“Mom, we don’t want you to gift any gold or silver or financial investments to our baby,” my husband said one afternoon to his mother, when she stopped by our home on the way back from one of the international schools she was working with in Gurgaon. My belly had only just started taking on a certain rotundity when my mother-in-law had brought up the topic of what she could do for the child.
Gifts were something that always caused her immense stress. She would start talking to us about birthday gifts a month in advance, wanting to fix a date to go shopping. Now that one of the biggest moments of our collective lives was about to descend upon us, she had been agitated for a while about what her role could be, how she could be a part of it, what she could gift. Although a non-traditionalist in almost every respect, her conversations with her friends about this rite of passage had planted a seed of worry in her mind about the tradition of grandparents giving practical, long-term and usually monetary gifts.
I had not applied myself to this issue at all, focused as I was on nausea, birth plans, doulas, shopping lists and maternity leave. Yes, yes, we can figure out some kind of gift when the time comes, I thought impatiently to myself.
I noticed when I drew my attention back to my husband and his mother that she was looking even more anxious than a few minutes ago. While my attention had drifted, it seems my husband, Akash, had floated an idea. “What! What do you mean?” she was sputtering. “Mom,” Akash said again, in the overly patient tone he sometimes used with his mother. “The greatest gift that you can give your grandchild is a physical manifestation of your life’s work – a library that is just her own.”
The home librarian
My mother-in-law, Bandana Sen, was a children’s librarian. When I started dating Akash in 1999 while we were both still in high school, I had not entirely understood what her work entailed. Most libraries in traditional Indian schools were barren study centres and librarians were responsible for nothing more than cataloguing and issuing books. There was no vibrant library culture outside of schools either.
So when I visited the American Embassy School with Akash’s mother one day and saw the veritable Disneyland that she pronounced to be her work space, I was wonderstruck. The book lover in me went into a trance as I browsed through the shelves, lounged with a stack of books in the plush, colourful reading corners, took in the fantastical murals on the walls and observed the very lucky children traipsing in and out with armfuls of books.
This was no library, I thought to myself, this was a work of art, an experience, a movement. Whoever had created this was an artist, the director of a magnificent play, the conductor of a mesmerising orchestra. And that person was Akash’s mother, the woman who would be my mother-in-law eleven years later and Thammi to my children sixteen years later.
Our first daughter, Devika, was born in 2015, when Thammi was in her seventies. “I thought I was too old to fall in love,” she would say, “and then I became a grandparent.”Akash’s father had passed away in 2006 and she lived by herself. She had always been fiercely independent and her work at Pathways schools in Gurgaon and Noida, combined with her whirlwind social life, kept her extremely busy. Akash would often joke that he could get an appointment with the President of India more easily than with his mother.
But this changed when Devika was born. Thammi was absolutely besotted. She would drop by every day, after long hours of work and long commutes, to be with her precious “shonamona”. Always a bit of a techno-phobe, she installed WhatsApp just to access pictures and videos of her granddaughters shared by us. Her driver reported to us often that she would spend her long drives watching videos of Devika, and later Yamini, on repeat. At her memorial in 2018, all her friends and colleagues recalled how much she doted on her granddaughters and how she could speak of little else.
Her loss had been sudden and unexpected. It left Akash and me shattered and unable to understand how our two-and-a-half-year-old and four-month-old daughters got such little time with someone who loved them so dearly. One of the starkest reminders of our bereavement was the library in our nursery – a vast and gorgeous collection that was actually larger than anything I could have dreamed of on my own.
Over a thousand books spread across bookshelves that covered more than half our wall space spilled into every available crevice in the room, but we knew that the project was incomplete. She had so much left to give us, so much work left to do. At the same time, it was the most precious inheritance she could have left her granddaughters.
After her initial hesitation, my mother-in-law had embraced the idea of creating a home library for Devika. She set about acquiring books with gusto. Every time she would visit us, she would carry boxes or bags or armfuls of books. Our empty shelves had begun to fill up as rapidly as my belly had. She hired a young assistant to help her label and catalogue the books and key in their names into an Excel sheet.
