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Weird and wonderful

Rihan Najib | Updated on August 31, 2018 Published on August 31, 2018

It’s okay to be not cute: The book is enlivened by Priya Kuriyan’s visuals   -  COURTESY: YODA PRESS

Padmini Mongia’s delightful collection of children’s stories does not hesitate to tackle the darker aspects of growing up

There are children’s books, and then there are books that, while ostensibly written for children, have the ability to speak directly to the child within the harried, world-weary adult. Padmini Mongia’s illustrated collection Baby Looking Out and Other Stories belongs to the latter category.

Beginning with the tale of a nine-month-old baby determined to look around at the world, the stories that follow are light-hearted animal tales such as the one about a turtle who visits Old Delhi on rollerblades and a morally-ambivalent monkey who pilfers an old man’s top hat during an altercation with a snake. The stories then take a decidedly darker turn — ‘Joey and His Mood’ follows a perpetually despondent boy’s insistence on wearing his favourite hat, and in ‘Soman and the Toot’, a child has to contend with a parent who “runs away with a sound”.

The book is enlivened by arresting visuals by Priya Kuriyan, who also illustrated the cover of Perumal Murugan’s Poonachi as well as co-authored the graphic novel Indira.

BLink spoke to Mongia at the recent launch of the book. With her long silver hair and alert, expressive eyes, Mongia looks like a storyteller whom children would be instantly drawn to. But, more important, she sounds like one. With a calming, steady voice capable of climbing up and down octaves, she has the gift of keeping an audience captive.

 

“That’s one of the great pleasures of storytelling — figuring out the buttons you can push with an audience, what language you can use. I discovered that I could scare children quite easily, but, at the same time, the children enjoy being scared. They’re not saying ‘please stop, don’t tell me’. I’ve always enjoyed that,” she says.

Mongia’s first book, Pchak Pchak: A Story of Crocodiles, a tale about a baby crocodile who won’t open her mouth, was a children’s book that met all the requirements of the genre — lots of colourful illustrations and brief lines of text on a page. But Baby Looking Out bends both the genre’s expectations as well as those of the reader. “It’s a book that can have a range of audiences. It’s pitched for the savvy 10-year-old whose reading world is huge — who has read all the once-upon-a-time stories, because this book messes around with that format,” says Mongia.

But at the same time, she adds, the stories are for adults as well. “They’re like Alice In Wonderland or Kipling’s Just So Stories, which are just so weird and wonderful that no matter how old you are when you’re reading them, they are always marvellous.”

Rich in detail and emotive power, each story in Baby Looking Out is essayed in such a matter-of-fact tone that it doesn’t take much to convince the reader that there are, indeed, little bats who love to fly kites and Irish elves in Cambodia who harangue spoilt Indian boys. In the same vein, the treatment of the struggles that the protagonists endure is shorn of melodrama; rather, it seems to suggest to the reader, with a companionable shrug, that such things happen, it’s all right. For generations of children raised on the strict moral messaging of Aesop’s Fables and the Panchatantra, such an accepting attitude on the part of a book is novel.

That’s not to say the characters in Mongia’s stories are bereft of ethics — rather, what makes them stand out is that they independently exercise their own moral vision, however flawed, for their own ends, the way children sometimes do.

“Kids have a sense of selfhood, which often children’s books and environments designed for them don’t take into account. It kills the kid’s spirit to be constantly curtailed,” she says, “so it was appealing to children that someone was able to tap into what wasn’t so good about them.” At certain instances, the stories offer insights on parenting and raising children as children and not mini-adults. Mongia smiles as she says, “Maybe parents do need to read this book.”

 

Baby Looking Out and Other Stories Padmini Mongia Yoda Press Fiction ₹350

 

Perhaps because the book refuses to remain within the limitations of the genre, Mongia had trouble finding a publisher who wouldn’t change her style and focus. Arpita Das, who heads Yoda Press, which published the book, says, “Mongia’s book falls into the category of books like Haroun and the Sea of Stories and Animal Farm. It can be read by adults and adolescents alike. For me, as a publisher who grew up reading age-inappropriate literature and loving it, what is really important is to challenge the reader.”

Kuriyan, whose illustrations reflect the unusual themes in the book, agrees. “I hadn’t read anything like it before, especially in children’s books. The tone is serious, there’s no effort to be cute or agreeable,” she says. “I tried to recreate the sense of nostalgia in the stories through the visuals and give a vintage feel to the book.”

Is there anything in particular that Mongia — who grew into the role of a writer of children’s books through years of telling stories to her nieces — would like the reader to be left with at the end of her book?

“Yes, a lot of laughter,” she says with a bright smile.

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Published on August 31, 2018
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