Rabia and Jhimli are best friends. They play together, solve puzzles, and read mystery books. It was only a few months ago that they met at a day care centre, but during the time that Rabia spent teaching Jhimli to speak in Hindi, they became inseparable.

The two girls are characters in a short picture book, Home Away From Home, conceptualised, written and illustrated by the teachers at the non-profit Mumbai Mobile Creches. For over four decades, the NGO has been running day-care centres near construction sites for children aged up to 14 years. At these creches, younger kids spend their days playing games, reading and learning, while their parents work. The older children join them after the school is out.

“While going through books to include at the MMC libraries, we realised that none of these children’s books had a character that our children could identify with,” said Sunita Pawar, a teacher at Mumbai Mobile Creches. “It was then that we thought that we should create one ourselves and make it about them, the issues they face and the lives that they live.”

Jhimli and Rabia.
Jhimli and Rabia.

Pawar has been teaching with MMC since 2006 and has interacted with children of all ages and from across India. “Those coming from the interiors of Maharashtra make up 40% of the number of children at these creches and a majority of the kids are coming from villages in Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka,” the 43-year-old said. “They are dealing with a new environment, a new language and new people. It is an intimidating experience for them.”

After a few sessions working on the graphic novel, a team of MMC teachers had the basic storyline ready: Home Away From Home follows Rabia and Jhimli as they try to befriend a new boy at their crèche, Biswa. The arrival of the quiet, shy boy is accompanied by the disappearance of small objects from the crèche – a handkerchief, a bowl of milk. Upon noticing this, Rabia and Jhimli embark on an adventure to solve the mystery of vanishing objects.

“We wanted to introduce a small element of mystery in the book to make it engaging for the children,” said Asmita Naik Africawala, research coordinator at MMC. “The book addresses the issue of constant and frequent movement that they deal with, how it affects them, how their education and safety is compromised but it is, after all, a children’s book, so we did not want to make it too grim.”

The result strikes a chord with the reader. Through a simple story and in merely 30 pages, the MMC team manages to explain the children’s daily realities, highlight their plight and the efforts being made to give them some semblance of home – a word that each child in the book is constantly defining and redefining.

For Rabia and Jhimli, home is where the other is. This is why, when Jhimli finds out she is going to move on to a different construction site soon, she bursts into tears at the idea of leaving her friend.

“This wasn’t in the book originally,” said Pawar. “When we narrated the story to the children, they wanted us to add this aspect, about how sad they get when they have to part ways with their friends. They become close to the children they meet at the creche and the process of moving yet again and starting from scratch is as sad as it is difficult for them.”

The book is full of colourful, basic illustrations. According to Pawar, when the children read the book, they were elated that the characters were like them. “I had children coming up to me and telling me, ‘I’m like Biswa, aren’t I?’, ‘I think I’m like Rabia’,” she said.

Home Away From Home, published in Hindi and English, is available for purchase at the Mumbai Mobile Creches and at Kahani Tree, Mumbai. It can also be ordered by emailing communications@mmcmail.org.in, calling on 9769010346 or through their website.

All images courtesy Mumbai Mobile Creches.