She brought in puppets, artefacts and stuffed animals like Berenstain Bear and Where the Wild Things Are dolls. She loved to share anything that delighted her and would always be thrilled to find me at home when she arrived with her latest loot. She would immediately spread out the gleaming picture books in front of me and gush forth about the particular genius of a Debi Gliori or the abstract humour in an Oliver Jeffers.
After Devika was born, whenever Thammi saw me couch-bound breastfeeding her she would settle down next to me and pore over the books she had just brought along. Together we would delight in the artistry of words and pictures.
We began reading to the girls when they were still in the womb. I remember feeling a bit silly as Akash or one of our parents would lovingly recite stories to my belly. We read to them the first day we returned from the hospital as well. From the black and white contrast books of Tana Hoban to the wide eyed animal illustrations of John Butler to the rollicking rhymes of Jez Alborough, our babies lapped up book after book. It gave the whole family a way to bond and play with them.
Thammi, in particular, was in seventh heaven. Akash’s idea had been a brilliant one, not only for the sake of our children but also for his mother, who was now living out her life’s passion in a completely novel way.
Building a love for books
Bandana Sen was born in 1943 in Darjeeling as one of three siblings. In Darjeeling, she attended Loreto Convent and then Loreto College, where she studied History. She was an accidental librarian. After teaching at a school in Bhubaneshwar and applying to become an Air India stewardess (and being rejected for being too short), she was hired by the United States Information Services (USIS) in Calcutta as Assistant Librarian when she was 23. A job was imperative as her father had become paralysed, her brother-in-law died suddenly when she was 25 so she, along with her sister, had to support her two little nephews and ageing parents.
After a stint at the American International School in Calcutta as Head Librarian, she was offered a job at the American Embassy School (AES) library in New Delhi. It was at AES that the librarian by chance turned into a librarian extraordinaire. In AES, my mother-in-law found the perfect canvas for her curious, creative and free-spirited mind; and in her, AES found a magician who brought much more than a love for books and reading to their community.
Before she joined AES, it had only a single school library, the senior section of which was a somewhat sterile space with desks and chairs. She created a colourful children’s corner in it. Later, when a separate elementary school library was set up, she had the chance to design a space to her own specifications, complete with low shelves, an amphitheatre, stage, colourful cushions, and vibrant murals on the walls. She brought it to life with stuffed animals, puppets, masks, figurines and artefacts from all over the world.
Her libraries were not simply reading spaces, they were cultural spaces. She saw books as artefacts that had to be understood in a larger context. Her long-time colleague, Peggy Sood, who was a teacher and Assistant Principal at AES, describes the library as a “chapel”. She recounts the feeling of walking into the space and exclaiming in wonder and awe.
My mother-in-law had conceived of the classroom and the library as one. She also saw the library as a vibrant public space. Staff meetings were often held there after school hours. There was a small kitchenette, where tea, coffee and snacks were always at hand. She insisted on having a restroom attached to the new library so that the children did not have to leave this self-contained universe. Every session in the library for students had to include a read-aloud where she would narrate with gusto, changing voices to suit characters and adding sound effects. The library had a dedicated staff, including parent volunteers. “It was her little cohort,” said Peggy Sood, “and they were devoted to her”.
Apart from physical space, she also dreamed up innovative projects that deepened children’s relationships with reading. Peggy Sood recalls one where she got middle school students to write and illustrate books, which she then had bound in Jaipuri fabric and presented to elementary school children. She launched Readathon, a reading challenge for students to complete a certain number of books across genres in a certain time period, that encouraged them to try out new genres they may not have explored before such as poetry, fantasy, science fiction and so on.
She was meticulous about procuring books and studied publication lists closely to decide where to spend her fairly generous library budget on. Funding wasn’t always easy though, especially for things like attending conferences and seminars abroad, like the annual conference of the American Library Association. Nevertheless, she ensured that she attended as many as possible since up-skilling, staying updated and networking with children’s authors was very important to her.
