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Stories about Partition

It’s never easy talking to children about violence and bloodshed—and Partition had all of that. Yet there are some books that do it brilliantly. Originally published here.

Two Stories Around India’s Partition

The joy of folktales

Folktales are not just a window to our world and its myriad cultures, but a doorway and a mirror too, says Sandhya Nankani. Originally published here.

Reflecting Diversity with Folktales: A South Asian Perspective

Guest post by Sandhya Nankani in collaboration with Kitaabworld.

Books for all

Arvind Gupta, toymaker and book lover, talks about the importance of books and how the sharing of knowledge makes the world go round. Originally published here.

A Million Books for a Billion People

Reaching out to readers

Getting books to readers remains a challenge for Indian publishers of children’s books. Sayoni Basu of Duckbill speaks to Sakal Times about why publishers must persist. Originally published here.

New doors are opening

Sayoni Basu
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Duckbill Books

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Book Reviews

  1. Gangamma's Gharial

Gangamma's Gharial

Reviewer: 
Arundhati Venkatesh
Review content: 

Shalini Srinivasan set the bar high with her debut Vanamala and the Cephalopod, so it was with much anticipation that I picked up her next, Gangamma's Gharial. The cover by Archana Sreenivasan — done in shades of green and purple, featuring Gangamma with an endearing grin, and a girl with her arms crossed — succeeds in conveying the essence of the characters. The sketches within, also by Sreenivasan, capture the mood of the story well.

The book opens with a prologue from Jayanti’s point of view. Confusing, because it isn’t clear who she is, how she is related to Gangamma, the gharial, or the girl on the cover, and whether she is a sympathetic character or not. The reader is introduced to Jayanti’s people next — yakshas who are wary of going Outside and instead live in a sealed palace with air specially made Inside. A clever premise indeed. Twelve of these yakshas, however, are Outside-obsessed. In a strange turn of events involving the twelve rebel yakshas and blue lotuses, the girl loses her parents to a landslide.

The fun begins when the spunky Gangamma arrives on the scene. Giripuram, the temple town where Gangamma spends her days gardening and growing flowers, is the land of dosais and kaapi, sampige and nellikai. The stray usage of the Hindi karonda is easily overlooked, for such is the charm of the description of the bazaar with its shops selling perfumes, spices, food, flowers and whatnot. I could see sunlight streaming through the glass attar bottles in various hues; I could almost smell the coffee beans, boiled peanuts and oily onion-y bajjis. Like Gangamma, the author too is in her element in Giripuram.

Next comes the spirited gharial, a gharial-shaped earring actually. Gangamma’s first encounter with the gharial is guaranteed to have the reader asking for more. After the line about the gharial worrying that the earring’s screw isn’t tight enough and clinging on to Gangamma’s ear with its claws as she hurries up the hill, I don’t think I will ever be able to look at earrings the same way again! Since Gangamma and the gharial teleport to misty mountains and apple orchards, there are lovely descriptions for the reader to enjoy. With her excellent eye for detail and wry humour, Srinivasan excels in these sections.

The girl, too, is at her petulant best once she meets Gangamma and gets taken on as her apprentice. We are treated to Srinivasan’s witty, exuberant writing in the parts featuring these two characters.

While the idea of Gangamma speaking to and going off on travels with a gharial-shaped earring is delightful, and the conversations between the two are great fun, the explanation for Jayanti and company going after the breakaway faction of yakshas (and the girl) remains unconvincing. It’s hard to care about twelve assorted unnamed yakshas, to be concerned about a gharial-shaped earring, or to worry about the fate of a girl whose name one does not know. It doesn’t help that when she does get named, it is after a number — Ondu, or one. The gharial too acquires a name three-quarters into the book, almost as an afterthought. The yakshas could have been fleshed out better and their world thought through more, so the writing in the sections where they appear matches the energy of the rest of the book. Often, Jayanti’s internal monologues get dreary, slowing down the narrative, thus pointing to the need for tighter editing.

The premise of the story — a clash between the Inside-lovers and the Outside-obsessed — is pertinent. The orthodox Outside-wary yakshas juxtaposed with expert-digger, master-composter, wildflower-lover Ondu, blue-lotus-grower Gangamma and the other gardeners of Giripuram could get the reader thinking. But gardening as a theme poses a challenge. One looks for thrill in children's fiction, fantasy in particular. It’s difficult to get the reader on the edge of her seat when one is writing about gardening. Gangamma’s exploits in that department did not excite me at all, despite having been a “permanently muddy and sweaty” gardener in my school days, so I wonder if they will appeal to today’s average eleven-year-old.

The budding botanist or birder, however, will find plenty to interest her. The book would be a useful resource in the classroom, as a starting point for discussions on the plant and animal life in the Himalayas and the Western Ghats. In addition to environmental concerns, the book opens up discussions on various topics that can be taken forward (without getting prescriptive or preachy), like the disdain for the North in the streets of Giripuram (in the South). There’s some feminism thrown in, with women priests and a happily child-free Gangamma. “If you want a mother, find a different guru,” the seventy-nine-year-old tells the girl in the first few minutes of her apprenticeship. What is even more impactful is the cast; it is refreshing to see female characters who are real — stubborn, sullen, caustic, witty, loyal, bold, kind, industrious and all the glorious things women can be — instead of being mere goody-goody or strong and sacrificing characters as is the norm. Organised religion too gets a brief mention, with the priests admitting they don’t know things (if loo breaks are permissible during a god match, for instance!) and that their archives are rather vague.

