More and more I’ve come to believe that a lot of things would be set right in the world if grown-ups read children’s books, by prescription, if need be. You have to pick up both these titles to see what I mean. There is something so tender, so luminous and so magical about these books, that for a moment, it should restore any adult’s faith in the good that perhaps runs the world.
First, let us consider Lavanya Karthik’s A Walk with Thambi. A casual reading might not even reveal the delicate secret at the heart of the book—that it is about a visually impaired boy who takes a walk with his guide dog. You have to pick up this book to understand that the sighted may be ‘blind’ as well–blind to subtle clues such as the special walking stick in the illustrations, and blind also to the sensorium that informs our interaction with the world, beyond the merely visual. Proiti Roy’s delightful illustrations bring to life the sounds, smells, textures, pastimes and interactions of a small town, or a village, as experienced by a child. The illustrations interact so seamlessly with the writing that it is impossible to believe that two different hands have vivified the same narrative. Clearly, the author and the illustrator have ‘felt’ the tale in similar ways.
What I found most refreshing about the book was its ‘no pressure’ feel: the text is minimal, lucid and evocative, rather than didactic. The illustration fans out the full intention of the text, something that young readers simply delight in. I watched my five-year-old poring over every detail on each page, asking relentless questions: the detailing in the illustration will intrigue children who may not have experienced sights and sounds of a rural life. My favourite spread is the page on the bazaar: the man frying pakoras while a lady expectantly looks into the kadhai, the man selling candyfloss with a bell in his hand, the vendor holding aloft a basket full of utensils, a woman and child patiently selling gajras (hair ornaments made of jasmine), a little boy throwing a tantrum while his sister contentedly savours the candyfloss, cats and dogs quietly waiting to catch morsels from the vendors selling fish or other edibles…life, that is lost to many of us in cities that have no spaces for these anymore. The other refreshing element is how Lavanya Karthik treats the subject matter of visual impairment itself: in a positive, inclusive, life-affirming manner. No mawkish pitying, no expression of a ‘lack’. It is a wonderful way to talk of different abilities with younger children, and indeed with many adults who can be rather insensitive when it comes to dealing with such issues.
The second book under review is Manjula Padmanabhan’s lavishly illustrated and imaginatively written Mama, What is the Night? Like Karthik and Roy’s book, this is life affirming, positive and reassuring in its tone and tenor. Padmanabhan’s delightful punning, witty verse and delicate artwork allays all fears that little ones may have about the night and its mysterious powers. No monsters here, no ghosts or ghouls: rather, this is a book celebrating nocturnal creatures and their activities. Robert Frost famously says, ‘Poetry begins in delight and ends in wisdom’ and that is the first thought that crossed my mind when I leafed through this book. Rhyming lines capture the essence and actions of earthworms, bats, owls, moon jellyfish…and even the night blooming Cereus, amongst other flora and fauna. In a heart-warming question and answer style, the book informs about the natural world, but through poetry and art. This mingling of metaphor and hard facts is expertly executed by Padmanabhan, never once robbing the subject matter of its magic and charm.
I learnt about the night blooming Cereus and the tarsier for the first time, at the ripe old age of 43… so yes, do not assume that it is just another children’s book. If it is the Padmanabhan (whom I grew up on, via that delightful children’s magazine called Target), then there are bound to be surprises. I love the way in which text and artwork are fused in this book: the young readers will crane their neck in all directions, and squint their eyes to read the words often stitched into the drawings. Younger readers delight in this kind of interaction with a book: it will reveal its secrets with each subsequent re-reading. The final panel brought a lump to my throat: the child held aloft in the loving embrace of her parents, admiring and absorbing the magic and mystery of the universe, unafraid of the night… what an image of security, reassurance, and simultaneously fragility and strength…
Both the books remind us that you need neither light nor sight to delight in the offerings of the living world…you need curiosity, imagination and definitely, a sense of adventure. By all means, acquire these books for yourself even if you do not have young ones to read them to… as I said, these may bring a smile to your lips and a tear to your eyes in a way no adult writing can. Tulika Books must be lauded for producing high quality books for children in a world where terribly packaged information, moving images and ‘noise’ eclipse the subtle, the delicate and the enigmatic. I never cease to be astonished by their bouquet of authors, illustrators and subject matter bravely mapping out the world for children, in all its wonder and majesty.
Priyanka Bhattacharya lives with 2,500 trees of The Doon School, and also teaches English to some boys there.