By Divya Jyoti Tirkey & Mamura Khan
During the first lockdown at the outbreak of Covid-19 pandemic in the country, a large number of migrants walked insurmountable distances, in the peak of summer, to reach home. Jamlo Makdam, a 12-year-old child, also walked, from the chili fields of Telangana where she worked as a laborer, to her home in Chhattisgarh: a distance of 150 kms on foot. This excruciating punishment did not spare her; she died on the way. The state’s attempt to ‘discipline’ resulted in a punishment for the vulnerable, with no allegiance to justice.
Samina Mishra captures this incident in her poignant picture book Jamlo Walks illustrated by Tariq Aziz. It is a documentation of children’s voices during a crisis that remains unheard, untold.
A plan was developed to take this story to children which included readalouds, sharing experiences, drawing Jamlo’s walk and other activities. 1500 children of different age groups in tribal areas of Jharkhand engaged with the book leading to discussions on social justice. It offered a safe space for children to explore their own notions of complex themes such as death, grief, trauma, inequality and injustice, and critically look at factors that comprised the story.
Collectives for Integrated Livelihood Initiatives (CInI)- www.cinicell.org , set up in 2007, is one of the flagship initiatives of the Tata Trusts’ and functions as a nodal agency to anchor the Central India Initiative of the Trusts. CInI is currently operating in the states of Jharkhand, Odisha, Maharashtra and Gujarat with a focus to transform the lives of tribal households in the Central Indian tribal belt, through building knowledge and scaling up programmes in thematic areas of education, agricultural productivity stabilization, forest-based livelihoods, water resource development, drinking water and sanitation, microfinance, and strengthening community-based organisations (1) . This article highlights the experiences of CInI in interrogating this book, and elucidates how text and illustrations are a powerful tool to generate critical discussions around themes of empathy, equality and justice. It also addresses how children decode the notion of social justice and the interpretation of child rights in lieu of their own lived experiences.
Educators have pointed out how curriculum and storybooks can and should serve as ‘mirrors’ and ‘windows’ (2). Mirrors are books where children see themselves and their lived experiences in stories while books serving as windows introduce children to a world that they may never experience on their own. Both sets of books play a critical role in shaping our world view. In an unequal society like ours this becomes especially important.
The outbreak of Covid 19, followed by sudden and strict lockdown posed a number of challenges. The health situation was aggravating, it affected the education of millions of children, the plight of the migrant workers was devastating, everyone was confined in their home due to struggle all around. Everywhere there was news of sickness and death. It was difficult to have conversations around these issues, especially with children. The reasons were either inability to initiate discussions on such issues or there were no safe spaces to discuss the issues with children. But this was the reality of the society that children were also witnessing and were trying to make sense of.
To portray the difficulties of life during this situation Samina Mishra created a children’s picture book. The story is based on a true incident that happened on April 18, 2020 when Jamlo Makdam, a 12-year-old girl died while walking from the chili fields of Telangana, her work place to her home in Chhattisgarh. The book portrayed more than the life of Jamlo. The story portrayed the lives of children from varied backgrounds. The illustrations talked about the sufferings, the pain and death without even mentioning any one of these words.
The team at Collectives for Integrated Livelihood Initiatives took this opportunity to work on this book with around 1532 children across 10 blocks in 4 districts (Khunti, Hazaribagh, Dhalbhumgarh and Lohardaga) of Jharkhand and created safe spaces for children to share their thoughts, feelings and opinions on the complex issues of social justice experienced by them during the pandemic. These children are majorly from tribal communities living in remote villages and study from primary to high school grades. Their parents are mostly farmers or daily wage earners.
Thorough preparation was done before introducing the story to children. Since the story was in English (3) and the children belonged from the tribal geographies with different linguistic backgrounds, the language of instruction being Hindi, we had to explain the story well to the facilitators who were to work with the children.
As a part of preparation, the story was read aloud to them and discussions were held around the text and illustrations first to familiarize them with the story, second to create an environment for discussion on critical matters and third to prepare them to have similar discussions with the children. Various planned activities included: picture reading, readaloud, drawing around the theme, storytelling, performing a skit, completing the story, discussing children’s opinion on the story, letter writing to the author and illustrator, book talk, Newspaper collage around the topic and experience writing.
