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Nandini Nayar

pexels-photo-256514.jpegWhatever gets published makes you famous.

But what doesn’t get published makes you a better writer.

This is not a well- meaning bit of sop for all those looking for comfort when they face rejection. It makes sense, a whole lot of it. Think of it, when you write a story, you write it in isolation, wondering all the while if your readers will like it as much as you do. A tiny part of your brain tells you that perhaps you are a little bit prejudiced in favour of your story but you push the thought roughly aside. And then you send the story to the publisher of your choice. When they write to say they are sorry but it does not fit their publishing list, you are devastated. How on earth could it have been rejected, you rage. It was so beautiful a story, with such lovely characters.

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Sometimes the title of the book is the hook, waiting to attract and reel in readers. It was that way with Paro Anand’s I’m not Butter Chicken! for me. The title caught my fancy and the brightly coloured cover only made the book more attractive.

I’m Not Butter Chicken is a collection of short stories, all written by Paro Anand. The title story features young Nitya who has an argument with her father and tells him, “I am not butter chicken, you can’t order me!” Despite her bravado she is very much a young child and terrified of retribution from her father, runs away to her room and locks herself in. She prudently stays there for some time, imagining the worst and afraid of what her father will do to her. Till she hears the sound of her father’s laughter and comes out to find that her parents have forgotten her anger and moved on to something else. ‘Invisible Things to look out for’ presents a child’s perspective when his parents decide to get a divorce. The atmosphere in the house contains all the invisible things that a child needs to look out for and guard against but is helpless to. ‘The process of being groan up’ is a story that focuses on every child’s nightmare – of being caught cheating. The girl in the story chooses the easy way out and pretends to faint in an exam that she has not prepared for. A sympathetic doctor is the one who leads her to the process of becoming grown up, showing her how she can help herself without resorting to cheating. ‘IQ impossible’ is a funny story, a tongue in cheek take on our education system, with its tests to measure IQs and slot children into various compartments. The protagonist of the story is an average boy, who gets scolded by parents and teachers for not doing his work. But his life changes the day his performance on an IQ test proves that he is a genius. Instead of helping the boy, this label only creates problems for him. He is now under great pressure to prove himself and the tedium of this makes him long for the label that he has had all his life  – of being an average student.

I’m Not Butter Chicken by Paro Anand

 

Paro Anand has written several books for children of various ages and she gives evidence of this in the well crafted stories in this collection. The stories focus on the various issues that plague children. And what is really nice about Anand’s stories is that there is no attempt to suggest one surefire solution to them. Nor does Anand attempt to create a happily ever after ending for her stories. The result is a collection of stories that present a realistic take on the world of  youngsters, stories that will have them nodding in agreement. What I really liked about this book was the section titled –Where this story came from. This section gives readers a peek into the workings of a writer’s mind and helps us understand that stories don’t necessarily drop suddenly into the mind, that these stories are often inspired by ordinary events, words or even part of a sentence.

What happens when you ask forty children what they would do with a stick? What else but a shower of ideas! The forty boys and girls who trooped into Little People Tree one morning came prepared to be entertained. But when I asked them what they would do, if, like the girl in My Grandfather’s Stick, they had a stick, they were more than willing to share their ideas! The room was a forest of eagerly waving hands as everyone wanted a chance to have their say. Ideas were voiced, sometimes even shouted, bounced around the room….who knew you could so many things with a stick! The stage was then set to introduce these children to the girl who talked about My Grandfather’s Stick. And boy, did the children enjoy hearing some of their favourite stick ideas being used by the protagonist of the book! After a thoroughly enjoyable reading session, it was time to unleash the artist in each child! Silence  settled down  on the room as the children bent over the paper they had been provided, making their own illustrations for My Grandfather’s Stick.

My Grandfather’s Stick by Nandini Nayar

Illustrated by Kshitiz Sharma

November 5 saw me at Little People Tree again, introducing My Grandfather’s Stick to an enthusiastic bunch of children who were there to have tea, listen to all the things that a stick could do and give free rein to their imaginations. After an energetic story telling session, the children’s creative juices flowed well and the result was some truly imaginative pictures.

