Archive for August 6th, 2013

August 6, 2013

Junuka Deshpande, Night and Bhajju Shyam, Gita Wolf and Andrea Anastasio, Alone in the Forest

I read some children’s books.

(From this weekend’s column)


Fairy tales would have it that one of the more reliable ways of disposing of children is through the simple expedient of dumping them in a wood somewhere. This is what the parents of Hansel and Gretel do; it’s also how the Huntsman in the Snow White story reconciles his duty (he has been ordered by the queen to murder the girl) and his conscience. Both of these stories have happy endings—Snow White befriends and is helped by a group of dwarves, Hansel and Gretel are first enslaved by, then kill a powerful witch with an edible house. A story that does not have a happy ending is that of the Babes in the Wood in which children abandoned to die in the forest do actually die in the forest. Various versions of the story have them being tended to by robins or carried up to heaven, but whichever way you look at it it’s not a happy story. A child lost in a forest might have reason to be afraid, even if the more obvious dangers did not exist, had she been brought up on these tales.

Musa is the protagonist of Bhajju Shyam, Gita Wolf and Andrea Anastasio’s Alone in the Forest. We’re not told which stories he was brought up on, but as a boy living on the edge of the forest he’s probably aware of its various dangers. One day Musa volunteers to fetch firewood for his mother. He sets off into the forest quite happily, but some loud noises unnerve him. He ends up hiding in a hollow tree for a long time, all the while convinced that something awful is about to happen to him.

Alone in the Forest is a convincing account of fear as it might be experienced by a child or an adult. Publishers Tara Books frequently draw on folk traditions for their art, and Bhajju Shyam has adapted his Gond style to a number of high profile books in the past few years. Here, the style works perfectly. Colour is important; early on a two-page spread shows Musa about to enter the forest. All around him is light blue daylight. In contrast, the forest is dark and dingy. Darker, more muted greens, browns and maroons are used for all the forest scenes. Musa’s imagination, however, is in technicolour, with backgrounds of reds and oranges against which the dark purple wild boar stands out. Of course Musa reaches home safely and here again we have the colours of daylight and sunshine, with the domestic image of the cow and her calf (familiar to urban Indians as it’s painted on the back of every other truck).

By contrast, everything about Junuka Deshpande’s Night is muted. Deshpande’s book also has two children walking through a wood in the dark, but that is where the similarities between the two books end. Deshpande’s illustrations are entirely in black, white and grey with small patterns used to differentiate between different layers or textures. Here there is no underlying sense of fear—the two girls have arrived here by bus and will presumably depart that way, and there are cars on the nearby road. Instead the book looks with a sort of quiet awe at the sights and sounds of the forest at night; the “tap-tap” (or “khat-khat”; Tulika have presented the Hindi and English text side by side) of the woodpecker, the rustle of dry leaves, the stillness of deer and the glow of fireflies and the eyes of owls. Even when a tiger shows up there’s no panic; Deshpande’s style gives the whole a sense of unreality so that, no matter what, the girls are always safe.

Alone in the Forest evokes sympathetically a child’s terror of what might be out there. Night does the opposite, creating a quiet, safe world where we are free to wander and observe, lulling fear (this is a hushed, bedtime sort of book) to sleep.