Of love, loss and longing

Love for beautiful words Sharanya Manivannan  

One year after losing my father, I showed my son a photo of his grandad as a young man. He turned away sharply saying, “I’m not ready for this yet.” His reaction was what I was thinking of when reading Sharanya Manivannan’s Ammuchi Puchi, a gorgeously illustrated tale of children dealing with the death of a beloved grandmother.

The Ammuchi Puchi by Sharanya Manivannan and Nerina Canzi

The Ammuchi Puchi by Sharanya Manivannan and Nerina Canzi  

Though the book has just been released, Manivannan — who has published novels, short stories and poetry — says the story was written in 2010. “When I wrote it, I had only published one book of poems. I am now the author of four books, with a fifth on the way. I was grieving my own grandmother at the time, and wondered what losing her as a child may have been like. This led to pondering whether children are well-supported in their bereavements even now, and how art can play a role in helping them,” she says.

The book was published in 2016 in the UK and now in India by Puffin. She chose the picture book to be her first children’s book because “first, picture books are beautiful, and among my own favourite genres to read. Second, I wanted to write for children who can read to themselves but still want shorter stories as well as pictures.”

Also not many people talk to children about bereavement. But Manivannan feels that adults do them an injustice by not addressing their emotions. She points out that many children encounter death when still young and so “it is necessary to acknowledge their grief and help them process it gently.” While she was careful not to talk down to her readers, “I actually wound up with a problem as a result — when I first wrote the story, I was told by a publisher that it was in an unorthodox format — a picture book which was sort of wordy and with a very heavy theme.”

The resolution comes with an element of magic, which she admits was a conscious choice. “I also kept what happens ambiguous, because kids should be able to understand that there are differing perceptions, and that’s okay. The parents don’t quite accept the magical events. The kids have a particular way of handling their grief, which baffles and upsets their parents. The story tries to gently bring their viewpoints together.”

Speaking of the book brings me to the title. When I point out that Ammuchi Puchi is Tamil, she asks, “Didn’t my generation and the one before it grow up reading about the Turkish delight that the children of Narnia ate, and be able to imagine it? I’ve never feared that readers cannot understand my language, whether that’s a smattering of Tamil or an obscure English word. This is how we speak, and how we think, and our books should reflect our conversations and our inner worlds, and the more beautifully the better.”

Scenes from the book

Scenes from the book  

Scenes from the book

Scenes from the book  

She’s thrilled about the way Nerina Canzi’s illustrations bring her prose to life, even though the two have never met. Manivannan writes: “We didn’t know that Ammuchi would be in hospital on my tenth birthday. She was in hospital for two whole weeks. And then she died.” The page is in shades of grey and the two kids cling to each other as do the parents. The aura of grief is palpable. “Nerina is based in Argentina and people have been stunned by how she evoked South India, a landscape she doesn’t know — all through a Pinterest board we shared!” explains Manivannan. “The collaboration happened because Lantana Publishing, the book’s first publisher, connects writers and illustrators of different cultures to create diverse literature for children.”

While she hopes to do more picture books, with strong female characters like Ammuchi, she wishes she “had books like these when I was a child. What a difference it would have made to me to read the books that are being published now. They are so full of familiarity, diversity, and also surprise. I feel like kids today actually get a chance to see themselves and their surroundings in these books. Whether that’s the incorporation of socially-conscious (not moralistic) messaging, or names and faces like our own, or multilingual publications, children’s literature in India is so rich at the moment.”

Ask about her favourite books, she says, it’s hard to pick. “I read widely across genres. I love beautiful sentences, and beautiful verses, and beautiful pictures equally.”

Write side

Her process of writing “depends entirely on what I’m writing. When I write for pleasure, I do so only when the muse visits me. I wrote The Ammuchi Puchi over a couple of hours one afternoon, eight years ago. But I’ve also been trying to write a novel (a different one from my novel that will be published later this year) for over a dozen years. Go figure! Something I really enjoy having is plants within my sight as I write, all the more so when they are plants I tend to myself.

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Printable version | Dec 2, 2021 7:17:09 PM |

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