Childhood Heroes

Finally, Indian parents have words and images to explain grief and loss to children

Bereavement is never easy to talk about, more so with children.

How do you begin talking to a child about death and coping with loss? How do you explain to her why Nani or Ajja or Didi is no longer around? Now help is at hand in the form of three books that take on the difficult subjects of grief and loss.

Boo! When My Sister Died

Boo! When My Sister Died (Pickle Yolk Books) is a picture book written by Richa Jha and illustrated by Gautam Benegal. In it, the protagonist Noorie’s sister dies and the world, as the girl knows it, changes. As Noorie yearns for Zoya’s return, Jha and Benegal unspool a story about coming to terms with the loss of a loved one. Like a child talking, the book is often straight and direct: “That night my sister Zoya was away at the hospital, I dreamt of her. The next morning Mummy said Zoya was dead. I cried.” And yet, the picture book ends on a note of hope.

Jha said the picture book initially started as a story of separation of two friends. “It was during the collaborative creative process between Gautam and I that we felt the need to create a bigger canvas to tell a deeper tale of separation in a more permanent sense,” she said. “This led us to explore whether death in itself can be treated as permanent. And if so, how does one explain the poignant memories of the dead that punctuate the loneliness of the ones left behind?”

The illustrations lend a dark yet colourful ambience. Some pages are splashed with light and rainbows, and others are resolutely dark, as if someone turned off a light switch. The crosshatch background, said Jha, mirrors the confusing unresolved thoughts and questions that emerge in the wake of a sudden death. “The illustrations are hand drawn in a crosshatched style progressively ranging from a warm space of togetherness and belonging to a space of loneliness and isolation,” said Benegal. “Finally, with closure and coming to terms with the realisation that a close person who has left us physically also gifts us with an abiding presence of shared memories and moments, we return to that warm, secure space.”

Although Jha conceded that this may be a difficult book to sell in the Indian market, she felt that as authors, editors and publishers, we “owe to it our young readers (and the parents) the freedom of choice and the option to pick up books that can help them initiate conversations on seemingly difficult subjects”.

Jha noted that children have a sharp grasp of reality, even in its most unsavoury form. She took Boo! to a summer camp in Delhi for underprivileged children and realised that at least a dozen participants had experienced the loss of a near one. “I had not expected it,” she said. “The room became emotionally charged. I put the book away the moment I felt myself slipping into an insensitive TV reporter mode about to ask, ‘so how did you feel?’. But that was also the moment I realised how important it is to create books that talk to a child’s inner most grief or fear or even joys.”

The Boy with 2 Grandfathers

Image courtesy: Tulika Books
Image courtesy: Tulika Books

Amol lives with his mother and father as well as his Appa and Ajoba in The Boy with 2 Grandfathers by Mini Shrinivasan (Tulika Books). Appa and Ajoba are as different as Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans. Appa is from Chennai, spends every morning performing a puja, and wears dhotis and bush shirts. Ajoba, in sharp contrast, has stylish white hair, a thick moustache, and wears a tweed coat with a silk scarf. But they both dote on Amol. One day, Amol’s mother falls sick with cancer, and the two grandfathers rally together to help their grandson through this difficult period.

“The idea behind The Boy with 2 Grandfathers is to use a humorous tone to highlight how men and boys deal with difficult emotions and how young boys and grandfathers too can be sensitive and gentle in their own unique ways,” said Shrinivasan. “Also how families from mixed communities live harmoniously while respectfully poking fun at each other.”

Shrinivasan said she felt the need to address the “tough situation of loss” because few books do that beyond the fantasy worlds. “Children’s books can help by dealing with such real issues of real children, especially pre-teens, but by keeping some humour and fun in the story and by not being preachy,” said the author.

Shrinivasan won the Bal Sahitya Puraskar for her book Just A Train Ride Away. In it, she describes how Amol copes with the slow withering away of his mother, the long silences, and the absences. “It was very hard to write the last chapters as I could not get a handle on how a 12-year-old would feel,” she said. “It was serendipity that I came across a first-person account of someone who went through a similar experience just when I was stuck. That helped to bring the authenticity that I was looking for.”

