Cultivating Empathy: Three Indian Picture books that Adults will Enjoy

Picture books are simple narratives that you can flip through in one sitting, making them the ideal post-meeting pastime. They’re filled with pleasing artwork and fewer words per page that you’d encounter in most YouTube video descriptions.

Maitri Vasudev

We don’t usually pick up books written for children, but consider this: children’s stories have to be written to appeal to adults. Would you buy your child a book that you don’t like? It will have to pass your test first to even reach them. 

Let’s now come to this meeting you’ve had to endure before you pick up the picture book. There’s always a colleague who never gets what you’re trying to say. And let’s face it: you don’t get where they’re coming from either. So you’ve spent the last ten minutes texting your work-wife eye roll and barf GIFs. Not that that isn’t a valid pastime, but wouldn’t it make work (and life) easier if you could sit at said colleague’s desk for a moment, so to speak?

“One of the best kept secrets for adults is if you want to learn something new, read a kid’s book on the subject,” says Vicki Cobb. Is empathy something you feel is worth cultivating to widen your horizons? If it is, this list is for you:

  1. The Why-Why Girl by Mahasweta Devi, illustrated by Kanyika Kini

Image Credit: Sawaliram

I take my cushy life for granted. I know, as I’m sure you do, that I live in a nation of 1.4 billion people, so I must be hogging a greater share of resources than is my due, but this conclusion doesn’t translate to my lifestyle. People I interact with on a regular basis, though – my students, my house help, the chaat vendor I frequent – feel the keenness of that bite. “Why do I have to walk so far to the river to fetch water?” asks Moyna of the Shabar tribe. “Why do we live in a leaf hut? Why can’t we eat rice twice a day?” The why-why girl, as the postman calls her, stays two steps ahead of the precocious child trope throughout the story. She doesn’t idly poke at an anthill with a stick she finds in the garden because she’s curious about what lives in it. She demands to know why the narrator  asks her not to chase after a cobra even though her family eats snakes. And when told to thank the landlord she works for who gave them rice, she asks why – does he ever thank her for the thousand chores she does for him? 

Based on true events and people, The Why-Why Girl, published by Tulika Books, brings to us the reality of those unlike us through a feisty protagonist. Moyna is the first girl in her village to go to school despite a special-needs mother whom she must help with chores. “In writing about Moyna, I have written about so many children,” says Devi – who has worked with tribals in central and eastern India – on the back cover. 

Does Moyna resemble someone you know?

  1. Catch that Cat! by Tharini Vishwanath, illustrated by Nancy Raj

Image Credit: Amazon

Also published by Tulika Books, this gorgeously illustrated story is set in a place that depicts grassy hillsides. Dip Dip sets off on a hunt to find Meemo’s cat Kaapi – on a wheelchair. 

You might assume that I’ve added Catch that Cat to this list to urge you to roll around the world on the wheels of the disabled for a few minutes. You’re not wrong; I love the fact that the protagonist is such a relatable, self-sufficient girl on a wheelchair. She puts on her own clothes and packs her own lunch, but that’s not my only motive. Strange thing, empathy, and how it peeks its head around the pages in so many parts of the story. Dip Dip cares for others, and others care for her. She sends off Meemo to school and herself plays truant to find her friend’s cat. The people she asks once she’s looked in dustbins and behind bushes respond readily to her – they want to help her. Dip Dip goes so far to rescue a frightened cat that you worry for her safety while she climbs after him. 

Have you helped anyone recently, as Dip Dip does?

  1. A Helping Hand by Payal Dhar, illustrated by Vartika Sharma
Image Credit: Google Images and Free Kids Books

Image Credit: Google Images and Free Kids Books

Here’s an epistolary picture book for you! Published by Pratham Books, A Helping Hand is a series of one-way letters written by an anonymous ‘mentor’ to a new girl at school. You’ll witness this narrator’s progress from resenting the newbie for her prosthetic arm in typical angsty schoolgirl mode to admiring her wholeheartedly as a friend. “I am not going to be your minder forever,” they complain. “Sometimes, I don’t know what to say to you.” 

From telling the girl that she can jolly well come by herself to play on the swing with the others, the narrator apologises some pages later for not considering how hard it might be to grip the chain with only one hand. They mirror so many of us that immediately close ourselves off to new group members, only to find – given time spent together – that we have more in common when we stop focusing on our differences. 

Do you have a new girl at work that you can get to know better?

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