A Guest Column by Pooja Makhijani
As I said last year, in this very space, I don't have to wait until December for the holidays. On Friday, November 9, I will be opening gifts, eating gulab jamuns, dressing up in a brand new sari, and placing tiny clay lamps along our walkway and driveway so that Lakshmi, the goddess of prosperity, can find her way to our home.
Diwali celebrates the victory of good over evil, although the deities, rituals, and stories that are associated with the holiday are different in different parts of India. One of the stories associated with this exuberant holiday—"Hanuman's Adventures"—can be found in a delightful new picture book anthology, Indian Tales: A Barefoot Collection by Shenaaz Nanji and illustrated by Christopher Corr (Barefoot Books, 2007).
"Hanuman's Adventures" tells the tale of the monkey-god Hanuman. Hanuman aided Rama, the seventh incarnation of Lord Vishnu, in rescuing his abducted wife, Sita, and slaying the ten-headed ruler of Lanka, Ravana. Nanji draws heavily from the source text—the fifth chapter of the Ramayana, one Hinduism's central texts—and gives young readers an action-packed story to read over and over again.
In fact, many of the stories in this entertaining collection should be read over and over again; I really enjoyed "Damayanti and Nala," a love story from Uttar Pradesh and "Five Men in a Cart," a fable from Andhra Pradesh. Nanji is a graceful storyteller; her retellings captivate.
And the illustrations! Corr's paintings are just so beautiful; he immerses the reader in the color and contrasts of India. I particularly appreciated his attention to detail such as the bandhani, or tie-dye, fabrics showcased in "The Drummer Boy," a story from Gujarat or the abundant use of pink in "Shaira's Secret," a story from Rajasthan. I also loved the two-page spread of Ravana that closes "Hanuman's Adventures." It is both awe-inspiring and scary, much like the demon king himself.
The front and back matter is informative and balanced. In her introductory note, Nanji not only provides readers with a brief history of India, from the Indus Valley civilization (2600 BCE to 1500 BCE) to the Mughal dynasties (which reached the height of its power in 1700 CE), but paints a realistic picture of modern India as well. In addition, each story is preceded by a well-researched note that offers readers fun facts about each of the states from which the story came. A rich list of sources, including books, articles, and websites, gives eager readers many, many leads for learning more about India.
This year, I will also be spending Diwali at the Main Branch of Edison Public Library sharing Mama's Saris and my family's traditions with the young residents of this New Jersey suburb. It will also be a bit of a homecoming: Edison is my hometown and I am a "graduate" of the library's story time. Dear reader, if you do live nearby, please stop in and celebrate.
Pooja Makhijani is the author of Mama's Saris (Little Brown, 2007).