Bombay Showcase

A monkey with a special gift

The jacket of Mambi and the Forest Fire .— Photo: Special arrangement  

Nandana Dev Sen is a woman with diverse talents. Last seen playing artist Raja Ravi Varma’s muse in the film Rang Rasiya , she is back with a book for children, titled Mambi and the Forest Fire .

Published by Puffin India, Sen’s new project is about the adventures of a monkey called Mambi and her journey of self-discovery. It grew out of Sen’s work with Sanlaap, an NGO in West Bengal that runs shelter homes called Sneha for children rescued from trafficking.

“The story came into my life while working with a bunch of kids in Narendrapur,” says Sen. “I was doing a workshop with them, using art as a way to heal. The trauma they experienced had crushed much of their self-esteem. When I asked them what they were good at, they all pointed to someone other than themselves who was better than them. I needed to find a way to get across to them. That is when Mambi was invented. She is a shy monkey with a lot of self-doubt, who turns out to be the bravest of all animals in the forest.”

As the children at Sneha warmed up to Mambi, Sen invited them to add characters to the story. From being passive listeners, they turned into fellow storytellers. The plot needed some conflict for the dramatic tension to build up, so they came up with the idea of a forest fire. They also began to brainstorm on a special quality that each animal in the forest would have.

“A lack of self-esteem can be a huge barrier,” says the author, on the sidelines of an interactive session with students at Vibgyor High School in Borivali, Mumbai. “This could be related to a disability, or being a quirky child who just likes to do things differently. Or being a boy who likes to read books that are seen as girls' books. A child might be great at art but the parent might want her to be good at math. There is a lot of pressure on children to conform. It is important to help them discover something precious inside them, to embrace it, and to not want to be like everyone else.”.

Sen was raised on a sumptuous feast of books. In addition to folk tales from India, Russia and China, she enjoyed reading Sukumar Ray’s Abol Tabol and Ha Ja Ba Ra La , Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland , AA Milne’s Winnie the Pooh , and several books by Dr Seuss.

When she was only 12, she began reading classics by Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy and Jane Austin. Some of these are books that she continues to revisit even today.

“I was inspired by the form of the fable, which I encountered in Hitopadesha and Panchatantra as well as Chinese trickster monkey stories,” explains Sen. “However, I would not call Mambi and the Forest Fire a fable. It does talk about themes such as celebrating diversity, finding your own voice, and helping others in need. However, it does not hammer morals down a child’s throat. I believe that stories should use fantasy to sensitise children but not preach to them.”

At the school in Borivali, Sen has a hall full of students from kindergarten right up to class three, engrossed in her words. She invites them to jump like monkeys, caw like crows, and swish their imaginary tails. The room is crackling with laughter and applause. The teachers look as excited as the students. A toddler wants to know about Mambi’s parents.

Sen tells him, “Mambi grew up without parents. Some children, just like Mambi, do not have parents. They have to find other ways of taking care of themselves. They are surrounded by friends who love them.” This is Sen’s second book for children. The earlier one, titled Kangaroo Kisses , was written entirely in verse. It took shape from her observations of her young niece who would make up creative excuses every time her mother tried hard to get her to sleep.

Mambi and the Forest Fire will launch this evening Kitab Khana, Fort. Time: 5.30 pm to 6.30 pm.

The author is a freelance writer

Mambi is a shy monkey with a lot of self-doubt, who turns out to be the bravest of all animals

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Printable version | Jun 19, 2021 5:43:55 AM |

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