From Reading Raccoons: Indian Authors Write

Reading Raccoons is a wonderful Facebook group for adults who love children’s books. (If you are not a member, join immediately!) On Children’s Day 2016 they ran a series of reviews of Indian children’s books by Indian children’s book authors.

The concept was simple. Each writer was asked to write about one Indian children’s book that they had read which stood out for them.

We are grateful to them for allowing us to compile them for the Duckbill blog.

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Natasha Sharma: Captain Coconut and the Case of the Missing Bananas by Anushka Ravishankar

Because I love bananas.
And coconuts – especially mooch-daardhi-turbaned ones. It is genetic conditioning.
And I love the scooter that the coconut who is a captain sits on.
And the insane songs.
And the ridiculous case.
And the fact that it made my 10-year-old shout at the captain in the book (I was shouting inside my head).
And it made all of us giggle.
And I’m still hung up on it even though I read it a while ago.
And it is by the unbelievable Anushka Ravishankar joining forces with a bunch of amazing illustrations. Should have just put that at the beginning and saved myself the typing.
Anushka. That’s why.
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Arefa Tehsin: Our Nana was a Nutcase by Ranjit Lal

Our Nana was a Nutcase is yet another stirring book from the highly perceptive, sharp-witted and well, one of my favourite writers – Ranjit Lal.
Written from the perspective of the granddaughter General Gosling, this hilarious and moving story is about the jocular character Nana, a retired surgeon from the army, whom you instantly fall in love with. He raises his ‘Patloon’ of grandchildren, abandoned by their parents, in Mahaparbatpur, a hill station tucked away in Himachal Pradesh. Ah, the life in a little town, that too in the mountains – the endless trekking and cycling trials, the running brooks, the familiar shops, the falling stars in the clear night skies…
From making the kids disciplined by waking them up at 0600 hrs with the Colonel Bogey March that would make them sit convulsed in giggles to showing them the ever-steady yet ever-changing Nanda Devi mountain every day – he gives them an upbringing other children would trade anything for. The swindling twins, Nana’s super cool girlfriend Shabby Aunty, De-Big Bazooka, Major Duckling – the book is full of interesting and fully rounded characters. The twins making Nana, suffering from memory loss, buy them sweets again and again made me remember my eldest cousin who would do the same to my Dadaji on Eid, taking her Eidi from him repeatedly during the day! Dadaji, who also suffered from memory loss, would just smile, nod his head, take out his batuwa and hand her the crisp notes, yet again!
What more, Nana has a collection of vintage cars that he adores and the kids get to ride in. But what happens when Nana gets Alzheimer’s and the parents living far away want to send him to a looney bin and the rest of the kids to hostels selling their old, beloved bungalow in the mountains? You must read this unputdownable book to find out. Yes, Ranjit Sir! We’ll take no prisoners!

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 Archit Taneja: Simply Nanju by Zainab Sulaiman

The mischievous looking kid on the cover is Nanju, the goofball protagonist with a heart of gold.

The plot is essentially about solving a classroom mystery, but it’s the setting that makes the book unique. The classroom politics, bizarre lingo spoken by the kids, school activities (including a trip to the Endangered Animals museum, and a fancy dress competition featuring “Provision Store Boy”) makes Nanju’s world seem severely real.

The school happens to be for kids with special needs from unprivileged families. We feel sympathy for the kids. When we see that they hardly care about anything besides from having fun, we feel stupid for being so narrow minded. As we continue reading, secrets are revealed, bad guys are identified, and lessons are learnt. The story eventually ends, but we’re still absorbed in Nanju’s world.

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Ashok Rajagopal: The Star that Saved the Day by Nalini Sorensen

What a delightful book! We are introduced to a great family of normal yet sweet members, and we spend one day with them, getting to know them better and liking them totally. Everybody in the story is sweet and kind; it’s a nice world. Funny, but never unkind. What balance and insight! The author never took sides, too. Whether we should listen to our horoscopes or not, for example.

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Anushka Ravishankar: Dear Mrs Naidu by Mathangi Subramanian

An Indian book I have read recently and really liked is Dear Mrs Naidu by Mathangi Subramanian. This is not exactly a review of it, but just some thoughts on the book. I’m not a great fan of the epistolary form in novels, so I confess to picking up the book with trepidation and some amount of prejudice. It turned out to be the exception to my bias.