Most of the activities were done with all the children, however a few activities were done in a focused manner with the middle and high school children. The facilitators first read aloud the story to children followed by detailed discussion on the text and the illustrations. Work happened with children in small groups of around 10 to 15. Small groups provided an opportunity to discuss every aspect in depth. After listening to the story, the children expressed their thoughts through writings and drawings. They shared experiences similar to that of Jamlo that they had gone through during lockdown. A few older children also collected searing images of migrant workers from the newspaper and relived the experience of the lockdown period. Groups of children role played the whole story. It took the team around one and half months to complete the work from planning to implementation and documentation. The work provided many insights and learnings. It was overwhelming to listen to the responses of children on matters related to social justice.
Chandrika Kumari, a little girl from a village in Okra, Khunti district of Jharkhand shared a deep concern at the plight of Jamlo after listening to the story “Jamlo Walks”. She said, “I listened to the story of Jamlo. I felt really bad for her. She had to walk and cover a long distance to reach her home. She must be very tired. She did not even have food to eat nor did she have money to buy anything; had a bag of chili which she had earned against working in a chili field. She had to walk day and night as there were no transport running due to lockdown.” There were many other children like Chandrika who were empathetic towards Jamlo and had deep connect with the story.
A few groups of children recreated Jamlo’s journey through performing skits before the community members in the villages. Enacting the character of Jamlo, and other characters in the story paved the way for discussion about privileged or unprivileged people in society. The story portrayed children who had the opportunity to study through online classes. There were other children in the story who lived in the jhuggi and spent their time playing. The children we worked with expressed their concerns for children who could not attend online classes as their parents did not have mobile phones or laptops. Children in some places shared that they did not even have internet facility and hence spent most of the time helping their parents in household chores, in the farms, grazing the animals or playing. According to a newspaper article published in Times News Network, in Jharkhand alone, more than 32 lakh children were without digital devices during the pandemic (4). The story provided children the vocabulary to recognize and talk about unequal access to resources, especially digital resources in this case.
The story helped the children resonate with the experiences they had been going through during the lockdown. They shared situations happening with them similar to what was portrayed in the story. They shared that there were autorickshaws in the villages that announced to keep distance, wear masks and keep washing their hands. The schools were closed and how like the children in jhuggis they spent most of the time playing. They also spoke about migrant workers in their villages who had returned from their work place and about the difficulties their family members and other people in the villages faced while returning to the village post lockdown. Some were fortunate enough to get transport while there were others who had to walk miles to reach their home. They shared how people spoke about not returning to previous work if they got work in their native places. The children shared about a few families who did not even have food to eat. The children in the letters to the author and the illustrator requested to capture the stories of their villages and create more books like Jamlo Walks and make people aware of what they were going through.
The older children in the groups collected news about migrant workers from newspapers, read them and created collage out of them. They were able to recognize the injustice that people had to face. Migrant and daily wage earners were forced to leave their source of livelihood on account of sudden lock-down and no social security. They had to walk long distances to reach their home, Many without food to eat. The ones who had resources could avail some facilities while many others had to go through extreme struggle. Children were also able to discuss about child labor and child rights. They realized that Jamlo did not have the opportunity to study in school and she had to work to earn a living for her and her family. The state’s attempt to ‘discipline’ resulted in a punishment for the vulnerable, with no allegiance to justice. The story opened up such conversations and the children had their voices on social reality.
The children discussed how important it is to have a just society where everyone was treated with dignity. While sharing their experience they discussed different ways in which the situation during the pandemic could have been managed. The children appreciated the act of the person in the story who was running the road side stall. He had given laddu to Jamlo which they recognized as an act of kindness. They said that everyone should imbibe this quality. Besides, a few children gave a different ending to the story. They wrote that when Jamlo was tired and asleep under the tree people took her to the hospital. She recovered and reached home and lived happily with her family ever after. These examples show how children think and have a desire to have a just and equal society.
