A meditative experience

Simran Luthra

“If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” – Toni Morrison

These words by Morrison purportedly serve as the inspiration for Priyadarshini, the author of Unsung Sheroes and Heroes and The Postwoman and Other Stories, and the books indeed come across as a labour of love and as unique in their own ways.

Unsung Sheroes and Heroes is a collection of 16 portraits of people she considers have made ‘small yet definite contributions’ even though they are considered to be unintelligent and without any skill. In essence, they are portraits of ordinary people. But the beauty of Priyadarshini’s eye (like that of any good writer) is that it elevates the ordinary to the extraordinary. She achieves this by zooming into their craft, the nuance, the skill, the complete focus, and absorption required to do the seemingly ordinary. This is quite in contrast to what a lot of children’s literature does when it tries to deliver amazing facts or fantastical stories to children.

While we wouldn’t bat an eyelid to think twice about the magic that takes place in the iron man’s shop or pay much attention to the wall painters whose skill is what renders the dull city or town walls a lot more appealing, Priyadarshini’s book is devoted exactly to such nondescript personalities. They are both individuals and also categories of occupations that have been relegated a marginal place in society. However, they aren’t obsolete either: each of them performs functions that still have immense value and require skill and finesse of a different nature.

Mehendi Artists, The Parotta Master, The Wig Makers, The Basket Weavers, The Coin Collectors, The Jasmine Flower Sellers are some of the portraits she paints in this wonderful book. Each portrait is about a page long, but Priyadarshini’s evocative use of the language makes it a rich reading experience, such that the reader emerges extremely satisfied at the end of each one, having gained an almost tactile sense of the work they do.

She also manages to evoke a variety of emotions in the reader ranging from wonder, awe, pity, respect for these heroes and also manages to infuse some thought-provoking social commentary. For instance, the portrait of the Palm Tree Climber ends with the words: “When people bought his jaggery, they did not see a man who had conquered the world. In fact, they saw nothing at all.”

Many of us would have had similar fleeting thoughts about the dexterity involved in simple occupations and indigenous crafts, but rarely do we dedicate much thought or time and dwell on them. Priyadarshini’s book allows us to do exactly that. It’s a celebration of the ordinary – of human skill and effort.

Her other book, The Postwoman and Other Stories is a collection of eight simple and charming short stories, meant to delight both children and adults. Each story begins with a quotation by an eminent personality, contains simple, colourful, line drawings, along with a story that is heart-warming in its own unique way.

The stories have a visceral quality owing to the power of description that Priyadarshini employs. The stories reflect simpler times where technology is almost conspicuous by its absence. The power of the stories is that they create a longing for the magic of simplicity and of closeness to nature as we see the characters spend considerable time observing and communing with nature or taking delight in things such as waiting for a letter or the magic of weaving a patchwork quilt or being curious about the sound of the ocean. So much so that the experience of reading the stories feels therapeutic.

The stories also show female characters with non-typical female jobs like those of a postwoman or a ferry keeper, which is refreshing. The world created in the stories is one where there is a palpable sense of community; a world in which relationships with ‘service-providers’ such as the soan-papdi man or the postwoman are easy, human, and meaningful. This is a world which is untouched by consumerism, one where working with one’s hands is valued. It makes the reading experience a slow, meditative, and nurturing one; an experience and perspective that is much-needed in the frenzied times we live in today, where technology and loss of human connection are becoming the norm.

Also noteworthy are the wonderfully articulated preface and introduction of both the books which are short, but deep and insightful for parents and teachers and help set the mood for reading both the books. She states in the preface of her short story book: ‘By the end of this book, I promise that you will feel a little more kindness and empathy in your hearts’, and indeed one is moved likewise.

I would highly recommend both of Priyadarshini’s books which are available on Amazon for a comforting read that can deeply enrich one’s experience of the extraordinary every day for both children and adults alike.

How can teachers/parents use these books?
Besides enjoying a meditative experience of reading the books for their own pleasure, teachers and parents can also use these books in creative ways with students of middle and high school. Here are a few ideas:
• Learners can read Unsung Sheroes and Heroes and use it as the starting point for a project to write their own portraits of people in different occupations who inspire them. Teachers can encourage learners to focus on indigenous crafts and traditions or keep it more open-ended.
• Learners can read The Postwoman and Other Stories and create their own picture story books. Older learners can write stories for younger learners.
• A collaborative project where younger learners read the stories written by older learners and add illustrations can also be undertaken.

Note: Priyadarshini Panchapakesan’s new book, The Myth of the Wild Gaur can be pre-ordered at https://paperlanternbooks.blogspot.com/2023/01/tmotwgpreorder.html?m=1.

The reviewer is based in Pune and is currently pursuing her PhD. in Education from TISS, Mumbai. She has completed her Masters in English from Jadavpur University and Masters in Education (Elementary) from TISS, Mumbai and taught Hindi at Stanford University, California while on a Fulbright fellowship. She is passionate about language, social studies education, human rights, gender, life skills and teacher education in particular. She can be reached at simranluthra@gmail.com.

Leave a Reply