The book is a sensitive, gently humorous, well-told story of a girl from an underprivileged background and her struggle to get a better education. It explores the problems of the RTE laws and the kind of education provided in government schools. But it is not an ‘issue’ book by any means. Its strength lies in the characters and the fact that as one reads, one is totally absorbed in the problems of young Sarojini and her friends. You root for the kids and you want to boo at the villains. You feel Sarojini’s pain at being parted from her best friend Amir because of his sudden prosperity, you feel her sense of empathy with her new feisty friend Deepthi. You’re completely invested in the characters and their stories, and that’s the joy of a good book.

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Jerry Pinto: On himself and Anushka Ravishankar

I like my own books, yeh. Jerry Pinto rocks, yeh. A Bear for Felicia, rocks bigtime, yeh. Phiss phuss boom, prraaap prraapp jssss, yeh.


That said: Moin and the Songster Monster by that woman, whatshername, if you can tell me, you will get a flackter on your nose, yeh, yeh yeh. Made me laugh, that’s what I like, yeh heh, heh heh.

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Deepak Dalal: Wisha Wozzariter by Payal Kapadia

My favourite is Payal Kapadia’s Wisha Wozzariter. It’s been a while since I read her book, so the details are a bit fuzzy – but I do remember being hooked from the first paragraph. Any discourse on the craft of writing is likely to be boring and academic. But Payal skilfully animated the dry exposition into a wondrous and entertaining adventure.

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Arundhati Venkatesh: Vanamala and the Cephalopod by Shalini Srinivasan

Vanamala puts up a notice in Thambi’s shop advertising the sale of her sister, Pingu, age eight. Now, Kanti Stores is no ordinary provision shop. A mysterious trough in the back room gifts Thambi pretty baubles on a regular basis. Whatever-it-is-in-the-trough takes Vanamala’s notice seriously and Pingu goes missing. Guilt-ridden, Vanamala sets off in search of her sister. This leads to underwater escapades of the strangest kind. En route, all sorts of fantastical creatures make an appearance – the Tower Bird, the Lettuce Grower, the Boss … My favourite is Basavan the bull (okay, zebu).

Why I love it:
Completely and delightfully original.
Vanamala’s voice is pitch-perfect. Every grumpy pre-teen – and anyone who has ever been one – will love her.
The wit, the writing, the charmingly Indian setting – all superlative.
The totally non-intrusive way in which environmental concerns are worked into the story.
Great design and lots of gorgeousness.
The ending – with the promise of a sequel – beautifully done.

I had been hoping to see more of Thambi, so I was thrilled to find these stories online here: https://theduckbillblog.wordpress.com/…/shalini-srinivasan…/

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Asha Nehemiah: Kasturba by Tanya Vyas

An unusual choice of heroine works perfectly in this book about a woman who managed to retain her individuality in spite of living in Gandhiji’s shadow. Young Nina is the first choice when the teacher announces that they are going to stage a play on Gandhi’s birthday, October 2. After having played strong, independent women like Razia Sultan and the Rani of Jhansi, Nina finds it difficult to capture the essence of Kasturba on stage. But a chat with her mother and grandmother reveals surprising facets about Kasturba. The choice Kasturba makes at the end of the book is true to history and could be the starting point for much discussion on whether one needs to be rewarded for doing one’s duty. Simply told and illustrated in a minimalist manner by talented young author-illustrator Tanaya Vyas.

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Vaani Arora: Priya Kuriyan

Priya Kuriyan is a 5-year old. She draws exactly how she thinks. How else do you explain the perfectly illustrated tantrum prone Princess Easy Pleasy or the baby with the large ink pen in Messy Messy Baby? She doesn’t really get into the mind of the child, she has the mind of a child. Which makes all the publishers who she works for, criminals because they use child labour. Come Priya, let me buy you a hot chocolate and bribe you into making my next one.

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Andaleeb Wajid: Simply Nanju by Zainab Sulaiman

‘Nanju’s motto was why worry about tomorrow when today was so wonderful.’

Reading these lines stunned me so much that I had to re-read them again and again because in essence, it encapsulates the spirit of this lovely little book by Zainab Sulaiman. Zainab writes from experience, of having worked with disabled children like Nanju and the sensitivity with which she portrays them can be felt in every page. Nowhere does the reader feel pity for these children because they’re disabled. The normalcy that the book imbues them with, reminds me of a speech given by Dr. Ali Khwaja, and I paraphrase, “everyone is eventually going to become disabled, in one way or the other, as we grow old. We’re just temporarily able.”