The story has an incident wherein a mother is watching video on the laptop of people walking. The people looked tired and sunburnt. Parents were carrying their children and also their luggage. But as soon as the mother sees her daughter watch the video clip, she quickly shuts down the laptop. Consciously or unconsciously most of the time we do not want our children to have exposure to grief, sorrow, death, and other complex issues of the society. Most of the time we find it difficult to have such conversations with children. However, Jamlo Walks was able to accomplish many things. The story provided a safe space for the children to talk about a critical issue in the society and discuss difficulties in life. The story led to open conversations that encouraged children to imagine what could have been done differently. What could have been alternative ways to support people in distress. Others gave suggestions on how one should treat each other during times of difficulties and also in everyday life. Children came up with suggestions which could have improved the lives of migrant workers during lockdown. A few children suggested that their stories during lockdown should also be captured. It was able to help children understand and engage with inequalities and injustice of the society. A few who were not aware of what had happened during lockdown were able to learn about it. Towards the end of the story children expected Jamlo to have reached home safe and sound. But the story had an unhappy ending. The story had a deep impact on everyone who read it. It left everyone in tears. Everyone wished this situation would not arise again. The story and the illustrations were very powerful and sensitive and it paved the way for children to think about justice, kindness and sensitivity for one and all. Such is the power of stories and literature to understand the world around us, even as they give us seeds to imagine a better world.
We would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who supported in engaging with children on the complex issues in the society faced during the Covid 19 pandemic through the book Jamlo Walks.
Special recognition to each member of the education team at Collectives for Integrated Livelihood Initiatives (CInI), and Tata Trusts for planning and implementing the activities around the book and documenting the responses of children.
Would like to express our special thanks to Mr. Ganesh Neelam, Executive Director, CInI and Ms. Amrita Patwardhan, Head, Education, Tata Trusts for their constant support and guidance.
We would also like to acknowledge Bookworm Trusts for initiating the work on this book with children.
Sincere thanks to Samina Mishra for creating this wonderful book and Tariq Aziz for the powerful illustrations.
- CInI through its education work in the states of Maharashtra ,Gujarat and Jharkhand, has been focusing on: the enhancement of student learning; the mobilization of the community; andthe development of resources/models to build institutional capacity. In the past years, CInI has worked with more than 1,000 schools,1,00,000 children and 2000 teachers.
- Emily Style (1988) introduced the concept which was later elaborated by Rudine Bishop (1990)
- Jamlo Walks has been subsequently translated in Hindi and other languages, published by Eklavya.
- “3 crore students”, Times of India, n.p.
“3 crore school students don’t have digital devices, says government”, The Times of India, 3 August 2021. https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/3-crore-school-students-dont-have-digital-devices-says-government/articleshow/84990767.cms
Bishop, Rudine Sims. “Mirrors, Windows and Sliding Glass Doors”. Perspectives: Choosing and Using Books for the Classroom 6.3. 1990.
Mishra, Samina. Jamlo Walks. Illustrated by Tarique Aziz. Penguin Books. 2021.
Style, Emily. “Curriculum as Mirror and Window”, first published in Listening for All Voices, Oak Knoll School monograph, 1988. https://nationalseedproject.org/Key-SEED-Texts/curriculum-as-window-and-mirror
About the Authors:
Divya Jyoti Tirkey and Mamura Khan work with Collectives for Integrated Livelihood Initiatives (CInI), an associate organization of the Tata Trusts. Divya has an M. Ed. in Educational Leadership from Boston College, Massachusetts and a P.G.D.R.D from XISS, Ranchi.
Mamura Khan is a pedagogy expert. He has a Master’s degree in Sociology.
Both authors have twelve to fifteen years of work experience in the sector. They are placed in Jharkhand. Through CInI, they have been focusing on ensuring access to quality education to children belonging to the tribal and other disadvantaged communities studying in government schools.
A version of this article was originally presented at the Narratives of Criminality, Punishment & Social Justice in Children’s & Young Adult Literature conference in August 2022.
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