Gone Grandmother

Image courtesy: Tulika Books
Image courtesy: Tulika Books

Chatura Rao and Krishna Bala Shenoi’s picture book, Gone Grandmother (Tulika Books), starts hauntingly. “One day in February Nina’s grandmother went away,” writes Rao. “Nina didn’t get a chance to say goodbye.” Everything was the same – the sky was still blue, the birds continued to call out from the trees and friends played hide-and-seek. Except that the grandmother was gone. Gone Grandmother is a beautiful exploration of grief, the comfort of memories, and the innocence of childhood.

Rao said she felt that children have a great many questions that need to be answered with gentleness and honesty. When her grandmother passed away two years ago, her seven-year-old niece wanted to know where she had gone. “Her mother replied that grandma has gone to Ganpati,” recalled Chatura. “The little girl said she really couldn’t see how our old grandma could have journeyed so far, all the way to Ganpati’s home. This struck me as a pretty valid doubt. When someone dear passes on, where do they actually go? As adults, we perform the rituals of death, some of us donate money to charity, or contribute to feed the poor... we find ways to accept loss. But what is a child supposed to do for answers? Gone Grandmother was born from seeing things from my niece’s eyes. I was really hoping to answer her question.” And the book becomes a beautiful way to answers these questions.

Shenoi uses light as the foundation to illustrate the book. The result is stunning. “I wanted aspects of the visuals, particularly my use of light, to reflect the progression of the story,” the illustrator said. If you look closely through the book, the story gives the sense of a day progressing – starting from daytime and then fading into darker colours as the sun sets. “The illustrations, particularly those set in the grandmother’s room, are lit with patches of golden light to bring to the images a sense of her Nani’s warmth even in her absence,” said Shenoi. “And the compositions emphasise Nina’s smallness in her grandmother’s room, giving us a sense of some of her loneliness and longing.”

For Rao, this book wasn’t easy to write. “It seems like a simple enough narrative, but it was hard to strike the right balance between a child’s loneliness and her need to understand the truth.” But she manages to do that. In fact, the author has heard from many adult readers that the book reminded them of the time they lost a beloved grandma. “They said that the book acknowledged loss and spoke of hope, and these made them feel better,” Rao said. “The children I presented it to liked the funny bits best – the lists that the protagonist Nina makes: Ways to Reach the Stars and Ways to get to God’s Home. Perhaps they too make such lists themselves sometimes.”

Rao added that stories like these can help children deal with difficult subjects. “Loss and grief expressed through a story gives the child a chance to explore it in a slightly removed sort of way. She realises that the experience is universal (because it’s in a book) and yet is personal because she feels close to it while reading. So, it’s okay to feel sad and blue, but then life goes on.”

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Behind the garb of wealth and success, white collar criminals are hiding in plain sight

Understanding the forces that motivate leaders to become fraudsters.

Most con artists are very easy to like; the ones that belong to the corporate society, even more so. The Jordan Belforts of the world are confident, sharp and can smooth-talk their way into convincing people to bend at their will. For years, Harshad Mehta, a practiced con-artist, employed all-of-the-above to earn the sobriquet “big bull” on Dalaal Street. In 1992, the stockbroker used the pump and dump technique, explained later, to falsely inflate the Sensex from 1,194 points to 4,467. It was only after the scam that journalist Sucheta Dalal, acting on a tip-off, broke the story exposing how he fraudulently dipped into the banking system to finance a boom that manipulated the stock market.

Play

In her book ‘The confidence game’, Maria Konnikova observes that con artists are expert storytellers - “When a story is plausible, we often assume it’s true.” Harshad Mehta’s story was an endearing rags-to-riches tale in which an insurance agent turned stockbroker flourished based on his skill and knowledge of the market. For years, he gave hope to marketmen that they too could one day live in a 15,000 sq.ft. posh apartment with a swimming pool in upmarket Worli.

One such marketman was Ketan Parekh who took over Dalaal Street after the arrest of Harshad Mehta. Ketan Parekh kept a low profile and broke character only to celebrate milestones such as reaching Rs. 100 crore in net worth, for which he threw a lavish bash with a star-studded guest-list to show off his wealth and connections. Ketan Parekh, a trainee in Harshad Mehta’s company, used the same infamous pump-and-dump scheme to make his riches. In that, he first used false bank documents to buy high stakes in shares that would inflate the stock prices of certain companies. The rise in stock prices lured in other institutional investors, further increasing the price of the stock. Once the price was high, Ketan dumped these stocks making huge profits and causing the stock market to take a tumble since it was propped up on misleading share prices. Ketan Parekh was later implicated in the 2001 securities scam and is serving a 14-years SEBI ban. The tactics employed by Harshad Mehta and Ketan Parekh were similar, in that they found a loophole in the system and took advantage of it to accumulate an obscene amount of wealth.

