Amma, Tell Me about Series I

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REVIEW

Amma, Tell Me about Series I

By : Sandhya Rao  /  2017
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Tags : 
Diwali,
Durga Puja,
Festivals,
Gods and Godesses,
Holi,
India,
Rhyme,
Festivals, India, Gods and Godesses, Rhyme, Diwali, Durga Puja, Holi,
Contemporary,
Non-fiction,
Picture Books,
Overall Rating : 
6
Story/Content : 
3
Illustration : 
4
Language : 
2
Design : 
3

Too many words
Too many lines
They cross my eyes
And force me to rhyme – badly may I addly!

Even the dedication is in rhyme, not to speak of the back cover – clearly a case of tipping the balance. However, the books seem to be selling, judging by the fact that they’re being reprinted, although it must be said that books about festivals tend to be popular in all cultures. Everybody wants to know more about where they come from, and festivals are a good business to hitch your book to, especially since they recur year after year.

There is something about the book cover – and even though the central images of Durga, Krishna and Lakshmi have a one-dimensional, computer-generated look, the overall effect is appealing. You see right away that there’s some kind of mixed media effect that’s successfully in play – for instance, the angry-looking jute-effect lion hiding behind Durga on the cover instantly makes you smile.

All three books are generously if conventionally illustrated, the downside being that on many pages, therefore, the text goes in reverse and sometimes this can be a bit of a strain on the eye, especially if you have several pages of it. The pictures make you hunt for details, and the expressions of the story people and animals are animated.

Judging by the way the books have been oriented, they are intended for young readers: reading on their own would take some working, and reading them out aloud would take some listening to. Rhyming means that a lot of the time, the syntax is twisted around, and not always elegantly, breaking the natural flow of sound and sense.

Having said that, though, the temptation to use rhyme in children’s books is very strong and it tends to work or not work in equal measure. In these books, it doesn’t particularly add to the effect since the stories told are the same old in the same old tradition. The very first spread of Durga Puja! has four stanzas of four long lines each. Turn the page, there are four more stanzas of four long lines each. It’s as overcrowded as Kolkata!

The first few pages of the Durga story give ‘technical’ details, so to speak: they describe how the festival is celebrated and what happens on each of the days of the puja. For instance:
“The last day of Puja, Bijoya Dashami arrives,
In throngs married women play sindoor khela.
Smearing vermilion, on Ma Durga and each other,
Of femininity and friendship, it’s a happy mela.”

But the two children, Klaka and Kiki, to whom Amma is giving all these lessons on festivals, are not satisfied. They want to know who Durga is. This is when the story of Durga and Mahisha is told with a reminder of the power of Shakti. A glossary (at the end of each book) explains all the ‘special’ words.

Holi! is much lighter in content and tone. Klaka and Kiki are constantly being read to by their Amma, or told stories. Today she’s promised to tell them about Holi and Klaka is all excited, especially as Amma says this is her favourite festival:
“A day to have fun, forget all the rules/A day to be as naughty as you can be”.
“But why colour someone?” asked Klaka
“And why let them smear and drench us?”

Amma said, “That comes from a tradition
Started long ago by Krishna the mischievous!”

This is followed by some lines about the holika and how that emerged from the story of Prahlad and Hiranyakashipu.

Diwali! begins with Klaka thinking about the festival he’s just celebrated with lamps and sweets and prayers to Ganesha and Lakshmi and firecrackers. Klaka asks why we light diyas on Diwali, and Amma tells him the story of Rama’s banishment, exile and return. She also tells him how the merry twinkling of the diyas invites Lakshmi to visit people’s homes and how she is intrigued to find a dimly lit house. She goes there to find a woman, working:
“The lady said: “Oh, I am a poor seamstress
And I only have this one light.
I was busy finishing my work
And did not realize it is Diwali night!”

Amma makes a lesson of this for Klaka and tells him that “Honesty and dedication are the only diyas/That will guide Lakshmi to you”.

Holi, Amma says, is about colour:
“So the colour of love
Is my favourite you see
As it is the only one
That lasts for eternity.”

The most complex lesson she gives Klaka (and Kiki by implication) is in connection with Durga Puja:
“Mahisha’s mistake was one that many make
Of thinking a woman is only gentle and frail.
They forget that she is Shakti incarnate,
The power within her can never, ever fail!”

These are instructional books and, in that sense, possibly suitable for readers of all ages, given that many adults also hanker to know more about their ‘culture’. The pictures are a sure plus point and the text, despite having to plough through some effortful versification in parts, works for the most part if you don’t mind oversimplification and/or overstatement. Also, the books pretty much follow the path often taken – there’s no twist, or attempt or contemporize or adapt. It’s left to the intermediary, outside of the books, to make that ‘other’ kind of experience come alive for the young reader, one that questions and reflects and analyses. Surely, festivals in any culture are a platform for self-examination. Here’s another opportunity missed.

Sandhya Rao is primarily a reader who can’t thank her stars enough that there are so many stories and so many wonderful writers to bring them home to us. She is also a journalist and writer of children’samm books.

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