 

 

Mention the word history and you are more than likely to encounter unenthusiastic responses. Somehow, of all the subjects we study at school and later, history is the one that has gathered the reputation of being dull, boring and capable of putting the listener to sleep. I too recall struggling with dates, names and the order of events. Somehow, the thought that these had been real people, that these had been events that had actually occurred, never struck me. The sense of being separated from these characters by a few hundred years only made the understanding of how the past was connected to the present reality difficult to comprehend. Fortunately for the children of today, writers and publishers understand the disconnect between the past and the present. Which is why we have books that present history in a completely new light, allowing us to know these famous figures from history as real people, with their own worries and joys.

Deepa Agarwal’s Rani Lakshmibai: The Valiant Queen of Jhansi, is a book that introduces us to the woman who played such an important role in the history of India’s struggle for freedom. The book opens with an interesting incident, where the young Lakshmibai, known as Manu, is thwarted in her wish to ride an elephant. She declares that she will one day ride ten elephants. This declaration comes true when the young Manukarnika is chosen as the bride of Gangadhar Rao, the king of Jhansi. With her marriage everything changes for Manukarnika – she takes on the name of Rani Lakshmibai, moves to Jhansi and begins a new life. The new life is filled with luxury and comforts but there are sorrows too and Lakshmibai proves herself more than capable of handling these. Unable at first to have a baby, Lakshmibai enjoys a brief period of happiness when she eventually gives birth to a boy. But in a very short while the baby dies, leaving her childless. Her husband’s bad health, and the threat of losing Jhansi to the British government make Lakshmibai’s life difficult. But when the sudden revolt of the sepoys gives her an opportunity to fight for her Jhansi, she grabs it, displaying enormous courage in the ensuing battles.

Rani Lakshmibai: The Valiant Queen of Jhansi by Deepa Agarwal

Deepa Agarwal is a skillful narrator and the story of Lakshmibai’s life flows effortlessly. Only the occasional inclusion of extracts from various official documents reminds the reader that this is not fiction, but history. Agarwal includes translations of the songs sung about the Rani and paints a portrait of a brave woman, who was a victim of her circumstances but chose to fight them instead of giving in to them. This is a book that all children will enjoy, for its vivid descriptions of battles and the details of life in the past. For the reluctant readers of history this is an invaluable book and will not only help them learn about the important events in the life of Rani Lakshmibai, but also understand the significance of this brave woman’s position in the pantheon of the people who fought for the freedom of our country.

Trains are magical. Even grown-ups stop and stare at a passing train. And as for children, the joy of travelling anywhere is partly fuelled, I believe, by the fact that they are going to travel in a train. There is magic in the narrow bunks and the sight of the landscape flying past the open window. Friendships are made and strengthened on a train ride. Most Indian families prepare for the journey by packing enough food to feed the entire compartment. Food tastes so different and so much better when eaten on a swaying train.

Given our obsession with trains it is hardly surprising to find books about trains. The Timid Train by Bharati Jagannathan is the story of a rather surprising engine.  The engine in the story is called Loco and poor Loco is terrified of a hundred different things. Loco is afraid of dogs and cows, of travelling through the long dark tunnels….things that you don’t expect a train to fear. The other engines do what they can to reassure Loco and get it to see that things will be fine. But Loco clings to its fears.

And then one day the engine is sent on a long journey – from the southern tip of the country all the way up to the north. Loco has to travel from Tamil Nadu to Jammu. You can imagine Loco’s fears! And the journey is as bad as Loco has imagined it, at least to begin with. Without the other engines to reassure it Loco gives in to its fears. Loco screams out in fear every time it sees something even mildly scary. But surprise, surprise! Every time the engine screams, its voice emerges sounding like the whistle of a train. And to its great surprise the engine finds people and animals running away from its scream. This gives Loco a sense of its own importance and might. And after Loco has travelled through a tunnel and emerged on the other side, it is an engine that has been transformed. Loco is no longer afraid.   The timid engine Loco has been transformed into a very normal engine that rushes through towns and villages, letting out its shrill whistle.

The Timid Train by Bharati Jagannathan

Illustrated by Preeti Krishnamurthy

The Timid Train can be read simply as a good story; a story that will appeal to children. But the story also functions at various other levels and can be used by an astute parent or educator to help children learn some important life skills.

The illustrations by Preeti Krishnamurthy are detailed and evoke memories of countless train rides. The bridges, the landscape, the detailing of the engine and the driver are all beautifully done and will be appreciated by children. This is a wonderful book to read aloud to little children.

Give a child some sticks and he will create an entire army out of them. A child’s imagination is a free entity, soaring above walls and boundaries, creating a sky of its own. And that is why when you have the protagonist of the delightful book I am a Cat! declare “I am a cat!” there is no sense of disbelief or even surprise. Instead the adult reader sits back and prepares to be floored by the imagination of the child, as she tries to justify why she is indeed a cat.

