Chintan Girish Modi
It is rare to find a children’s book that addresses both grief and joy with sincerity and without over-simplification. Thammi’s Gift, a book written by Himani Dalmia and illustrated by Priya Kuriyan, made a place in my heart as soon as I read it. Published by HarperCollins India, it draws inspiration from the life of librarian Bandana Sen who was the author’s mother-in-law.
I learnt from this book that Sen, who passed away in 2018, began her career working at the American International School in Kolkata. She later managed libraries at the American Embassy School in New Delhi for almost 40 years, and moved on to set up libraries at Pathways School across the National Capital Region (NCR). She did this for 12 years.
When Sen passed away, the author and her husband – Akash – were shattered. They wondered how their daughters – Devika and Yamini – would cope with the loss. One of them was four years old, and the other was two and a half when their beloved grandmother died. Dalmia decided to write a book in memory of her mother-in-law. She writes, “One of the starkest reminders of our bereavement was the library in our nursery – a vast and gorgeous collection that was actually larger than anything I could have dreamed of on my own”.
Thammi’s Gift is a celebration of Sen’s life, the joys of reading and the bond between grandparents and grandchildren. Dalmia’s daughter Devika is a character in the book, along with Sen. The girl dreams of her grandmother and they read together. Thammi tells her, “When you need me, I will be here. To play with you, to talk to you, to do anything you like”. Thammi even takes Devika to the greatest library in the galaxy. It’s on the moon.
The book grew out of an article that Dalmia wrote for the “Publishing and the Pandemic” series curated by Kanishka Gupta for Scroll.in. Titled “The home library my mother-in-law built for her grandchildren has been their greatest lockdown joy,” it was published in 2020.
Thammi’s Gift offers children an opportunity to honour their departed loved ones in creative ways. They may not have had grandparents who left behind a legacy of over 1500 books like Sen did but they must have other kinds of inheritances to cherish – stories, memories, toys, clothes, photographs, recipes, etc. It is also a useful resource for adults who are so overwhelmed with their own feelings that they do not know how to support children.
The book would not be as impactful without the captivating illustrations – Thammi reading to her pregnant daughter-in-law and new-born granddaughter, Devika riding a unicorn, Thammi performing a puppet show for Devika, Thammi ferrying Devika across the night sky on her back, adults and children engrossed in books at the greatest library in the galaxy, and more.
Thammi’s Gift also addresses the fear that children feel when they are about to start school. Parents often scold children and rush them into embracing this milestone but things are not as easy as they seem to be. Children have to cope with uncertainty when they step into a new space, and do not have familiar faces to see or arms to run into for hugs. Ms Varma, one of the characters in the book, is a teacher who understands this and goes the extra mile to make children feel comfortable. This book has much to offer, not only to children but also adults.
We bring you an interview with Himani Dalmia.
Could you tell us about your first interaction with Bandana Sen and what struck you? What was her presence like in a library? It would be great to hear some anecdotes.
My husband – Akash – and I knew each other in high school. I first met his mother at their home when I was 15. She was always visually striking with her stately, museum-quality silver jewellery and signature handloom saris. She had a direct and no-nonsense way of speaking, getting to the point and never really sugar-coating her words. I visited the American Embassy School library in Delhi a few months later and then quite a few times during my undergrad studies in English Literature at St Stephen’s College. I found critical essays and other resources at their high school library for my studies at the college-level. Her presence in the library was of calm ownership. The library was like an extension of her. The staff, teachers, children, parents all knew her, respected her and seemed to buzz around her.
How have her work and way of thinking informed your approach to reading and parenting?
What she and I had in common from the very beginning was a love for literature and the arts. We would often talk about books or classical music or art. She had an extremely busy social and cultural calendar, attending every recital, exhibition, reading or festival of note in the city. It was inspiring to me as a young woman coming into my own and trying to balance the pulls and pushes of careers, family, social, and intellectual life. One could not help but feel intellectually alive and stimulated in her presence.
I think that her greatest gift to me as a reader was definitely the children’s literature that she introduced me to when I became a mother. I would probably not have picked up children’s picture books on my own but what a loss that would have been! This genre is high literature. The authors and illustrators are masters of their craft. I don’t think I will ever outgrow them!
