The sun burns my skin with an intensity that tells me this is one of the hottest days of the summer. Each gust of wind launches a fresh assault of dust into the nostrils. As I arrive at my destination, I hear the familiar sounds of children calling out ‘Good afternoon ma’am’ and ‘Ma’am HI…hi MA’AM!’ and then a singsong enquiry: ‘Ma’am aaj aap kaunsi book padhogey?’ Which book will you read to us today?
I am in a community library in south Delhi that opens its doors to a diverse population.
It is surrounded by working class homes and is adjacent to an urban slum. It is within two kilometres of an elite public school, but very few library members study there. On the other side of the Ring Road is one of the most upscale residential localities in the city. The library counts the toxic Chiragh Dilli nallah as well as some of Delhi’s most popular shopping malls as its neighbours. What brings us all together are books.
The book we’re reading today is Kanna Panna, written by Zai Whitaker and illustrated by Niloufer Wadia (Tulika Books). It’s a slim volume with a little boy on the cover, maybe seven to ten years old, around the same age as my audience.
I hold it up. ‘What can you tell me about this book from the cover?’ The group leans in; some squint to get a better view.
‘Ma’am, he is a naughty boy.’
‘He likes to play on the jungle gym.’
‘He looks happy.’
‘Woh akela hai.’ He is alone.
We begin the read-aloud, which is always a collective activity. I read, but they draw the connections and make meaning. We learn that Kanna, our protagonist, rarely speaks even though he has a rich inner life, full of wilful words that frolic in his mind. ‘Why do you think he doesn’t speak?’
‘Ma’am! Kanna is afraid.’
‘Maybe others will make fun of him?’
‘Log usey nahi samjhenge.’ People won’t understand him.
I ask, ‘Why do you think that? Does he seem different in any way?’
No one has an answer. We read on.
It’s vacation time and Kanna has joined his aunt, uncle and cousins to go visit a cave-temple near by. All goes well inside the cave until the lights go out and suddenly everything turns pitch dark. I hold up the page – it is painted black but for five illuminated faces, all in different stages of panic, except…
‘Ma’am, Kanna is not afraid.’
Indeed, Kanna isn’t afraid and in fact, begins to speak, taking charge of his panicked family with a confidence that my listeners are just discovering he possesses. He leads them out of the darkness into light, where they feel safe once again.
I put the book down. ‘What just happened? How did Kanna get them out of that jam?’
‘He has been here before?’
‘He has superpowers to see in the dark!’
‘Usney andar aatey samay, apne haathon aur pairon se raasta yaad kar liya tha.’ He had memorised the route when he first entered the cave, using his hands and feet.
‘Why would he do something like that?’ I wonder aloud. The consensus seems to be that Kanna is like ‘Superman, Spiderman, Batman’. We read on.
Vacation is over and Kanna is back to school in a brand new class. When the teacher asks his name, he shoots off, ‘Kanna Panna!’ There go those naughty words again, jumping out before he can control them. His classmates laugh.
On the next page Kanna navigates the schoolyard, an obviously unfamiliar space, as is evident when he trips and falls over another student. Can’t you see? The student scolds. Kanna replies, no.
We pause the reading again, but this time I ask nothing. My audience is confused. I’d expected their eyes to light up with this new information, but there’s nothing. No new narrative connections have been made. I flip back to that almost-black page, with the four panicked faces, and one confident face.
‘Woh andhaa hai.’ He is blind.
‘That’s why he tripped over that boy.’
‘That’s how he remembered the way out of the cave with just his hands and feet.’
Now that we, like the student he tripped over, know that Kanna is visually impaired, how do we feel? In the book the student has decided he wants to be friends – even best friends – with Kanna. My audience is still deliberating.
‘Ma’am, I think blind people are better than us.’
‘Because they can make things out even in the dark. But we can’t.’
Yes, yes, everyone nods, the visually-impaired are better equipped than sighted people. Someone comments they might even be smarter. What about those who can’t hear or speak, how about those who can’t walk easily or at all? It seems they are all granted extraordinary virtues of character and skill.
‘Woh bahut acche hotey hain.’ They are very good people.
‘Unka dil bahut accha hota hai.’ They have pure hearts.
It’s beginning to smell rather suspect. As the adult in-charge, this would be the perfect time for a sermon on not conferring sainthood on – or demonising – the unfamiliar. But my training requires me to stay with the text and the questions it raises. My job is to allow Kanna to lead us to our truth.
So, instead, I ask: are any of your friends visually impaired like Kanna? No, the children say. No, I say. Do you know anyone with visual disabilities in your family, school or colony? No, they say. No, I say.
The children slump back into their benches. My head drops. We are stumped. We have all just finished getting to know Kanna but none of us, not even the grown up in the room, can figure out where he lives.
Featured image credit: Alia Sinha