How often do we find books for very young readers that talk about the importance of accepting people for who they are, embracing one’s culture and dropping judgement based on external appearances? Richa Jha’s Thatha at School is a good example of a book that attempts to do this in a simple way, like she had dealt with gender stereotyping in The Unboy Boy. Gautam Benegal’s illustrations lend a fun, caricatured look to the characters while the overall design with scribbly fonts on crumpled paper gives the book a ‘rough-notebook’ feel, making it endearing and relatable to the young school-going reader.
The story takes us into the mind of Oviyam, a Grade Two student, who is embarrassed by her Thatha’s (grandfather) dhoti-wearing style. She desperately tries to stop him from attending Grandparents Day celebrations at her school, for fear of being teased by her friends. The things she does to stop him – feeding the invitation to the dog, leaving Thatha all by himself in the school building, while she hides in the playground – are downright hilarious but they also make the reader feel a tad upset for Thatha and angry at Oviyam. In the end, however, Oviyam has a moment of epiphany when her friend tells her about all the fun she has missed; she then proudly accompanies her Thatha and presents him as the best storyteller in world, hugs included.
As you flip the pages, the illustrations suggest that Oviyam and Thatha belong to a Tamil household, but live in a North Indian city. And just when you begin to appreciate the cultural diversity the book is attempting to explore, there’s the downside. As a person familiar with the Tamil language, I could not help but notice the usage of the word “lungi” when Thatha is actually dressed in a ‘veshti’ or ‘dhoti’. Anyone from the South would know there is a world of difference between the two. Blame it on ‘Lungi Dance’, should we? Also, the name of the main character, Oviyam (Oviyam means picture or drawing) is a rather unusual one for a Tamil girl. Even AutoCorrect seems to suggest ‘Oviya’ as the alternative! A discerning reader is tempted to question the authenticity and extent of research that has gone into the making of the book. It may seem like a small issue, but because the book is set in a certain context, the Detail Devil cannot be ignored.
On the whole, however, Thatha at School is an agreeable story. Children develop impressions very early in life, which sets the stage for stereotypes and prejudices that stay with them well into adulthood. Save the veshti-lungi confusion, full marks to the author for attempting to bring these issues into focus through her story.
By Deeptha Vivekanand
Author: Richa Jha
Illustrator: Gautam Benegal
Pickle Yolk Books, 2015
Subject Category: Contemporary/Fiction/Picture Book