Where parenting is concerned, she supported and nurtured the path that my husband and I were on, while never intruding on our approach with any conflicting views. She was absolutely smitten by her grandchildren, often saying, “I didn’t know I could fall in love in my seventies but then I became a grandmother”. My husband and I are very hands-on, high touch, “attachment” parents and, given that she was so obsessed with her grandchildren, she encouraged our extremely responsive style. I read parenting books and articles by the dozen and I would often share snippets or full articles with her. She would always read with interest, share her views, discuss with me. My approach has always been to read a lot and inform myself about the art and science of parenting, and thereafter follow my instincts, which is something that she appreciated. I felt supported and encouraged in this by her.
Of course, her greatest contribution remains the reading culture and legacy she created for our daughters – Devika and Yamini – which is irreplaceable and unparalleled in its power.
Would you mind describing how the article for Scroll.in transformed into this book? How did your agent Kanishka Gupta and Tina Narang – your editor at HarperCollins India – help you craft this book into its present form?
I was surprised and delighted by the response that the Scroll.in article on our home library received within my parenting networks, online parenting communities, and the literary fraternity at large. The idea of creating a picture book around it was mine. When I pitched it to Kanishka, he loved it and was encouraging. Tina understood the crux of the idea – the story’s emotional core, the power of the library trope, and the fascinating character Thammi’s persona would create. Her incisive editorial comments were in sync with my thought process.
Before Thammi’s Gift, you wrote the novel Life is Perfect and co-wrote a parenting guide called Sleeping Like a Baby with Neha Bhatt. How different was the writing process when children became your target audience? What challenges did you face?
It was different because, with children, the word count has to be low. One has to communicate simultaneously through text and pictures. I was fortunate to have a partner as skilled and experienced as Priya Kuriyan. I have always loved her work, and she was the first person who came to mind when I thought of an illustrator. Kanishka and Tina both agreed from the get go and all three of us were right. Priya has wrought magic with her illustrations, capturing Thammi’s essence perfectly and creating a world of wonder for little readers. I was also able to work through Thammi’s Gift because I imagined my children as the audience.
What did Devika and Yamini think of this book? Did you incorporate their feedback?
We actually didn’t reveal it to Devika until we received a fairly complete draft with illustrations and to Yamini until after publication. We wanted them to see the final product. This book is a personal story for them and we felt they wouldn’t respond to it from an objective, literary perspective and hence did not really seek their feedback. They enjoy it but also take it in their stride, as innocent kids take most things! Devika is often exasperated about explaining to her schoolmates that she did not actually take a trip to the moon!
What was it like to work with Priya? Which books of hers have you enjoyed reading with your children? Did you and Tina have a brief for her? Was there an art director working with the three of you? Did Priya and Bandana know each other?
Priya’s illustrations always stood out to me amongst the books in our collection. My kids and I have really enjoyed books like Princess Easy Pleasy, Ammachi’s Glasses, and Zakir and his Tabla, amongst others that she has illustrated. Kanishka introduced me to Priya and it turned out that she had met and known Thammi. She was enthusiastic about this book project, and it was an honour and a privilege that she agreed to join hands with me on it.
Working with Priya was like a dream. I included an illustration brief with every page of text, but I also let her know that she could use that as a starting point and then had complete artistic license to imagine the story as she wished. I also told her that, the only person I wished to be “accurate” was Thammi – from her trademark saris and silver jewellery, down to her LeSportsac bag and Birkenstock shoes. Everyone else could be universal characters or depicted as she imagined them. I provided lots of pictures of Thammi in different situations. I gave very little feedback on the work that she sent me (as it was always pretty much perfect). She was agreeable and prompt about accommodating every request. We understood each other seamlessly.
Many parents are reluctant to broach the subject of death and grief with children because they think that children are not mature enough to talk about these things. What would you tell them based on your experience as a parent, and what you have observed?
I completely understand this as I remember my husband and I grappling with this question of how to explain to Devika what had happened when her Thammi passed, and also on how to introduce them to difficult subjects even today. However, based on my experience, I would say the following three things to parents:
a. Death is a part of life and our children have either already seen it (at close or distant quarters) or will see it soon.
b. It’s a good idea to be one step ahead of our kids where difficult subjects are concerned and also for them to hear about it from their parents versus from someone else, as they then hear about it from a safely connected space and also according to the family’s cultural values.
c. Children take matters like death in their stride. If personal, they will feel pain but they process it more easily and faster than adults. Making them feel seen and heard, while validating, acknowledging and labelling their emotions, is the key to making them work through these big, mysterious feelings. If theoretical and not personal, children usually don’t even bat an eyelid on the subject.
