This cat’s out of the bag

Like all her books, Manjula Padmanabhan’s observations gets kids excited about details in Pooni at the Taj Mahal

July 14, 2017 07:58 pm | Updated 07:59 pm IST

Oh yay! Pooni the cat is back. And oh dear! She’s gone missing again. Writer-illustrator Manjula Padmanabhan is back with Pooni at the Taj Mahal, published by Tulika Books. Pooni the beloved green-eyed cat is the protagonist of a series of picture books, with the first one being, Where’s That Cat?

The idea for a series, says Padmanabhan, came from an earlier book, A Visit to the City Market, which had beenpublished by the National Book Trust India (NBT) in the 80s. “I had always wanted to draw a sequel to City Market but it wasn’t possible to find time to work on it,” she writes in an email. “My entire aim, in all three books — City Market and the two Pooni volumes —was to provide a framework within which I could draw scenes from real life. I am always keenly interested in recording life on the street, noticing things — and also, of course, deleting things! For instance, in Where’s That Cat ? I had to constantly ‘remove’ garbage from the scenes on the street.”

A good eye

Both the Pooni books are vivid and rich in detail, the first with street scenes, and the second with the Taj Mahal in Agra and the tourists who visit it. In Pooni and the Taj Mahal, as Minnie and her family explore the Taj, young readers get to see the monument from different perspectives, including a bird’s eye view. Padmanabhan takes a closer look at the people — there are women in pop-coloured ghagras, hippie international tourists, and of course, visitors taking selfies constantly! And it makes for a fantastic spotting book for children.

“With the current Pooni book, the greatest struggle was to figure out a way to include the Taj, without making the book look like a tourist brochure,” says Padmanabhan. “I am not skilled at drawing buildings in correct perspective. Believe me, these drawings are not correct: the angles are wrong, the scale is often wrong and I’ve left out more details than I’ve included.” Padmanabhan explains that at the very onset, she had decided that the monument would be impressionistic, as she wanted to focus on the people. “I wanted to create background characters who might seem to be actually talking or arguing or just sharing a joke so that a young reader might wonder: What is that person saying? And why are those people all wearing orange? Why is the cat running? Where is the cat?” she says.

Padmanabhan has written and illustrated children’s books, novels, plays, short-stories, and cartoons, and most grown-ups fondly know her as the creator of the comic strip Suki. “Everything I do feeds into everything else,” she says. “If my mind was a zoo, then all the different animals inside it — the cartoonist, the journalist, the playwright — they would not be in separate cages but would instead be roaming around, talking to one another. Those supposedly different parts of my work aren’t really different. I’m an artist and a writer. That’s all.”

Looking and seeking

Padmanabhan has a knack for capturing her observations on paper. She travelled a lot as a child and spent hours sitting inside cars, staring out of the window, looking at things. “I do really look around a lot,” she says. “I get car-sick when I’m in a moving vehicle, so I can’t read or do any work.” What makes Pooni a perfect picture book is that with very few words, Padmanabhan manages to elicit a range of emotions from the reader. You fret with Minnie as she looks for Pooni, you worry for the mischievous cat, you are happy when you spot her in the page somewhere. “For me, at least, drawing is a very conscious process, like doing a puzzle or working on an engineering problem,” she explains. “How to create a current of energy that flows smoothly from page to page? How to tell a story almost entirely through expressions and physical gestures? Since I am a cartoonist, I have a small advantage: I am used to drawing expressions.”

Padmanabhan’s books are really a celebration of diversity — of people, cultures, clothes, traditions, patterns. Something she says, she does not do consciously. “I think that’s just a general principle for me — I draw and write about things that interest me,” says the author. “I am always interested in ‘otherness’ — in people, animals, places and food(!) that’s unfamiliar. Outside India, whenever someone suggests going to an Indian restaurant I always beg to be taken anywhere else — because I already know what Indian food is like!”

Pooni at the Taj Mahal, Tulika Books is priced at ₹150.

The author writes about education for sustainable development, conservation, and food security and is the author of two children’s books, So You Want to Know About the Environment and What’s Neema Eating Today?

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