There are glimpses of Srinivasan’s fantastic imagination and many flashes of brilliant writing. The puns will leave you chuckling, like “Stop arguing and get growing” in the gardeners’ god match and an “ace of spades” in ‘Lie and Die’, a card game the gardeners play. As will the typical and delightfully Indian phrases like “paavam person” or “besh besh”, which are tucked away in pages written with great stylistic flair. A shorter version of the novel — retaining the humorous bits and characters but with a different conflict and resolution — might have been a wonderful book for younger readers.

Review Year: 
2017
Review thumbnail: 
Reviewer Profile Note: 

Arundhati Venkatesh is the Bangalore-based author of the Petu Pumpkin and Bookasura chapter book series, as well as the picture book Junior Kumbhakarna. She writes at arundhativenkatesh.wordpress.com.

Book1: 

Gangamma's Gharial

Gangammas Gharial.jpg
Gangamma's Gharial
Author:
Shalini Srinivasan
Illustrator:
Archana Sreenivasan
208 pages
English
Rs 199.00
ISBN: 978-0143334071
Penguin Books, 
2016
Story Rating: 
3
Illustrations Rating: 
4
Language Rating: 
5
Design Rating: 
4
Overall Rating: 
8

Tales of Love and Adventure

Reviewer: 
Zai Whitaker
Review content: 

Historian and multi-award-winning writer Devika Rangachari is an important children’s author, especially as a re-teller of our myths and legends. This collection has ten such stories, from a range of sources including (of course) the Mahabharata, the Tamil epic Silappathikaram, the Prithviraj Raso, and just plain old history. Every time I hold such a book, there is a strong and abiding sense of what lucky bugs we are, to have this huge treasure trove of story, our very own and almost limitless Pandora’s box for writers, painters, artisans, grandmothers and everyone else to enjoy, use, and be enriched by. And one always enjoys them, because each of the multiple retellings throws up some interesting facet of specific characters, or the human situation, or oneself.

This time, for me, the first quick reading of these stories – many of them familiar old friends – had me thinking constantly about what women went through in the “old days”, and wondering whether a whole lot has changed. But this was my particular and personal journey, so I’ll only say that I’ll stick to present times thank you, though it might be fun to have a Taj Mahal built for me, or elope with handsome Prithviraj, or be showered with presents by Chandragupta. But then you also had to accept additional wives, as did Maru and Kamala, and other such small inconveniences which would be beyond me. (But then there’s also bold Jayapida, who offers the handsome stranger her extra chamber. Yeah!)

But my goodness, how these stories do transport one into that world straddling history and fantasy! A delight for the inner eye, imagination, and a feast for serious day-dreamers like yours truly. There are betel carriers and court messengers and bards, royal gardeners and lamp-lighters, Buddhist mendicants and garlanded canopies, resplendent silks and the odd sorceress, magnificent kingdoms and manifold riches. A ready-made lesson in building and using one’s imagination, such an important exercise in today’s world where children replace the imagination with the screen, which does it all for you. To read aloud to children, grandchildren, students from a book like this is to provide them rich resources for wonder, introspection, dialogue, comparison, and all that other good stuff which comprises education.

I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: language need not become archaic when narrating legends and myths. Arshia Sattar’s translations of the Mahabharata and Ramayana bear witness to this statement; they carry the tone of myth and legend and religion, but without being unnecessarily opaque and heavy. Perhaps Devika Rangachari should consider this possibility because her collection could have been even better without laboured expressions such as teeth being ground in chagrin, obstacles that arise to thwart destiny, plans being foiled and vows coming to fruition. In the next collection, let’s have less of suzerainty and lustrous smiles being hailed by all and sundry. Some sentences have escaped the editor’s eye: “The young prince had displayed his prowess in situations of brawn and brain time and time again.” Or, “The baby, meanwhile, stared back at them contentedly, her beautiful black eyes roving from one to the other as if she would drink them all into those twin luminous pools.”

Nevertheless, this is an important addition to our story collection of Indian legend and history. Each story ends with a short note on its source and context, and other interesting information such as festivals connected with the characters and incidents in the story.

Review Year: 
2017
Review thumbnail: 
Reviewer Profile Note: 

Zai Whitaker writes for children and her books include Kali and the Rat Snake, Kanna Panna, Andamans Boy, and Cobra in My Kitchen. After teaching at the Kodai International School for eighteen years, she has returned to work at the Madras Crocodile Bank, which she helped establish in 1976.

Book1: 

Tales of Love and Adventure

Tales of Love and Adventure.jpg
Tales of Love and Adventure
Author:
Devika Rangachari
Illustrator:
Srivi Kalyan,
Vandana Singh
134 pages
English
Rs 250.00
ISBN: 978-93-86106-53-7
Scholastic, 
2016
Story Rating: 
4
Illustrations Rating: 
3
Language Rating: 
3
Design Rating: 
3
Overall Rating: 
6
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