In my experience of reading Thammi’s Gift to different groups of children, I have found that children have hardly noticed the death and have been more fascinated by the other elements in the story. Yet when I’ve asked a leading question, they have opened up and poured out their feelings about a loss or difficult transition they have experienced. Teachers have come to me and said that they were amazed to see so-and-so speak about her or his recent loss as they have found the child to be reserved and repressed about it in the past. Parents have told me about how their children have connected Thammi’s death with the passing of their near or distant relatives, drawn pictures of their relatives “as stars” like Thammi. So, I think the book has encouraged conversation and has had a healing effect on children.
The book is dedicated to Mahima Kaur, Dalbir Kaur Madan and Neil Jarial. How did you get to know them? What role have they played in your life as a reader and parent?
Mahima Kaur is the founder of Dreaming Child Preschool in South Delhi. It is a progressive preschool that both my children have attended from pre-nursery to kindergarten, entering “big school” only at grade 1. My husband and I love the Dreaming Child philosophy of being child-led, with a play-based curriculum, and a gentle, seamless transition from home to school. They also have a strong focus on books and reading, with a charming “Reader’s Den” in their exquisitely designed space and pattern of building activities around the central theme of a story. It is very much Mahima’s vision. My husband and I often wonder if we would have ended up home-schooling or unschooling if we had not found Dreaming Child, which was the only school we felt was a perfect fit with our parenting style. As such, Dreaming Child has been a home away from home for them, with Mahima and her fabulous teachers as our partners in raising our kids.
Dalbir Kaur Madan is the founder of One Up Library in Vasant Vihar, the only private library for children in Delhi that I know of. My kids have been going there since their babyhood. My mother-in-law was a mentor to Dalbir and we feel as though she is continuing her legacy for our kids. Dalbir also instituted the Bandana Sen Library Awards, the first-of-its-kind award for school libraries and librarians across the country.
Neil Jarial is a storyteller par excellence. My kids have been attending her magical storytelling classes since they were toddlers. Neil weaves music, theatre, art and craft with books and stories, creating a seamless creative and sensory experience for little ones. We are selective about the classes we take our kids to as we don’t like to overschedule, but Neil’s are one of the handful that we have made an exception for.
Several book recommendations are tucked into Thammi’s Gift including Up and Down by Oliver Jeffers, Wolf Won’t Bite by Emily Gravett, The Detective Dog by Julia Donaldson, Kafka and the Doll by Larissa Theule, Zakir and his Tabla by Sandhya Rao. Could you tell us the story behind this choice? Are these Bandana’s favourite books?
Thank you for noticing! We wanted this to be another layer of interaction with the book for children and families who do already read a lot. There are book covers and also a lot of lurking book characters! I was very specific about some of the books and characters mentioned because they were thematically relevant like Come to School too, Blue Kangaroo by Emma Chichester Clark (a book about starting school), The Detective Dog by Julia Donaldson and the Library Lion by Michelle Knudsen and Kevin Hawkes and the reference to the Magician’s Hat by Malcolm Mitchell in the last bedtime reading scene (all three celebrate libraries). Zakir and his Tabla is there because it’s another book illustrated by Priya that we thoroughly enjoyed; Kafka and the Doll because, apart from celebrating a literary figure, it is a picture book for a slightly older age (suitable for a five-year-old like Devika is by the end of the book). Several pages have other famous book characters from The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss, Elmer the Patchwork Elephant by David McKee and The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson floating around, along with children’s books by leading authors of the day like Oliver Jeffers and Emily Gravett. I mentioned some books, characters and authors specifically to Priya; some she decided on her own, understanding the intention. We felt that children who know would enjoy spotting them and families looking for recommendations will find some. At the end of the day, this book celebrates children’s books and encourages a breadth of reading. It exists within an ecosystem of books, so it refers to it and plays with it.
The author is a writer, journalist and educator based in Mumbai who can be reached at email@example.com or @chintanwriting on Twitter.