Play

Call it greed, addiction or smarts, the 1992 and 2001 Securities Scams, for the first time, revealed the magnitude of white collar crimes in India. To fill the gaps exposed through these scams, the Securities Laws Act 1995 widened SEBI’s jurisdiction and allowed it to regulate depositories, FIIs, venture capital funds and credit-rating agencies. SEBI further received greater autonomy to penalise capital market violations with a fine of Rs 10 lakhs.

Despite an empowered regulatory body, the next white-collar crime struck India’s capital market with a massive blow. In a confession letter, Ramalinga Raju, ex-chairman of Satyam Computers convicted of criminal conspiracy and financial fraud, disclosed that Satyam’s balance sheets were cooked up to show an excess of revenues amounting to Rs. 7,000 crore. This accounting fraud allowed the chairman to keep the share prices of the company high. The deception, once revealed to unsuspecting board members and shareholders, made the company’s stock prices crash, with the investors losing as much as Rs. 14,000 crores. The crash of India’s fourth largest software services company is often likened to the bankruptcy of Enron - both companies achieved dizzying heights but collapsed to the ground taking their shareholders with them. Ramalinga Raju wrote in his letter “it was like riding a tiger, not knowing how to get off without being eaten”, implying that even after the realisation of consequences of the crime, it was impossible for him to rectify it.

It is theorised that white-collar crimes like these are highly rationalised. The motivation for the crime can be linked to the strain theory developed by Robert K Merton who stated that society puts pressure on individuals to achieve socially accepted goals (the importance of money, social status etc.). Not having the means to achieve those goals leads individuals to commit crimes.

Take the case of the executive who spent nine years in McKinsey as managing director and thereafter on the corporate and non-profit boards of Goldman Sachs, Procter & Gamble, American Airlines, and Harvard Business School. Rajat Gupta was a figure of success. Furthermore, his commitment to philanthropy added an additional layer of credibility to his image. He created the American India Foundation which brought in millions of dollars in philanthropic contributions from NRIs to development programs across the country. Rajat Gupta’s descent started during the investigation on Raj Rajaratnam, a Sri-Lankan hedge fund manager accused of insider trading. Convicted for leaking confidential information about Warren Buffet’s sizeable investment plans for Goldman Sachs to Raj Rajaratnam, Rajat Gupta was found guilty of conspiracy and three counts of securities fraud. Safe to say, Mr. Gupta’s philanthropic work did not sway the jury.

Play

The people discussed above have one thing in common - each one of them was well respected and celebrated for their industry prowess and social standing, but got sucked down a path of non-violent crime. The question remains - Why are individuals at successful positions willing to risk it all? The book Why They Do It: Inside the mind of the White-Collar Criminal based on a research by Eugene Soltes reveals a startling insight. Soltes spoke to fifty white collar criminals to understand their motivations behind the crimes. Like most of us, Soltes expected the workings of a calculated and greedy mind behind the crimes, something that could separate them from regular people. However, the results were surprisingly unnerving. According to the research, most of the executives who committed crimes made decisions the way we all do–on the basis of their intuitions and gut feelings. They often didn’t realise the consequences of their action and got caught in the flow of making more money.

Play

The arena of white collar crimes is full of commanding players with large and complex personalities. Billions, starring Damien Lewis and Paul Giamatti, captures the undercurrents of Wall Street and delivers a high-octane ‘ruthless attorney vs wealthy kingpin’ drama. The show looks at the fine line between success and fraud in the stock market. Bobby Axelrod, the hedge fund kingpin, skilfully walks on this fine line like a tightrope walker, making it difficult for Chuck Rhoades, a US attorney, to build a case against him.

If financial drama is your thing, then block your weekend for Billions. You can catch it on Hotstar Premium, a platform that offers a wide collection of popular and Emmy-winning shows such as Game of Thrones, Modern Family and This Is Us, in addition to live sports coverage, and movies. To subscribe, click here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Hotstar and not by the Scroll editorial team.