The latest in Tulika’s picture book series in multiple languages is Ju’s Story, well-known Malayalam novelist and columnist Paul Zacharia’s warm tale that captures the hidden riches that gild the life of a schoolgirl in an undescribed corner in Kerala. Asma Menon’s lush illustrations that accompany the story reveal a setting vivid with colourful layers of meaning. The girl at the centre of the story has a name with no identifiable religious or cultural markers. Ju’s tailor-father dies when she is a year old leaving her mother, a domestic worker, to her own devices. Any single-parent household brings with it tentative moments that arise from the absence of a loved parent and therefore, particularly in this case, curtailed material possibilities. The inventive mother embellishes her daughter’s life by providing her discarded and unwanted keepsakes from the homes she visits.
These became valuable gifts, almost like treasured secrets from someone else’s life, and imbue Ju’s hand-me-down routine with a dash of glory.
Once in Ju’s possession, the keepsakes become something more than discarded objects. From being old and unwanted, they become new and cherished. Ju is nothing less than an alchemist in her ability to transform them into revered and special belongings. In the hands of a sensitive writer like Zacharia, the story of simple discovery becomes a moving experience. Menon’s strong and vibrant colours suggest empowerment.
The theme of loss and possession, the joy of exploration and the anguish of uncertainty, the finiteness of experience and the ambiguity of choice are seamlessly woven into the story of a girl who is obviously deprived by circumstance but hopelessly rich in spirit and imagination. The image that stays with the reader, who is enabled by the illustrator’s intuitive visual reinforcement, is that of courage unshackled by victimhood. Neither the author nor the illustrator is singularly associated with children’s writing and while this enhances the subtext in subtle ways, deft editing keeps the charming essentials in focus.
The book is more than just a story about losses, possessions and the lessons in between. It is a part of ‘Different Tales’, a project undertaken by Anveshi Research Centre for Women’s Studies in Hyderabad, to present life-worlds seldom reflected in children’s books. Tulika has always been an active agent in collaborative approaches to enrich children’s literature and its social agenda.
Radhika Menon, Publisher, Tulika, was part of the Anveshi advisory committee. From the discussions, she understood that though there were a few books about children from marginalixed communities which addressed issues of community and gender, they still reflected an outsider’s view. This would change if the stories were woven around non-normative families or communities and if their everyday experiences and activities were seen as the context in which questions of marginalization and discrimination were addressed. In the Anveshi stories the strong narrative voices of the writers shift the centre of consciousness and alter the normative assumptions about childhood.
Radhika Menon writes in the Tulika blog: ‘We have always made a conscious effort to move away from a middle and upper class sensibility and have tried to make sure that all children can relate comfortably to the stories and pictures. If our publishing had been restricted to English, it would almost certainly have had an urban middle class bias. But we publish in eight Indian languages and often the bulk of our books in regional languages reach the less privileged children. This strongly influences the choice of the stories and illustrations in our books.’
Publishing in so many languages and making the books accessible to all children is a challenging task and Tulika’s 13-year journey on this road has seen a cross-national and cross-cultural series of milestones.
Ju’s Story is available in English, Kannada, Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Marathi, Gujarati and Bengali through Tulika. A Malayalam version will be released by the Kerala State Institute of Children’s Literature.
The first in a series of stories from Anveshi that Tulika plans to publish as picture books, Ju’s Story is a telling example of why these stories matter. By making the experience of a girl from a marginalized group central, it links the neglected periphery to the self-absorbed elite. Through the medium of a simple story, the message of sensitivity reaches out to the imagination of young readers everywhere.
Bindu Bhaskar Balaji is senior faculty at the Asian College of Journalism, Chennai.