Renchu belongs to a family of ragpickers. One day she has to miss work (which involves “bending and picking and walking” for “miles in the city, picking waste from the roadside, from dustbins and drains”) because she is ill. So she stays home with her grandmother, her Daadi, whose job it is to sort out waste into piles of plastic and paper. Bored, she begs the old lady to tell her a story and is rewarded with an enchanting one about a clever teetar – a Grey Francolin, according to Wikipedia – that tricked her grandfather a long time ago. The little book is poignant without being maudlin and is sure to evoke an emotional response in a reader, young or old, and make us question or at least become aware our prejudices and indifference, living as we do in an age of privilege and entitlement.
So you have a story within a story about a tribe of bird trappers – the Paardhi tribe has been labelled “criminal” since colonial times – that has been forced to take up a new occupation in the city, and is even now looked upon with suspicion and distrust. The present is contrasted with a past that seems almost magical by comparison despite the ever-present fear of being nabbed by the law. There are many interesting ideas in the book and not only do you get two stories for the price of one, there is scope for a reader to ask many questions. One might want to know, for example:
Why does Renchu have to work? Why doesn’t she go to school?
Who were bird trappers and why can’t they do their old job anymore?
What happens when people lose their traditional occupations?
Why were the Paardhis thought to be criminals?
… and so on and so forth.
The illustrations in The Trickster Bird match the complexity of the story. The drawings are moving and highlight the plight of those who live in poverty. The dinginess of the ragpickers’ life and their living conditions in the city is conveyed through browns, dirty blues and dull, subdued yellows. In the flashback story on the other hand, many of the same colours are used to create a happier picture. Eye-catching red is used with great effect.
This Wordbird book for ages six and up is a sensitive, nuanced story about the kind of people who are all around us and yet invisible to us. Maybe the next time we see a ragpicker we’ll at least pause to wonder where she came from.
By Revathi Suresh
Illustrator: Manjari Chakravarti
Tulika Publishers, 2016
Subject Category: Contemporary/Fiction/Picture Book