Adolescence in conflict zones: an illustrated children’s book by Priya Sebastian

‘Is It The Same For You?’ paints an intimate portrait about growing up in a fragile part of the world

Updated - July 29, 2020 03:17 pm IST

Published - July 28, 2020 03:57 pm IST - Chennai

Priya Sebastian

Priya Sebastian

The 20-page book is set in a place where darkness and light curl around adolescence, where rain-rinsed peaks lance blue skies and life gleams through the silence of curfewed streets.

With its beautiful illustrations and spartan text, Is It The Same For You? (published by Seagull Books) weaves a fine mesh of domestic intimacy and political happenings through the eyes of an adolescent girl in a place where life has been thrown out of gear.

Priya Sebastian, a 50-year-old Bengaluru-based illustrator, and Neha Singh, a Mumbai-based writer, are the troubadours of this story of a girl in a blighted land who has just had her first period. “This is my first picture book, a culmination of my 23 years as an illustrator,” says Priya over phone.

The book cover of Is it the Same For You?

The book cover of Is it the Same For You?

The 12 illustrations in the book are the result of a long, arduous journey for Priya who came to Fine Arts after a detour to Science. “I grew up in the ‘80s when Fine Arts was not considered a career. As an act of desperation, I joined the local art college but it mentally and creatively amputated me. I began work in a design agency where my boss had brought back these catalogues from the Bologna book fair. For the first time I chanced upon illustration with art and literature combined. I left for the Queensland College of Art in Australia for my Master’s. My teacher, well-known Swiss illustrator Armin Greder made me unlearn and set me on a new path. I finished with a firm foundation in classic illustration, learning to shade with a blunt instrument like charcoal instead of the finer pencil shading. It made me think in terms of shape, learn how to convey emotion and hone imagination and creativity unconstrained by realism. I re-acquired my childhood spontaneity.”

Illustration by Priya Sebastian

Illustration by Priya Sebastian

When she returned to India she taught web designing for a while and worked as an editorial illustrator for publications such as The Indian Quarterly, Verve and Caravan . “I wanted to do a picture book but I searched for a long time to find a series of images I could relate to. I chanced upon a Goethe-Institut workshop on children’s books being held in Santiniketan. The focus was on ‘Children Understand More’ and that’s where I met Neha who wrote the story of a young girl growing up in a conflict-ridden zone. I was happy to have got the book in its raw stage,” says Priya.

Is It The Same For You? with cover design by Sunandini Bannerjee follows the arc of a picture book — words are minimal. “In this case, Kashmir is never mentioned as the location. It gives it a certain universality and can be situated anywhere in the world — Palestine, Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan. It looks at how you relate to conflict within the home, not necessarily outside. So there is the commonality of the absent father, preoccupied mother, lack of food and the neglected girl child. My challenge was how to relate to someone in a conflict zone, say like Kashmir, when one lived in the relative peace of the South.”

Universal theme  Pages from  Is It The Same For You ?; (left) Illustrator Priya Sebastian

Universal theme Pages from Is It The Same For You ?; (left) Illustrator Priya Sebastian

For awareness

The book written predominantly for young adults and published in December 2019 has also been used by NGOs to talk to younger children about the different strands of life in these zones. It opens with the lines: “The day they found my brother with a blood stain, I found one on my kurta too, but no one noticed mine,” that is illustrated with the powerful imagery of a fragile purple crocus held near the girl’s womb. The story explores a sleepover because of curfew, the different feeling of wearing a scarf for her when compared to her male cousin, singing songs of hope while bombs explode outside, the teenage emotion of missing a boy, the smell of hairy sweaty armpits mingling with tear gas and burning tyres, and the explorative touching of a growing body “full of surprises, happy ones, scary ones. Just like some days in my town are full of surprises, happy ones, scary ones...”

The girl with brown eyes and rosebud lips leaps from the darkness of the charcoal and dry pastel backgrounds of Priya’s illustrations on Arches paper. “This is my moody atmospheric style using light glowing in the dark to give hope. That is the symbolism I aim for.”

The book deals with larger issues of terrorism while addressing the struggles of accepting a changing body. It is also a love letter to the little people of a land wrapped in a shawl of war and waiting.

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