Simply Nanju

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REVIEW

Simply Nanju

By : Maegan Dobson Sippy  /  2017
Tags : 
Bullying,
Disability,
Friendship,
Mystery,
School,
Special Needs,
Overall Rating : 
6
Story/Content : 
4
Illustration : 
0
Language : 
5
Design : 
4

Simply Nanju is a special piece of writing. Although it is bound to be summarised as such, I don’t think it’s fair to pigeonhole this as a book about children with disabilities. Yes, it’s set in a school for differently abled young people. And yes, it has a great deal to teach us about those with special needs. But its resonance is far greater. In fact, it’s a book which, in its own gentle way, has a lot to say about the various shades of grey of the human spirit.

These shades of grey are vividly apparent in Sulaiman’s cast of characters. Nanju’s class teacher “Theresa Miss” is a particularly great example of this. This is not a woman who wears a halo – we see her losing her temper, occasionally taking out her frustrations on the children, and retiring to the staffroom for pain relief when it all gets a bit much. Yet she’s the same woman who goes out of her way to visit a child’s home when she has concerns about safety, and who is moved to tears by the hardships faced by one of the students in her care.

There’s something about all these characters that’s wonderfully believable – from the protagonist Nanju with his happy-go-lucky attitude and soiled shorts, right through to minor characters like Bhavani, the “Amma” in charge of chai distribution, whose penchant for hierarchy means that she doesn’t “believe it necessary” to offer cups of tea to the assistant teachers, however much they may ask. Haven’t we all met someone like this?

Simply Nanju is also a book which doesn’t shy away from presenting some of the world’s harsher realities in a matter-of-fact way, and there are certain passages you’re unlikely to forget. Take Armaan for example – the small boy in Nanju’s class who is frequently hauled up for coming to school without socks because, “between him and her other five children – his mother barely had time to haul him to the van every morning and toss him into it”. This is the same child who has his first proper meal of the day when he receives his school lunch, and, consequently, year by year, grows “a little smaller, a little weaker, and a little less able to do the things he could do earlier.”

Yet Sulaiman manages to weave these home truths into a tale which at times makes you forget that its protagonists are differently-abled – itself a powerful way to challenge preconceptions about disability and difference. Like most fifth graders, Nanju has a nemesis – in this case, Ronit, who “has a nose for people’s weaknesses” and takes great pleasure in goading him. He also has something of a crush – class topper Aradhana, radiant at the school talent contest with her “fine soft hair” tied back in a “loose bun held in place by a shiny gold clip” with “lips the colour of cotton candy” and “cheeks tinted with rouge”. He and his classmates are, like most kids their age, concerned with cricket, who has the snazziest sneakers, and their marks in class.

Middle-grade readers picking this up will therefore find much to relate to – especially, I suspect in the sensitive portrayal of unkindness and bullying in a school setting. It’s particularly moving to see Nanju and his ‘nemesis’ Ronit working together, especially because Nanju sees him at the receiving end of some bullying, and can relate to how he feels. Young readers, too, will relate to the strong bond of friendship between Nanju and Mahesh, subtly but strongly portrayed through gestures as much as words throughout the book.

There’s a lot more I’d like to say about this book – from waxing lyrical about the beauty of Tanvi Bhat’s cover illustration, to talking about the way in which the author manages to intersperse warm humour into her text. But I’ll close by saying the only way to capture this book is to read it for yourself – it’s one of those rare children’s books which can be equally enjoyed by adults as well as young people.

A freelance writer, Maegan came to India to work with Tara Books in 2010, and has had a soft spot for visual books for children ever since. Together with Bijal Vachharajani she now runs the Instagram handle BAM! Books, which curates children’s book recommendations with a South Asian focus. Her first picture book, Rats Bigger Than Cats, is due to be published by Karadi Tales shortly. She lives in Bangalore with her husband, daughter and cat.

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