Tucked away in Madhya Pradesh is Bhimbetka, a cluster of rock paintings that date back centuries. Here, it’s easy to step back in time and imagine our ancestors painting their everyday life and sharing stories about animals and battle scenes. I couldn’t help but think about the awe-inspiring Bhimbetka as I read Ammachi’s Glasses (Tulika Books), a wordless picture book by Priya Kuriyan. The book is a reminder that sometimes you just don’t need words to tell a story. As the old saying goes, “a picture is worth a thousand words” sometimes.
In the book, Ammachi wakes up one morning and is found stumbling, bumbling, and tumbling through the day. She trips over the dog, cooks a pair of blue-and-white slippers, and what not! Why? Because she can’t find her glasses. It certainly creates quite a to-do in the family’s life. And offers multiple moments of hilarity for the reader. Kuriyan’s book is steeped in humour and detail. Every re-reading reveals some delightful feature that you may have missed or makes you appreciate the little nuances that have been added. Whether it’s the bewildered faces of the family members, the furniture and photographs in the house, or the ubiquitous crow in the background, it all adds to the reading experience.
“Three years back, I was at a SCWBI [Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators] workshop on making picture books that Anushka Ravishankar [author and publisher] and Suddhasattwa Basu [illustrator] we conducting. We were sitting together and discussing picture books, and we came up with this story. At that time, I did it with words, lots of words,” said Kuriyan, one of India’s most beloved illustrator. She then sent it Tulika Books in Chennai who came back with some interesting feedback. They felt that perhaps the words were not working, and to think about a wordless book. Kuriyan, who was trying her hand at rhymes for the story, happily took the advice. In between her regular projects, it took Kuriyan a while to sit down with the book. But things sped up when she moved to Kochi from Delhi, and was able to finish the final art work in six months.
Kuriyan said that Ammachi is a lot like her father’s mother. Her sister and she lived with their grandmother for two years in Kerala, and that’s when they had the closest interaction with her. “Before moving to Kerala with my parents, my grandmother stayed in Ranchi,” said Kuriyan. “She always wore the same costume — she was a figure in white [much like the grandma in the book]. She’s like this comic book character who never change their clothes, like Calvin from Calvin and Hobbes is always in a stripped T-shirt. I have never seen her wear anything else apart from that. There was something about her appearance that made her perfect to be created in this character.”
Little quirks and foibles make the book wondrous. For instance, Kuriyan recalled that her grandmother used to hate the family cat. “She would try to scare it,” she said. “Once she tried on to pounce on the cat and she fell.” In the book, Ammachi trips over the family dog, while the cat laughs away.
Of course, the book is also very local to Kerala, from the house to the food to the clothes. The story is based on a Malayalam saying, said Kuriyan, about how when something is missing, you tell that kids that the crow took it away. Many little things come from Kuriyan’s memory of houses there. “It’s a Christian household,” she pointed out. “There’s always a Last Supper painting hanging in the dining room. Then, I have seen my parents reading only The Hindu newspaper [it’s The Hindooo in the book].” Of course, Ammachi is a bit pretentious as well, she reads existential authors only — you have to read the book to find out about the pun Kuriyan has tucked in there.
Much like reality
Nature is inherent to Kuriyan’s work. In one page you see a tree. Then you see a close-up of little white flowers and fruits, and then suddenly, you realise it as a mango tree. “I like painting lots of leaves and flowers, I find it very calming,” she explained. “I think kids should see nature in books, or they won’t know stuff like this. Showing a mall would be so boring. Also, nature is disappearing outside, it will be sad if it disappears from books also.”
What Kuriyan also gets right is just how older people are often uninhibited about their clothes or behaviour. “If you see older people, they are very comfortable, they don’t care who is watching,” she said. The book’s pages are strewn with everyday items such as a football and toaster, but also underwear. As Kuriyan says, “it is normal to see these things around you such as clothes strewn around. I don’t think anyone hides clothes from each other. What’s a bathroom without bra and underwear?”
Kuriyan’s recently made an appearance on Instagram, and it’s evident from there how much of her work is down to her keen observation sense. In the book, the mother has to run out to curtail an Ammachi-related emergency. She’s wearing a nightie, “with a dupatta draped over her, as strange men are around,” points out Kuriyan. Much like many of the women we are used to seeing. “Nuanced things make a difference, that’s what kids see. They would relate to it, I think,” she added.
More than words
Another breakaway from the picture book norm is that the story is not linear, rather it is cyclical, full of mystery and suspense. And all told without words. Wordless picture books often confound some grown-ups who don’t see how such a book aids in learning, one big reason to buy a book in the first place. But these books are a treasure trove of detail — whether it’s Flotsam by David Wiesner, which takes children into the underwater world as well as science, history, and documentation. Or The Arrival by Shaun Tan which tells the story of survival and industrialisation, through the eyes of an immigrant.
“One great thing about wordless book is that there’s no text,” said Kuriyan. “There’s nothing to tell you that the story on this page has ended. No one is telling you that now it’s time to turn the page. You can take as much time as you want on one spread. The vocabulary is also yours, not someone else’s. Perhaps it’s a nice way to getting kids to talk about what’s happening.”