A very welcome change in children’s books in recent times is the emergence of themes like loss, death, separation, disability, and parental discord. These are situations that many if not all children experience at some point or the other and it is right that the books they read should engage with such realities.
Gone Grandmother is a story that talks about the loss of a dearly loved grandmother. The grandchild is never directly told that this sad event has happened. Little things she sees makes her wonder and ask questions. The answers she gets from her mother and how she processes them bring in lightness and humour to the story.
Chatura Rao has captured the nuances of a young child’s puzzlement and the questions that keep coming when no one seems able to give her a clear response. “‘Ma, where has Nani gone?’ Nina asked that evening, as she rocked her doll in her grandmother’s empty chair. Ma was folding Nani’s clothes and putting them away into a suitcase. ‘To the stars,’ she replied, without looking up.” The illustration for this exchange is literally a depiction of the words, but Krishna Bala Shenoi has also breathed life into it and we can feel both the mother’s sadness as well as the child’s incomprehension. The attention to detail is sharply poignant showing the grandmother’s room, reflecting her interests and persona.
Nina then ponders over all the ways in which her grandmother could reach the stars. “1. Hang onto a hundred gas balloons. Go to a windy place and fly up with the balloons. 2. Get some eagles to carry you up, up, up. 3. Swing off a trapeze, and grab onto a passing rocket.” Each of these ridiculous options is comically illustrated and adds to the feeling, which is like a gentle pendulum swing between sadness and humour.
A group of twelve-year-olds ‘reviewed’ the book for me and shared how much they related to it. They felt that whenever they have lost an older family member or a pet, everyone around looks sad but no one has the time to sit and talk with them about it. Usually they try to forget about it and carry on, but in this story, though normal life goes on – the sun shines, birds chirp and Nina fights with her playmates – she keeps returning to her grandmother’s room, seeing her empty rocking chair and smelling the familiar fragrance of the talcum powder she used. The illustration showing Nina’s supporting hand on her Nani’s back as they both climb the stairs is brilliant in its subtlety.
The story moves into an interesting scenario where Nina’s persistent questions actually help her mother come to terms with the situation. Using a good synergy between words and art, Chatura Rao and Krishna Bala Shenoi create a beautiful closure to this sensitively told story.
After we had read the book together, one young girl asked if she could stay back and look at the book. She sat quietly, read through it and then returned it to me. This is a clue for parents, teachers and other adults in the child’s life to create a space for talking about difficult things and helping the child open up to her feelings. Not all children may be able to persist in the way Nina does. Stories of this kind provide us with opportunities to make a start!
By Usha Mukunda
Author: Chatura Rao
Illustrator: Krishna Bala Shenoi
Tulika Publishers, 2016
Subject Category: Contemporary/Fiction/Picture Book