‘The residents of Bargad chawl are in danger of losing their homes—their nooks and crannies, shelters and perches. Ali, the monkey, has to find a way out. He swings, jumps and leaps into action, and comes up with a monkey trick that gives a new twist to the phrase, ‘playing god’ in this hilarious and heartwarming story!’ reads the jacket of this picture book recommended for children upwards of 5 years in age.
When reviewing a picture book, the work of both the author as well as illustrator demands attention. Considering the genesis of ‘picture books’, I am guessing that in the olden days, perhaps, when the first story was orally narrated or read from a printed source to a child, the child would imagine accompanying pictures in her/his mind. Then, along came picture books. Children got an added stimulus along with either the verbal or the visual (in case of older children who could read themselves) to process the words being heard or seen.
Sadly, even today, some publishers have a somewhat ‘casual’, if I may use the word, approach towards illustrating for children. Fortunately, Priya Kuriyan belongs to a small but growing tribe of contemporary Indian children’s book illustrators who take their art seriously and Tulika encourages such talent and commitment. When Ali Became Bajrangbali is a ‘true picture book’ with few words in big font, accompanied by amazing illustrations, page after page. The traditional Indian ‘Tree of Life’ inspired backdrop, numerous posters—whether on the temple wall or atop houses in the chawl, the expressions on the face of each and every character—this book’s illustrations are nothing short of a visual treat. Younger members of the audience (siblings or those who are not yet reading independently) can play ‘I Spy’ picture after the first reading, along with the adult reader, to enhance the experience even more.
Devashish Makhija, the author, has proven the famous saying ‘What is in a name?’ to hold true in this book which breaks many stereotypes. He successfully portrays symbiotic coexistence of animals and humans as also members of different religions, with great ease. The attention to detail needs to be commended—names of the location and characters, human or animal, are extremely well researched by the author, sure to bring smiles to the faces of readers of all ages who are familiar with Indian languages as also quirky illustrations like the shadow from the window or the patchwork quilt.
Removing a tree, which is usually home to many birds and animals, to make way for human dwellings is a sad event. However, it is unusual for a children’s book to deal with such a sensitive issue using humour, making children understand the complexities in a subtle way. This book does not rely on some alien character in the past or future—but a rather real one in the here and now! The plot is kept simple, but also narrated without any jargon and the dedication by the author is most touching, ‘For my mother, for being patient with my father every time he used up the bhaaji money to buy me books! And for every tree ever sacrificed to make space for humans.’
When Ali became Bajrangbali is a perfect example of how a modern day children’s book can be likeable without being preachy, funny yet share the message of harmony, convey love and respect for all without being wordy! What is more, the chemistry between the narration and illustration from start to finish is totally in sync, making it likely to be revisited by young and old readers, over and over again. As a result, enthusiasm and hope akin to animals on the tree in the book are sure to be shared by the reading community as well.
Rachna Puri Dhir is a mother of two book-loving children.