This is a story about balance. A tree and a road learn to reconcile with each other, the title of the book repeats itself (“Out of the Way! Out of the Way!”), and it has been created by two Uma Ks — one a Krishnaswami, the writer, and the other a Krishnaswamy, the illustrator.
“Yes, this is a story about dualities,” said Uma Krishnaswami. But it didn't start out that way. “At first, it was either the tree or the road. Radical, in-your-face. And at some point, I had a massive manuscript that read like the Greenpeace manifesto,” she says. “At that point, I gave up. Stories have their own journey, quite disparate from what the author wants — so I let it become what it wanted to be.”
Bursting with colours
And what it became — a book with sparse cobwebs of text, amidst a riotously colourful tree, with blue bids swooping along the edges of pages, with footprints and bullock carts and cars on the road.
“The pictures grow as the story grows,” says Uma Krishnaswamy, who has been illustrating children's books for over two decades.
Krishnaswami, an award-winning author of several children's books, now lives in northwest New Mexico, where she teaches writing. “In the last few years of my father's life, every time we met, he'd ask, ‘Shall I tell you a story?' This book grew out of one of the little ones he told me — about people protesting potholes in the road by planting trees in them.”
Young at heart
Theatre artiste Hans Kaushik, who was at the launch to retell the story in his own way, demanded to know how many children there were in the audience. Many hands went up. Mostly 40-, 50-, 60- and even 70-year-old hands. “Excellent!” he laughed. Then he, and let's say, some of the slightly younger children brought the story to life — they became mango sellers, impatient cyclists, hungry squirrels and parakeets, flycatchers that dashed out in hunting parties, noisy motorbikes and the soothing evening breeze.
Tulika, which celebrates 15 years of children's books, has, like always, released the book in nine languages. “And, each translation has its own voice and life,” said Krishnaswami. “This is a story about why a messy co-existence is a possibility. The road is allowed to grow, but the tree remains as well.” But does she believe the middle road is always possible? “No, I suppose not. If your air, your water, your soil and your people are being sacrificed, then no. It has to go.”
She's clear about one other thing. “Children's writing is one of the hardest to do — there's no room for self indulgence. Children don't appreciate gratuitous cleverness. They have no literary pretensions. No qualms about shutting a book and walking away. They're as honest an audience as you will ever find.” Krishnaswamy agrees. “Some of my most savage critics have been children. ‘I don't think this picture works', they say, ruthlessly!” she laughs. “They pay more attention to the pictures than you'd think.”
This is the first of Krishnaswami's works to be originally printed in India, and she's delighted. Krishnaswamy adds: “There's no moral here. No kings, no castles, not even a hero or a villain. To tell a story without any major players is hard, but wonderful,” she smiles.