In The Ammachi Puchi heavy themes give way to visceral words and illustrations
In Sharanya Manivannan and Nerina Canzi’s The Ammachi Puchi, we learn that when Aditya and Anjali were very little, they were a little afraid of their grandmother, Ammuchi. After all, she could kill mosquitoes with a quick slap and her betel nut juice stained mouth looked like she had been drinking blood. But their fear slips away as she becomes the teller of stories, nurturing their imagination and inviting them to step into fantastic worlds.
But then one day, Ammuchi dies, leaving them bereft, their world of stories less alluring. That’s when they see a butterfly — “big and beautiful, just like the brooch Ammuchi had given Anjali for her birthday” — and decide that this must be their Ammachi Puchi.
A powerful story about grief and loss, the book is a wonderful reminder about the magic of imagination. “I wrote The Ammuchi Puchi in 2010, a couple of years or so after my cherished grandmother passed away,” said Manivannan over email. “I was in my early 20s at this time, but I had been raised by my grandparents and so I grieved deeply. First, I wondered how I would have dealt had this happened when I was growing up, and then I began to wonder how children in general cope with grief. I believe that art has the power to heal, and this led me to try to write a story that could (I really hoped) help kids process the emotions of bereavement.”
Manivannan lives in Chennai, but grew up in Sri Lanka and Malaysia. While this is her first book for children, she’s also written two books of poetry, Witchcraftand The Altar of the Only World and the award-winning short story collection The High Priestess Never Marries. It’s not surprising then that The Ammuchi Puchi is a gorgeous read, despite its length. There’s a point when Amma comes out and looks at the butterfly, and Manivannan writes, “… her face crumpled like a dry flower”. Her writing is visceral — “And Ammuchi opened her red mouth in a laugh so big she could have swallowed any moon at all.”
Planet earth is a mainstay in the book and Manivannan explains, “Nature gives me so much solace, and where there are flowering plants, there are butterflies. The butterfly of course has numerous metaphysical meanings, of transformation especially. But those were not what I held in mind. Instead, there was this: for several weeks after my grandmother’s passing, butterflies found me everywhere [I went] . This was deeply comforting to me, and that is where the touch of magic in the book comes from.”
Worth the wait
Given the weighty theme and length of the book, Manivannan said that she had a hard time finding a publisher. “Because the story is heavy in themes and wordy, it does not fit a traditional picture-book format,” she pointed out. “It was rejected by an Indian publisher at the time and then it just sat idle in my laptop for several years. I met Alice Curry in London in 2015, when I was invited to perform at the Commonwealth Day Observance. She had just set up Lantana Publishing, an independent publishing house which focuses on cultural diversity, and asked me if I ever wrote for children. When I shared The Ammuchi Puchi with her, she decided to take a risk on the unusual format.” The book was published in the UK in October 2016, and has now been released in India by Puffin.
Also unusual is the choice of illustrator for such an Indian story. Nerina Canzi is an award-winning illustrator from Argentina. “From the moment I first saw them, I could no longer imagine The Ammuchi Puchi without Nerina Canzi’s illustrations,” said Manivannan. “I do believe things happen for a reason, and the wait of several years between writing this book and having it published (with some wait even then for the perfect illustrator) was worth it because it meant having Nerina as my collaborator.
She is based in Argentina and we essentially communicated over a Pinterest board, on which I shared landscapes, fabrics, architecture and other things that evoked South India. It was such a marvel to watch her spin the book visually page by page.”
Canzi’s work is luminous, and invites the read to linger on each page, taking in all the details. There’s a point in the story where the children are curled up in a sort of attic. Canzi’s piled that page with boxes, trunks, and knick-knacks, and your hand itches to open each box, letting their contents spill out on the floor. “Images, whether they are illustrations or photographs, have a power of their own,” said Manivannan. “So even when I was writing the story, knowing I wanted it to be a picture book meant that I knew that one day, pictures would expand and complete the story in a way that goes beyond words.” The prose and images come together to make The Ammuchi Puchi a read-aloud that is sure to resonate with children.
That’s something that Manivannan says is already happening. “What really thrills me is that children younger than the recommended age have enjoyed having the book read to them,” says the author. “This proves something which I strongly believe: that children are far more intuitive, perceptive and comprehending than adults credit them for.”
The Ammuchi Puchi, India Puffin, ₹199.