She invited several international authors to the school, including Aliki, Ruth Heller, Patricia Larkin, Modecia Gerstein, Paula Danziger, Stephen Cole, Stuart J Murphy and Alyssa Satin Capucilli. She found imaginative ways to raise funds for this, like hosting an annual pancake breakfast event at the school.
Upon retiring after spending 36 years at AES, she carried this pioneering and visionary approach to other institutions, most notably to Pathways Schools in NCR, where she worked for 12 years, and also to the many schools, libraries and reading programmes all over the country for whom she worked as a consultant. It dismayed her to see the status and condition of libraries in most Indian schools. She also wanted to change the perception that librarians were cataloguers and clerks and inspired them to be seen as teachers and custodians of learning.
She mentored and nurtured a crop of young librarians at Pathways. At her memorial two and a half years ago, we were surprised to see dozens of young women sobbing copiously. It was only after we lost her that we realized the extent of the impact she’d had on people in this field. When, in 2019,Dalbir Kaur Madan, owner of One Up Children’s Library in New Delhi, instituted the Bandana Sen Library Awards to be awarded nationally to librarians and school heads specifically for their libraries, we got a further glimpse into the kind of legacy she had left behind.
The children and the lockdown library
Akash and I often wonder how Thammi would have responded to the Covid-19 pandemic had she been around. We imagine that we would have asked her to move in with us. She would have grumbled, then agreed and, surrounded by her little people every day, would have finally admitted this was the best idea ever.
But she would have also struggled and much of her would have wilted. She was not someone who could stay put or isolated for too long. Her love of films, music, theatre, art and good food kept her schedule jam-packed with visits to theatres, concert halls, exhibitions, seminars, and restaurants.
Expectedly, some of Thammi’s favourite haunts were book shops and she had enduring relationships with their owners. For our home library, she worked closely with Sonal Narain, Partner at The Book Shop in Delhi’s Jor Bagh. She would go there every Thursday to procure books for her school libraries and also select the next instalment for her grandchildren.
“After her illness in 2013,” Sonal Narain recalls, “she had some sort of foreboding that she was not going to be around for long. She would sometimes pick up books for older children, like Charlotte’s Web, and I would ask her why she was doing that. She would say she would not like to take any chances and that she wanted the library to have books that could be read by children till the age of ten...”
She may have worried about the distant future but she could never have guessed the role that her library would play for us during a pandemic two years after she left us. Preschools were closed. Playdates had vanished. Parks and play areas were out of bounds. Housebound with two little ones hungry for stimulation, we struggled to find a rhythm in our new lives but, months into it, we did settle into one.
We punctuate our days with virtual classes for the older one, sensory activities, arts and crafts, music and dance, roughhousing, obstacle courses and visits to my parents. The thread that holds the day together, however, is books. The volume of books that we read in a day, which was always high, has doubled. We have penetrated deeper into our library, hunting out the still many unread books, re-shuffling the layout, delving deeper into favourites.
Our home library has become a source of joy and comfort in a way that we could never have imagined. Browsing in bookshops is a distant dream, books are scarce and expensive even online, and the library we used to frequent is closed to visitors. The sheer volume of books that we plough through every day would not have been possible without access to Thammi’s home library.
Six months is a long time in the lives of little ones. Nearly one-fifth of our two-and-a-half year old’s life has been spent quarantined at home. The beginning of the lockdown seems a lifetime ago, and we see this passage of time in our children. They are different individuals from who they were in March this year. Much has been lost during these strange times but, in the moments when we come up for air from the sheer exhaustion of parenting two children under the age of five, we recognise that much has also been gained.
When we will look back at this time, it is likely that we will remember it with fondness. When the tiredness and anxiety are forgotten, what will stand out is a chunk of our children’s babyhoods that we got to enjoy every minute of. Our children too have had unrestricted access to their parents during a very formative period of time. Their emotional cups are full and they have experienced developmental leaps.
