Thursday, December 15, 2016

On Gone Grandmother

Author Chatura Rao writes about the launch of Gone Grandmother.

I took Gone Grandmother to the Peek-a-Book Children's Literature Festival that was held in Bandra, Mumbai, on December 10th, 2016. It was my first public reading of this recently-released picture book for 6+ readers.

It is a story about the passing of a beloved grandmother. I hoped the children might respond to it in their characteristic way - with wisdom, humour and empathy. This is not the first tale of loss that I've explored with children. About Grandfathers and Trees is a starkly beautiful story about losing a grandfather, written by my sister Adithi Rao for our short story collection, Growing Up in Pandupur. I've read this story with children at creative writing workshops. They've received it with wonder.

I read out Gone Grandmother at the Peek-a-Book fest, only a little nervous. About forty adults and children had assembled. The children ranged from under-tens to 14-year-olds, the latter from the Allana English School in Kurla.

While I read, a volunteer projected slides showing Krishna Bala Shenoi's vibrant illustrations. The children listened quietly, almost sorrowfully, when I told them how Nina's grandmother - her Nani - had left suddenly one day. They seemed to understand how lonely Nina felt while skipping now that Nani, who used to count her skips, was gone. They giggled at the lists Nina made - Ways to Get to the Stars and Ways to Find God's Home. They appreciated Krishna Shenoi's simple line drawings that accompanied these lists, drawings that they might have made themselves, had they been Nina!

As the story drew to a close, I explained that in nature everything comes to an end: trees wither, rivers empty and dry up, even mountains crumble to dust. True? The children nodded wisely. I was aware that although we were of various religious faiths there in that room, and each religion explains death a little differently from the other, natural science is common to us all.

I explained how I came to write this story: when my grandmother passed away last February, a child in the family had asked her mother where Nani had gone. To the stars, her mother had replied. The little girl wanted to know how that was even possible, given that Nani was no featherweight!

If I could make a story based on a loved one and an incident, couldn't my young readers do it too? Immediately five or six children raised their hands, eager to tell about a favourite person in their lives and what happened ''one time'' with that person.

A little girl called Misha told about her turtle, Mitch, who eats a lot.

Ananya told about her best friend who once drew random circles that Ananya laughed at, but which, surprisingly, grew into a piece of art that their teacher put up for all to see.

One tiny girl took the mic and simply stated that her grandma had died in a car accident before she ever knew her and that her mother hadn't told her any stories about her yet.

Then, bespectacled, shyly smiling Fauzia from Allana English School, stood up. ''I was very close to my grandfather,'' she said slowly. ''He would drink cold water although the doctor had said he should not. I knew about this, though nobody else did. A few hours before he had the heart attack that took him, he drank cold water. I didn't tell anyone...'' A shadow darted across her face.

Are you sorry or glad you didn't tell? I prodded gently.

''A bit of both,'' she replied, smiling a little sadly. ''It was our secret till the end.''

With that line Fauzia's incident became a story for us, her listeners. And perhaps a story to help her begin to make sense of the feelings all mixed up in her.

In the face of loss all we can really do is gather the memories, spread them out and play with them for a time. We reinvent them as stories in the glow of love remembered. The children I met made the shift from memory to story quite easily. Discussing Gone Grandmother with them was truly a special experience, a generous sharing.

I hope Gone Grandmother reaches plenty of small ears, and the pages of this book are marked by many sets of little fingerprints in time to come!

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