Tinti is the protagonist in this book, a little girl who tells her mother that she is a cat. She enters into this make-believe world with all seriousness of a child and does everything she can to convince her mother that she is a cat. She refuses to wash her face and instead, at the suggestion of her mother, tries to clean herself the way cats do. When Tinti is unable to do this her mother triumphantly declares that she is not a complete cat. Instead, she is 3/4th of a cat. Does Tinti give up her pretence of being a cat? No, she does not. Instead she makes several more attempts to behave like a cat, so that her mother will admit that she is a cat. She tries to carry her baby brother in her mouth, the way cats carry their young, but can’t. The prospect of eating dead mice like a cat is impossible and so Tinti tries another cat trick- that of stealing food. But her sharp-eyed Ajji catches her before she can succeed in this. Tinti succeeds in playing with her friend with all the abandon of a cat. But this physical exercise only sharpens her appetite and Tinti has to run to her mother for food. Her mother refuses to accept that she is a cat and Tinti is forced to concede that her mother is right. Only when Tinti has accepted that she is a “Zero cat!” and that she is her mother’s daughter, does her mother agree to feed.

I am a Cat! by Rinchin

Illustrated by Jitendra Thakur

This book, published by Eklavya, Bhopal, is sure to appeal to children of all ages. Rinchin’s story is simple and reflects the twists and turns of a child’s logic. The exchange between Tinti and her mother is good-natured and teasing, and will remind many parents of their interactions with their own children.  Jitendra Thakur has used a palette of serious colours to paint Tinti and the contours of her world. The colours are in keeping with Tinti’s background. The illustrations present Tinti’s little world in all its bare simplicity, without any hint of patronization. This, along with the simplicity of the prose, creates a realistic book that is also a fun read.

The past few weeks have been packed with things happening – first all the excitement about Dussera, then before I had recovered from this, the greater excitement of Diwali. Somehow it seemed to me as if I was constantly on the go, doing things, running about, with not a minute to pause and relax. With Diwali  this period of activity peaked. And after preparing and eating mountains of sweets and being forced to endure the horrible cacophony of fire crackers that simply refused to die out and let one sleep, all I really wanted was something soothing. A book that could lull me into believing that life was not all noise and confusion, that it was instead about humdrum things that soothe by their very routine nature. And that is when I found Mrs. Woolly’s Funny Sweaters by Asha Nehemiah.

It is strange how, despite having lived all my life in the South of India, where people cherish the one sweater they own, and proudly don it when the weather gets really bad, the whole process of knitting and the cosiness associated with it, has stayed with me. Perhaps because I can recall visits to the colder North, with my aunts busily knitting away as they basked in the warmth of the winter sun. The muted clicks of their needles formed the background to my dreamy vacation thoughts. And so I allowed the cosiness of the book surround me and soothe me back into a good mood.

Mrs. Woolly and her young daughter Anita live in a town where it is always hot. Hardly the place where Mrs. Woolly can make money selling the sweaters she knits. And so they move to a place at the top of a mountain, confident that Mrs. Woolly’s sweaters will sell well in a place that is cold all the year round. But…but… their new house is so high up in the hills that the minute doors and windows are opened the clouds rush in. This may sound interesting, even romantic but is very disconcerting for poor Mrs. Woolly, who can’t see what she is knitting. And that is how all her funny sweaters are made. There is one that has four sleeves instead of the usual two, another that has two necks instead of one and yet another that has a long neck and no armholes at all. Anita, being a practical young girl, suggests that they get her mother’s eyes checked. The doctor not only checks Mrs. Woolly’s eyes, but pounces gleefully on the sweater with the four sleeves. The four sleeved sweater is perfect for his old dog that will now stay warm while he guards the doctor’s house. The sweater with two necks is bought by the lady selling vegetables and is a perfect fit for her pet monkey and the baby that is wrapped around its neck. The final funny sweater is bought by a shopkeeper and becomes the perfect thing to protect his sitar. Mrs. Woolly and Anita are very happy. Not only have they managed to sell the three funny sweaters, they now own a powerful lamp which will ensure that Mrs. Woolly’s sweaters are not so funny in the future!

