It’s like a whirlwind tour of India – some parts of it, anyway. All done and dusted in the comfort of your home, with snacks to munch on if you wish. Little Indians nudges you to explore fifteen states and union territories of India (randomly picked by the author), each through a story set against the backdrop of an unusual landmark within its borders. Before, after, and criss-crossing the story itself like an intricate cat’s cradle are a few strands of information about the state/union territory and its wonders, its history, arts and crafts, movers and shakers, music, dance and architecture, endangered plants, animals, and what have you! We have two or three fact pages for each state, just about enough for a few snippets on random topics of some significance, from the ancient rock paintings of the Bhimbetka caves to the baguettes of Puducherry, from Bombay duck (which is not a duck at all but a smelly fish) to dinosaur fossils, from monasteries in the Himalayan mist to the mighty mangroves of the Andamans…
So has the author covered most of the “highlights”, and how does one feel about her choice of topics? For every ten readers there are bound to be twelve different opinions on this, and we could argue about the pros and cons of her selection till kingdom come without reaching a consensus. Here’s the thing. There is no way of squeezing even a passing mention of all the natural and man-made marvels of a country like India into a regular-sized book such as this. Picking and sifting through what “deserves” to be featured is no easy task either. There are logical ways of tackling this information overload, and it has, of course, been done before. Offhand, I can think of a couple of other children’s books that take their readers on a journey of discovery across India – Puffin’s India: A to Z – An Alphabetical Tour of Incredible India and Natraj’s India: An Alphabet Ride (to both of which Little Indians bears some resemblance although they are not collections of fictional tales). They focus on capturing the essence of the country and leave it to the reader to take it forward from there. Pika Nani too adopts a similar approach. Which means the selection of topics is bound to be totally subjective, as also the response of each reader. I, for one, was puzzled to find the section on Andhra Pradesh practically dedicated to the film industry there. It is the backdrop to the story. So far so good, but do we need a whole page of film facts as well in addition to this, given the constraints of space and the wide range of subjects to choose from? I think not.
In Little Indians, the spotlight clearly is on the stories. That does not mean the facts on offer are merely an add-on, for Pika Nani adopts the age-old trick of serving up information camouflaged with the trappings of fiction. This can be sneakily effective provided the info bytes are intrinsic to the story and not strewn around haphazardly like speed breakers on our roads. The mix works for her because she takes adequate care to avoid such pitfalls – well, most of the time, anyway – while melding together fact and fiction.
Feel-good stories invariably have mass appeal, and here we have an entire collection of them. But are they credible enough to keep readers engaged and drift along with the flow, without ever rolling their eyes in disbelief? We’ll come to that later. First, the pluses. These are stories about simple, unpretentious folk who solve problems or outwit adversaries – from lurking desperadoes to marauding monkeys – by using brain and bicep. There are no gizmo-toting smart alecks strutting their stuff. And the only one who ends up exuding filmi “ishtyle” glitz and glamour is an abandoned donkey! Incidentally, he wangles a new lease of life when the neighbourhood kids improvise a costume for him identical to the one sported by a famous film hero, and he gets to star in an ad film. A tad simplistic, perhaps, like the tale of Bapuji’s little followers, who try a bit of Gandhigiri to stop their playground from being turned into a shopping mall. (They join together and fly hundreds of kites overhead emblazoned with words like JUSTICE and TRUTH when the political bigwig in the area holds a meeting there. That draws his attention to their grievances and they succeed in persuading him not to sell away their playground after all.) Their plan seems pretty ingenious, but would today’s street-smart ten-year-old believe there’s any chance of it working, or even that “right is might”? Well then, that’s precisely the point, for what is a nation without values and ideals? A story such as this (with the storyline tweaked to make it a bit more realistic) might induce children to think about these things… and who knows, they might even be inspired to follow the road less travelled.
Refreshingly enough, many of the stories are packed with practical ideas that are fun and can actually work. In ‘Discover Delhi Hunt’, for instance, jaded mall-hopping kids get a huge surprise when they turn up for their friend’s birthday party. Instead of the usual over-the-top themed affair, clues are handed out for them to unravel, and they are taken on an interactive “hunt” – an exciting race to find and explore some of Delhi’s best-known landmarks. This includes an old, iconic eating joint where they all converge to wrap up the birthday celebrations with some scrumptious street food. It’s a day to remember during which they make the astonishing discovery that history is not all battles and boring dates but more a maze of funky facts and cool tales. Surely an experience worth replicating in real life!
Many of the stories have an inventive twist at the end, or an unexpected solution to what seems like an insurmountable problem. The best of the bunch is about an impoverished tribal woman in Arunachal Pradesh who weaves an exquisite carpet that makes it possible for her son to fly all the way to Mumbai to visit his father. Spoiler alert: no, it’s not a magic flying carpet!
In a nutshell: these are stories with a positive, upbeat message. Exuding an authentic Indian flavour. Pepped up with line drawings that do them justice. A cover that’s bright and cheerful enough to make one reach out to take a closer look at what’s inside. Info bytes presented unobtrusively and painlessly. And yes, like the guy in the ad used to say about a much-lapped-up brand of ketchup, “It’s different!” and should resonate with young readers.
By Veena Seshadri
LITTLE INDIANS: STORIES FROM ACROSS THE COUNTRY
Author: Pika Nani
Illustrator: Shreya Mehta
Tulika Publishers, 2013
Subject Category: Contemporary/Fiction