of the book talks about how their fruits are a reliable source of food for many birds and mammals. And then about some of their prominent consumers and dispersers – the hornbills and about their breeding biology and the competition between different-sized hornbills at fruiting trees. Lastly, it tells us how fig seeds are dispersed, and where and how they germinate and grow. And why the Peepal or other Ficus species are so important in the forest as keystone species.

What figs provide - cartoon by Rohan Chakravarty
What figs provide – cartoon by Rohan Chakravarty

It is also super that several of the animal characters have lovely Indian names – starting with Kanaja, the fig-wasp, then Mangat and Chilotro, the Indian grey hornbills and Dada, the Oriental Pied hornbill. And there is Atthiamma, the Goolar tree, another common fig species.

Inside cover - Oriental Pied hornbill by Sartaj Ghuman
Inside cover – Oriental Pied hornbill by Sartaj Ghuman

The book is also a paperback, easy to carry around and distribute, being light and only 21 pages. The paper and printing quality is excellent.

I presume this book is primarily meant for children from 6 years to about 11 years. My one quibble with the book is that in some places it could have had even less text and shorter sentences, especially for the younger age group (6-8 years). A few of the pages also look somewhat cluttered. One minor issue is that the book does not mention the variety of growth habits of fig trees – while many are stranglers like the Banyan familiar to all, that are epiphytic and grow by killing a host tree, some others grow on rocks, while many are also free-standing.

The Secret Garden is a delightful book about one of the most fascinating mutualisms in nature and about the many connections between figs and a host of animals ranging from the tiny fig-wasps to hornbills and large mammals. I recommend it highly for every child (and even adults) to read and enjoy. And it is a must-have in school libraries.

The book has been produced as part of an educational initiative of the Nature Science Initiative (NSI) – www.naturescienceinitiative.org and has been funded by the Rufford Foundation, UK. The book is priced at Rs. 250. Another plus point is that the book is published under a Creative Commons license. There are also plans to translate and publish this in several Indian languages.

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