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 

It’s the new year and it’s already time to plan your next holiday

Here are some great destinations for you to consider.

Vacation planning can get serious and strategic. Some people swear by the save and splurge approach that allows for one mini getaway and one dream holiday in a year. Others use the solo to family tactic and distribute their budget across solo trips, couple getaways and family holidays. Regardless of what strategy you implement to plan your trip, the holiday list is a handy tool for eager travellers. After having extensively studied the 2018 holiday list, here’s what we recommend:

March: 10 days of literature, art and culture in Toronto

For those you have pledged to read more or have more artistic experiences in 2018, Toronto offers the Biblio-Mat, the world’s first randomising vending machine for old books. You can find the Biblio-Mat, paper artefacts, rare books and more at The Monkey’s Paw, an antiquarian bookseller. If you can tear yourself away from this eclectic bookstore, head over to The Public Library in Toronto for the Merril Collection of over 72000 items of science fiction, fantasy magic realism and graphic novels. With your bag full of books, grab a coffee at Room 2046 – a café cum store cum studio that celebrates all things whimsical and creative. Next, experience art while cycling across the 80km Pan Am Path. Built for walking, running, cycling and wheeling, the Pan Am Path is a recreational pathway that offers a green, scenic and river views along with art projects sprinkled throughout the route. You can opt for a guided tour of the path or wander aimlessly for serendipitous discoveries.

Nothing beats camping to ruminate over all those new ideas collected over the past few days. Make way to Killarney Provincial Park for 2-3 days for some quiet time amongst lakes and hills. You can grab a canoe, go hiking or get back to nature, but don’t forget to bring a tent.

If you use the long-weekend of 2nd March to extend your trip, you get to experience the Toronto Light Festival as a dazzling bonus.

June: 10 days of culinary treats, happy feet and a million laughs in Chicago

Famous for creating the deep-dish pizza and improv comedy, Chicago promises to banish that mid-year lull. Get tickets for The Second City’s Legendary Laughs at The UP-Comedy Club - the company that gave us the legendary Tina Fey, Stephen Colbert and Key & Peele. All that laughter can sure work up an appetite, one that can be satiated with Lou Malnati’s classic deep-dish pizza. For dessert, head over to the Ferrara Original Bakery for mouth-watering treats.

Chicago in June is pleasant and warm enough to explore the outdoors and what better way to soak in the sunshine, than by having a picnic at the Maggie Daley Park. Picnic groves, wall climbing, mini golf, roller blading – the park offers a plethora of activities for individuals as well as families.

If you use the long weekend of 15th June, you can extend your trip to go for Country LakeShake – Chicago’s country music festival featuring Blake Shelton and Dierks Bentley.

August: 7 days in London for Europe’s biggest street festival

Since 1964, the Notting Hill Carnival has been celebrating London’s Caribbean communities with dancing, masquerade and music ranging from reggae to salsa. Watch London burst into colours and sparkle at the Notting Hill Carnival. Home to Sherlock Holmes and Charles Dickens Museum, London is best experienced by wandering through its tiny streets. Chance encounters with bookstores such as Foyles and Housemans, soaking in historic sights while enjoying breakfast at Arthur’s Café or Blackbird Bakery, rummaging the stalls at Broadway market or Camden Market – you can do so much in London while doing nothing at all.

The Museum of Brand, Packaging and Advertising can send you reminiscing about those old ads, while the Clowns Gallery Museum can give you an insight in clown-culture. If you’d rather not roam aimlessly, book a street-art tour run by Alternative London or a Jack the Ripper Tour.

October: 10 days of an out-of-body experience in Vegas

About 16 km south of the intersection of Las Vegas Boulevard and St. Rose Parkway in Henderson, lies a visual spectacle. Seven Magic Mountains, an art installation by Ugo Rondinone, stands far away from the wild vibe that people expect in Las Vegas and instead offers a sense of wonder. Imagine seven pillars of huge, neon boulders, stacked up against one another stretched towards the sky. There’s a lot more where that came from, in Las Vegas. Captivating colour at the permanent James Turrell exhibit in Louis Vuitton, outdoor adventures at the Bootleg Canyon and vintage shopping at Patina Décor offer experiences that are not usually associated with Vegas. For that quintessential Vegas show, go for Shannon McBeath: Absinthe for some circus-style entertainment. If you put the holiday list to use, you can make it for the risefestival – think thousands of lanterns floating in the sky, right above you.

It’s time to get on with the vacation planning for the new year. So, pin up the holiday list, look up deals on hotels and flights and start booking. Save money by taking advantage of the British Airways Holiday Sale. With up to 25% off on flight, the offer is available to book until 31st January 2018 for travel up to 31st December in economy and premium economy and up to 31st August for business class. For great fares to great destinations, see here.

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