Coming to the story itself, in a school for disabled children, Nanju has his own little world complete, with his friends, the cute girl in class he crushes on, the constant dread of getting bad marks in his tests, the fear that he would be packed off to some hostel by his father. The fact that he and his classmates are disabled is incidental to the plot, even though it’s an important element of the story.

The classroom is abuzz with Aradhana’s books going missing and being returned in really bad shape. Everyone in class thinks Nanju is behind it and this just adds to his troubles. Nanju teams up with his clever friend Mahesh to find the real culprit and it’s not easy. It could be the new girl Sangeetha who hates Aradhana or it could be saucy and mean spirited Bhavani Amma, the ayah who is supposed to take care of wheelchair bound kids.

A picnic, a talent show and some missing flower pots later, Nanju and Mahesh uncover the real culprit but it’s not an ending that makes the reader feel validated. It’s bittersweet and sad. But that’s not the tone of the book. There’s Nanju, with his rolling gait, his father’s despair, his sister’s hurried attempts at making something out of him, who finds happiness in little things that we often tend to ignore.

Nanju’s school is for disabled children who don’t have financial backing or opportunities and what we read is real and not a sugar coated rendition of angelic teachers who create a haven for kids like him. Nevertheless, one can’t help but think of Nanju’s motto and how he truly lives it. Without ever meaning to, Nanju does show us the way forward.

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Nalini Sorensen: Brown by Rebecca Manari

About two years ago, I remember going to a fancy-shmancy, high-end store to buy a concealer. My knowledge of makeup can best be described as basic. A well-meaning friend suggested it and as uncomfortable as I was, I decided to give it a try. I remember them matching the brown of the concealer to my skin colour. I remember being happy with what was chosen. And that’s where this should have ended. The thing is, it didn’t end there. As I was almost getting ready to pay for it, the girl who had matched my skin tone to the concealer realized that the gentleman standing outside, looking very bored, was my husband. My husband is European. She pulled me aside and whispered, “Do you want to go lighter?”

I don’t think I’m alone in an experience like this. I’m willing to bet good money on the fact that most brown skinned women will have a story (or five) to share on this subject. Which is what makes ‘Brown Like Dosas, Samosas and Sticky Chikki’, written by Rebecca Manari and illustrated by Heetal Dattani Joshi, so relevant in our world today.

Samaira is beautiful, chocolaty shade of brown and is quite happy in her skin, till she meets a mystical, purple lady named Anahi. Anahi, much like the girl in the store I visited, tries to convince Samaira to turn into a shade of white… ‘fair like snow, from every finger to every toe.’

What follows is a series of attempts from a very persistent Anahi, and an equally resistant Samaira. The visuals are truly beautiful, and capture the emotions of the story to perfection.

I chose to review this book, as it stands for something I believe in. I think every little girl should read it or have it read to her. There’s hope for the future generations, when there’s such a powerful message communicated to children via the fantasy dream world of this beautifully illustrated picture book.

And I particularly love the note from the author and illustrator, at the end, which reads –

‘You are your words, ideas, actions and thoughts,
You are your creations, feeling and emotions,
You are your decisions, fears, likes and dislikes,
You are so much more than just your skin and body.’ ”

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Chitra Soundar: The Gajapati Kulapati series by Ashok Rajagopalan, The Talking Cave and Oluguti Toluguti

Every time I visit India, I actively seek out books published in India, with stories that originate here that feature Indian children. I do this because when I was growing up I could hardly find books about children who looked like me. Instead of idli and dosai and parathas, I found scones and ginger beer in those books. Now we have a plethora of brilliantly produced books for children, set here and I buy suitcases full of them.

Here are some books I picked up in the last few years that made me smile, ponder, laugh out loud and read it to my nephews.

Gajapati Kulapati series – Ashok Rajagopalan’s writing and illustration jumps out of the pages and it is sheer joy. For me Gajapati Kulapati is what’s universal and yet very Indian. The joy of the words, the splash of the water and the secret story in the little details – all add to its charm.

The Talking Cave, an audio book from Karadi Tales, adapted by Sheila Gandhi was a super-hit in our house. The voice of Saeed Jaffrey was perfect to bring this ancient book to life. Audio books invoke the imagination of the child listener. It’s great fun to join in.

I just want to mention one more book. Oluguti Toluguti by Tulika Books is not a story book. It’s a compilation of childhood songs from across India. This is a treasure for someone like me who lives outside India – I’m in constant fear of forgetting the things I grew up with. I have read this book with my parents and nephews many times and the adults get nostalgic and the children get excited.

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