Books

This children’s book weaves a story around manual scavenging

A girl in a field of pink flowers, with a host of chubby little pigs lounging about — The cover of Puu (Scholastic India), a picture book for children conceptualised by CG Salamander and Samidha Gunjal, is bright and cheery. But surprisingly, the book has nothing to do with roses, clouds and unicorns as one would expect. Instead, Puu unearths the issue of manual scavenging and brings it to the reach of children.

And how is this story told? Through a day in the life of a girl who is ostracised from society because of this very reason. The word ‘puu’ here becomes a double-edged sword — a play on the Tamil word for ‘flower’ and the English word for, well, poo..

On World Book Day — a humid Monday morning — the author and illustrator were met with a host of enthusiastic schoolgoers, evidently prepared and waiting to outsmart one another with questions at Goethe-Institut/Max Mueller Bhavan. Interesting questions were thrown at the authors incessantly, many of which sought answers for the real problem of manual scavenging and its long-term effects. This healthy dialogue is exactly what the authors wanted to achieve through Puu. As Salamander, city-based children’s books author puts it, “Someone has to start talking about it. And children are the ones who are sceptical, unafraid to throw you questions, so it should start from here.” Samidha adds, “Our aim was bring out a conversation starter between children and parents, or children and teachers.”

This children’s book weaves a story around manual scavenging

The story follows a resilient young girl, whose parents “pick flowers” for a living. The plotline, which has various layers, deals with not just the stigma associated with manual scavenging and the adverse effects of it, but other concepts such as bullying and colour and gender discrimination.

The text was written by Salamander as and when illustrations by Sumidha took form. Puu was born out of a workshop in Shantiniketan called ‘Children Understand More’ for illustrators and writers, where both were asked to ideate and actualise a book for children which read against the grain — a book that need not play it safe. The duo says that they had no restrictions regarding what kind of content was expected of them.

The idea itself, however, struck Salamander while working on a journalistic piece (illustrated by Rajiv Eipe) in 2014-15 on manual scavenging, which was targeted at an adult audience. “We did use flowers as a metaphor there as well, and I was expecting quite a bit of outrage. But nobody seemed to care.” This also led to the realisation that children has a greater sense of injustice than adults, who seem more likely to accept and move on.

As in any book, the story invariably takes the fore in those for a younger audience. “The text and the illustrations have to be open to interpretation. There is no point in being direct with children. We wanted them to read it and reread it, and come up with more questions each time,” says Pune-based Sumidha. But, is their approach to writing affected by the increased skepticism of children? “I think skepticism is great. It means that they have their finger on the pulse. They have no inhibitions, they look at nuances and they might even insult you,” he laughs, “Some parents shelter their kids to the point that they don’t expose them to anything. But surprisingly, it was very different at this event.”

Goethe-Institut also organises a Library Summer Challenge till July 30, where readers of all ages are required to fill up challenge sheets and receive prizes. Specific details will be available at 28331645. Registrations can be done in the library of Goethe-Institut, Rutland Gate, Chennai.


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Printable version | Oct 16, 2021 1:35:32 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/childrens-book-about-manual-scavenging/article26922711.ece

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