Nowhere is the latter more apparent than in their relationship with books. They want to be read to nearly all day, every day. They read when we laze in bed after they wake us up at six am. Books are interwoven into the games they play before it’s time for virtual school. Their Nanima and Nana read to them when we visit them – our only precious sojourn out of our home. They read at mealtimes, they read in the bathroom and they read stacks at bedtime.
Reading is the perfect filler when we have an hour to kill, the perfect therapy when we are too tired to entertain physically, and the perfect quiet activity when we feel the kids are over-stimulated. We cannot bake or build forts or make slime every day but we can certainly read every day.
Yamini, who was two when the pandemic began, has become an ardent book lover. She selects books herself and has very specific reading requests. She screams “Read! Read! Read!” as only a toddler can if I am distracted for even a moment while reading her favourite books, like the adorable Gajapati Kulapati series by Ashok Rajagopalan. The same books are read endlessly on repeat and we often find her reading them silently to herself or to her stuffed animals.
She has undergone a huge leap in vocabulary and comprehension, making it possible for us to read the same books to both children together. After all, children’s picture books have this amazing layered quality that allows a wide age-group to enjoy them and take away different things from the same book. Hours are spent reading several books from series like David McKee’s Elmer or Nick Bland’s The Very Cranky Bear or Shirley Hughes’ Alfie to both girls together.
For our younger one, this love for book series is something that has developed in recent months and has led to our hunting out and sourcing more and more titles from the ones she loves. Fewer distractions mean greater attention spans and the desire to go deep into a fictional universe. The first one that she became totally absorbed in was the iconic Mog by Judith Kerr. Our lives during the pandemic have centred on home, family and pets, so it is no surprise that the happy domesticity of books like Mog and Emma Chichester Clark’s Blue Kangaroo stories resonate deeply with her.
Devika, our five-year old, enjoys complex stories with detailed illustrations and denser-than-usual text, like Katie Morag by Mairi Hedderwick, which I bought on a rare store visit, and early chapter books like Frog & Toad by Arnold Lobel, which is part of Thammi’s library. Princess in Black by Dean Hale and Shannon Hale is a hot favourite, to the extent that she chose to dress up as the subversive, monster-fighting princess for a virtual school “dress up” day.
She is at a transitional stage where she is not reading independently yet, but has a great hunger for long, complex books and a growing attention span that makes her want to read for hours. Our discovery of audiobooks during the pandemic, like many book-loving families, has served this need well. We were initially unsure if she would be able to concentrate on a story without pictures but Devika has taken to them and is often immersed in books like The Magic Faraway Tree and The Wishing Chair series narrated by Kate Winslet or The Magic Tree House by Mary Pope Osborne, narrated pitch-perfectly by the author herself.
We think of Thammi often these days. The acute pain we would feel in the initial months after her passing when our daughters would do something loveable and we would want to instantly share it with their Thammi never really went away. We learned to circle around it in our minds but Thammi does remain at the edge of our consciousness at every living moment.
She is there when Devika completes a stunning new painting, when Yamini utters a gobsmacking new sentence and when Akash and I talk about our hopes and dreams for our daughters. But most of all, she is there whenever Devika and Yamini read, which is all the more during our lockdown existence. Every time we choose a book and I read it aloud to them, I wonder what Thammi must have thought when she chose it. I picture her thumbing through it at a book shop and chuckling to herself as she tried to predict her granddaughters’ reactions.
I wonder if she can somehow see their reactions now. She would have felt so much joy in seeing how books have been their constant companions in recent months and in the increasingly important role they have played in their lives. At a time when experiences are very restricted and meeting friends is off limits, Devika and Yamini have had the companionship of cave babies, highway rats, blue kangaroos, patchwork elephants, silly geese, good-hearted dragons, princess doctors, brown bears, cats in hats, silent ladybirds and llamas in pajamas. Thammi may not have been able to complete her library but she has left her granddaughters an enduring legacy – a love for books and sheer delight in all things beautiful.
This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.