Mrs. Woolly’s Funny Sweaters by Asha Nehamiah

Illustrated by Subir Roy

Mrs. Woolly’s Funny Sweaters has the rounded perfection that one has come to associate with Asha Nehamiah’s writing. There are no rough edges to the narrative, no details left unattended. All the problems are solved and all the loose ends tied up. There is an implication of hard work and goodness being rewarded and I think it is this, along with the story itself, that makes this such a soothing read. It reinforces the essentially optimistic notions most of us have of the world, notions that may have become shaky over a period of time.

Subir Roy’s illustrations are wonderful and create a sense of the place being described. Mrs. Woolly’s house abounds in balls of wool and naughty cats playing with them. The house at the top of the hill becomes a place that we would all love to visit and Mrs. Woolly as beloved and familiar as a well-know aunt.

The trouble with writing about a book a day is the number of books you have to reject in order to decide on one. It calls for stern resolution, otherwise you may well find yourself dithering, unable to choose between two or even three books, all of which are begging to be written about. When I look for a title to write about, I don’t really have any specifications laid out in my mind. I go to my bookshelf with an open mind, or so I think. And yet, it is amazing the number of reasons I can find not to write about a particular book till I am finally left with a couple of books. And then begins the battle in my mind, as I try to narrow down on one title.

And the winner of today’s battle is none other than Subhadra Sen Gupta’s intriguingly titled collection of short stories, History Mystery, Dal and Biryani. The collection brings together some of Sen Gupta’s best stories, previously published in various newspapers. Each of the stories is a gem that effortlessly transports you back in time, and introduces you to street-smart, quick-witted children who manage to get the better of their elders each time. ‘Salim Hussain Quwwal’ is the story of a young boy who longs to sing with his father. Salim finds an interesting way to earn money to fund his trip to the music festival. In the process not only does he learn the ropes of business but also earns his father’s respect and what he desires badly – a chance to sing with his father! Sadiq in ‘Dal Delight’ is yet another resourceful boy, who understands the importance of pleasing Nawab Hasan Ali. Sadiq’s father agrees to cook his specialty dal for the Nawab but on the condition that it be eaten when it is hot and that it be eaten in his shop. When the meal is ready Sadiq finds the Nawab caught up in the thrill of kite flying. Fortunately for Sadiq his best friend Aman is a skilled kite flyer and Sadiq knows just how to put that skill to good use! Parvati, who stars in ‘Painting the Breeze’ proves that girls can hold their own too. This little girl not only makes pots but paints them with the beauties of nature. And in doing so she finds a fan in the most unlikely person in the kingdom – the Queen.

History, Mystery

Dal and Biryani     by Subhadra Sen Gupta

Illustrated by Tapas Guha

What, you may wonder, of the mystery mentioned so tantalizingly in the title? ‘A Shimmer of Silk’ presents readers with a historical mystery, as fast paced and nail-biting as any contemporary one. ‘To Catch A Thief’ is another story that has two young boys solving a mystery and helping their family. And for the fun element you can read about the overweight Nawab who stars in ‘No Pulao for Nawabsaab’ and ‘Tenali Rama the Second’.

Subhadra Sen Gupta’s writing is effortless, primarily because of her ability to get into the skin of her characters and slip into the frames of the stories she is weaving. The historical background to each story is filled in with carefully placed strokes that rarely interfere with the flow of the narrative. There are no jarring chunks of historical details here, only the information necessary for an understanding of the story. Her characters are all winners too; they have the spunk needed to make them heroes and heroines. Tapas Guha’s masterly use of shaded drawings adds depth and create a sense of volume to the illustrations.

Every reader has a different reason for liking books, for going back to favourites in times of happiness and sorrows. I read some of my old favourites simply because there are no surprises there; I know exactly how the story goes and that assurance is what I crave. With some books though, the illustrations are the happiness magnets.  I can ignore the story (and often do) and lose myself completely in the richness of the illustrations.

Suddhasattwa Basu’s The Song of a Scarecrow is one such book. The story is simple enough – a nattily dressed scarecrow is tired of being stuck in one place and decides to set off on a journey. He follows his whims and does exactly as he pleases for just one day. At the end of the day – having picked flowers, chased clouds and jumped with butterflies –  he  realizes that he is homesick. Off he goes, back to the cornfield that he has guarded for so long, only to find that his little truancy has led to a complete devastation of the corn field. The conscience-stricken scarecrow understands then what most of us take almost our entire lives to – that he had been happy in the cornfield and had unnecessarily left this life in order to seek greater happiness.

