Chumki is unlucky.
That’s what the villagers of Bagmundi believe. Naturally then, the adults are wary of nine-year-old Chumki, while the children keep away from her. Nobody wants to be turned into a pumpkin or a papaya. Nobody wants to be infected by the bad luck of others.
How does little Chumki deal with the label that she’s been stuck with since her birth? That’s the question at the heart of Unlucky Chumki, an engaging new hOle book published by Duckbill.
Set in a small village in West Bengal, Unlucky Chumkitells an enjoyable story. At the same time it subtly highlights the realities of growing up in a world filled with superstition and gender inequality.
Writer Lesley D. Biswas and illustrator Anupama Ajinkya Apte talk about all that has gone into creating Chumki and her world with Shabnam Minwalla. Shabnam is the author of several books for children and teenagers.
SB to LDB: Tell us a little about your childhood in a small town in Jharkhand.
LDB: Mccluskiegunj, the quaint Anglo Indian settlement where I spent my childhood, is replete with nature. Growing up there was like living in a fairy tale. Unlike today’s generation, with every minute of their day accounted for, I had the liberty to daydream. I would fantasise about secret cottages hidden deep in the forest and treasures tucked away in their alcoves. In a way, I owe my creativity to those moments of complete abandon and life in the wilderness.
SB to LDB: Were you a voracious reader as a child? Which books did you most enjoy?
LDB: Watching television wasn’t the most popular pastime when I was a child. It also helped that (although it was frustrating then) in my hometown electric supply was erratic. So when I wasn’t building a tree house, I had my nose stuck in an Enid Blyton Famous Five or Secret Seven book.
I also loved Asterix and Obelix comics and Jim Corbett’s stories.
SB to LDB: What did you want to become when you grew up?
LBD: As a teen I was obsessed with cricket. But in those days playing cricket wasn’t considered a career option for boys, let aside girls. So I went with my second choice. To be a writer.
SB to LDB: How did you come to write a book for children?
LBD: I began my career with articles on cricket. When I moved to Kolkata post marriage, and after I had my daughter, parenting and children’s issues dominated my work. Like me, my daughter too got into the bedtime story habit. I’d read to her and after we were done with the regular classics, she often asked me to make up a story about a dragon or a dog. She’d often ask me to repeat one she’d enjoyed, but by then, I’d have forgotten. ‘Why don’t you write them down?’ she’d grumble, and although I started making notes of the ideas I didn’t get very far. Then a few years back, I longed to do something creative. The prospect of writing for children excited me.
SB to LDB: Why did you decide to set the story in a small village in West Bengal?
LBD: Whenever I travel from Kolkata to Jharkhand, whether by car or train, the rural landscape fascinates me. From the window I enjoy watching the village folk go about their daily routine, and especially notice the children. The girls are usually helping their mothers. The small boys are usually playing. I wondered about their stories. So I decided to set my story in a similar village.
SB to LDB: Tell me about Chumki. Did anyone or anything inspire her character?
LBD: You’ll find a character like Chumki everywhere. We had one like her in our hometown. A person who is considered unlucky, and blamed for things that go wrong. It bothers me how liberally we blame others for our misfortunes. But more than that, I wanted to to tell the story from a child’s perspective. How would a child react to such hurt. I think it’s the worst kind of bulliyng a child can be subjected to.
SB to LDB: Does the story connect with memories of your own childhood?
LBD: There are some subtle impressions that are reflections of my own growing up years. Like the absence of friends. I was a very timid child. Plus, being an Anglo Indian meant that language was a barrier. Also, the sibling rivalry was easy to recreate from personal experience.
SB to AAA: Please describe your journey from software engineer to illustrator of books for children. Was it one that you ever imagined that you would make?
AAA: I remember drawing a lot as a child, but never imagined myself as an illustrator. I actually totally stopped drawing as I got busy with my studies, work and family. I continued to buy paints and art supplies, but never actually used them.
It suddenly all came flooding back to me and I found myself spending a lot of time browsing through picture book art. I was totally awestruck. There was so much to learn … and I knew nothing.
I wrote my first picture book Gulli’s Box of Things with Pratham Books. They were kind enough to let me illustrate it as well. My journey as an illustrator was surprisingly smooth after that. I got to illustrate more than a dozen books with some of the best people in the industry.
SB to AAA:As a child, were there certain books that you enjoyed for their illustrations?
AAA: As a child, I remember reading a lot of translated Russian picture books. I used to spend hours admiring the colorful and pretty illustrations those books had. I also loved Astérix comics illustrations a lot.
SB to AAA: Are there any illustrators that you really love today? Why?
AAA: There are so many illustrators in the world who are doing really beautiful work. I spend a lot of time browsing through their work on the Internet. However, Quentin Blake will always top my list. His illustrations are simple yet so expressive and super quirky. I also love the illustrations of Albert Uderzo (Astérix) and Bill Watterson. You can get entertained just by looking at the pictures.
I also admire Shilpa Ranade’s work a lot.
SB to AAA: When you were drawing Chumki, how did you imagine her?
AAA: When I read a story, a parallel visual world gets instantly created in my mind based on my own experiences, imagination and knowledge. (I am sure that happens to everybody ). I usually stick to the very first visuals that flash in my mind.
I saw Chumki as an innocent, clumsy village child who has grown up battling this awful ‘unlucky’ tag all her life. I added a pair of peeping knickerbockers to give a little quirk to her character.
SB to AAA: Was there any single character in the book that you really enjoyed creating?
AAA: I really loved creating Chumki’s grandmother, who keeps terrorizing her with a stick. I wish there was more of her in the book for me to draw:-)