Viji Venkatesh, through her book Maximo and the Big C, tries to inspire hope in children fighting the fear of a cancer diagnosis

“Big ‘C’ stands for cancer,” said Viji Venkatesh, author of Maximo and the Big C, getting ready for an audience interaction at Landmark, Citi Centre. At the end of her reading session she would have readily agreed to this addition: “small ‘c’ stands for “cute”, seeing how her young listeners made the short event lively with their cute quotient. Holding the reading among children's books lent it a special aura, said Viji.

Support group

Viji and her group of green T-shirt clad “warriors” belong to a cancer support group Friends of Max, whose day job includes counselling cancer patients, conducting awareness meetings, inviting eminent oncologists to speak to patients and caregivers, and now gathering parents and kids for book-reading sessions. Aren't visits to children's wards heartbreaking? “But children are wonderfully accepting,” Viji countered. “One kid who had lost her hair to chemo said she liked my hairstyle, quite matter-of-factly. They factor all problems associated with the disease into their psyche.” When a “dear friend” — cancer survivor and co-advocate — Maria Isabelle came up with the nucleus of the story and narrated ten introductory lines, Viji knew she had to write it into a children's book. “Friend Fan in Malaysia did the illustrations, put jaan into the narrative.”

The story is about Maximo, a large-hearted sparrow who is too weak to fly, and prefers to stay back when his siblings take off into the sky. But when a baby bird falls from its nest and is in danger of becoming a cat's dinner, Maximo finds his wings. He makes a quantum leap, swoops down and saves the “birdling”, leaving behind a very annoyed cat. He is the Dabangg chidiya, said Viji, a reference to actor Salman Khan who is underwriting the cost of 5,000 autographed books. “A young patient asked if I had brought actor Khan with me. I said he was inside every book,” she said. The book will be printed in most Indian languages.

Uplifting tool

There is no mention of cancer in the book. “I didn't feel the need for it,” said Viji. “If the reader takes it to stand for cancer, that's acceptable. If not, it can just be the Big Cat.” The press release said “Maximo and the Big C is a story of hope and courage that illustrates a child’s inner power to overcome the fear of a cancer diagnosis and provides an uplifting tool to engage children in expressing their feelings.”

Listening to the story, I wondered if kids would need a certain level of language mastery to follow phrases like “one fell swoop”, “back of the beyond”, “petrified into inaction” but I needn't have worried. Words became irrelevant with Viji's wonderful capacity to engage with kids, Fan's brilliant graphics and the kids' exuberant participation. The question what their mission in life would be got answers such as “watchman” and “dancer” to which Viji added a response she got in a cancer hospital: “The kid said she wanted to be HOD of Medical Oncology. She wanted to give suggestions on how to make the hospital a happier place.” As it to take the weight off that moment, a tiny one piped up, “What do I want? I want a pizza now!”