And now to the best part of the book – the illustrations. Suddhasattwa Basu’s illustrations are stunning.  He has succeeded in capturing the various moods and expressions of the scarecrow. What is more, he has also managed to bring to life the scarecrow, in all its loose-limbed, big-eyed, wide-mouthed beauty. Yes, the scarecrow, almost synonymous with ugliness, gains an innocent beauty in Suddhasattwa Basu’s renditions. Right from the gaily checked shirt he wears, to the conical straw hat on his head and the wide open eyes, the scarecrow is an individual, whose every mood has been captured effectively. My favourite is the one where the scarecrow, tired out, relaxes under a tree. There is something so endearing about the fact that he has tipped his hat forward to shade his eyes! I am sure this book will change the way we look at scarecrows in the future!

The Song of a Scarecrow

Written and illustrated by Suddhasattwa Basu

Suddhasattwa Basu uses a gentle palette of colours and his softly shaded illustrations evoke the magic of the time, place and seasons. I love the illustration of the sun setting – the use of warm tones almost makes you believe that you can feel the gentle evening heat of the sun on your skin, and sense the rhythm of life as it slows down to prepare for the night.

Children will enjoy the story of a scarecrow that decides to take his destiny into his hands and sets out on his travels. The illustrations will stay on in their minds and I guarantee that when they next see a scarecrow in a field, they will wonder why he isn’t as handsome as the one in their book.

If I were ever asked why I began to write and what made me write the way I do, I would reel off not one, not two, but several reasons. And somewhere near the top of that list of would be the name of Sigrun Srivastav. I first met her writing when that wonderful magazine called ‘Target’ came into my life. And much as I would like to write about ‘Target’ and how wonderful I think it was, I will save my praise for another day and another post. Why? Simply because I think ‘Target’ deserves a whole post. Or even two posts.  All I will say here is that it was in the pages of ‘Target’ that I saw how stories could pull you into the world of the author’s creation, how you could begin to like characters so much that you hated to see the story end and longed for nothing more than for it to go on and on. These were the things that I learnt from, among other Indian writers, Sigrun Srivastav.

What is right? What is wrong? is a slim little book, published by Nehru Bal Pustakalay, a little gem of a book that makes you smile each time you read it. Written in rhyming verse the book focuses on the disagreements and quarrels that mark every tumultuous relationship between siblings. The narrator is a little girl who has a grouse against the world she inhabits. Her little brother Muk (I love the names Sigrun Srivastava thinks up for her characters. They are so apt and suit the characters to a T. She is specially good when it comes to thinking up names for characters with negative shades.)  is, like most younger siblings, not very nice.

My brother Muk is a very bad boy.

He pulls the cat’s tail, he breaks my favourite toy.

And as if that weren’t enough,

But Mummy says nothing – she doesn’t even look.

– the narrator complains. And there, in a nutshell, you have the reason why the girl is not very happy with Muk for a brother. Then she finds a pair of dark glasses, puts them on and finds the world transformed!

The world’s all mixed up! What a wonderful sight!

Seen through the dark glasses the world is an upside down place – where Muk feeds Papa and Mama is sawing away at a loaf of bread with a saw. Schools are filled with parents and the kids have taken on the roles of the teacher. The girl rejoices in this upside down world. But when she finds that the shark is after her brother Muk, the girl takes off her dark glasses and

I’m back in my garden. Everything’s just the same.

And who should come running, calling out to her? None other than her naughty little brother Muk. He is armed with a laddoo for her and a handsome apology. Which older sister can resist either of these? Our imaginative little protagonist certainly can’t!

He’s silly – he’s naughty – but I’m glad he’s mine.

 

What is right? What is wrong?

Written and illustrated by Sigrun Srivastav

 

Of course, all of us who have grown up with siblings know that this is only a temporary truce; that all too soon the brother will do something annoying and before you know it, war will be declared again. Sigrun Srivastav manages to capture the essence of these relationships, not only through the simple storyline, but through her wonderful illustrations as well. She uses innovative collage type illustrations to go with the story. Her wacky illustrations capture the madness that ensues when a child gives free rein to her imagination. Small details like the mother wearing a giant earring that looks like a clock and the father dressed in a bib with a green bird on it are sure to amuse children. The simplicity of the verse makes this an easy to understand book even for children not very confident with the language while confident readers will soon be quoting the rhymes, to much merriment.

My wish for this book  – a bigger, better edition, to entertain a whole new generation of readers.