Depictions of Disability in Children’s Books: A View from India

What have you been reading during the lockdown imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic? I have kept myself occupied with children’s books because they seem to address the most complex issues with candour, warmth and simplicity. In my view, they do not shy away from the grim and challenging aspects of life; at the same time, they refuse to wallow in misery. One might even say that they are in the business of peddling hope, which we are all in need of as we navigate uncertainty in our universe.

How do children’s books in India talk about psycho-social, intellectual, physical and developmental disabilities? A desire to pursue this question led me to compile a reading list of titles published by Pratham Books, Tulika Publishers, Duckbill Books, Karadi Tales, Penguin Books, and Pickle Yolk Books. It might appear easy to write children’s books because they tend to have fewer pages and numerous illustrations but crafting narratives for young readers is no cakewalk. It requires a high level of skill and emotional intelligence. I interviewed some authors to discover the stories behind their stories.

Inside a Dark Box (2020), written by Ritu Vaishnav and published by Penguin Books, is a book about the experience of depression. Words are used minimally, and their job is to convey the inner life of a person who is struggling to cope and talk about their feelings. It begins with the sentence, “Sometimes, you can get trapped inside a dark box.” It ends with, “And even if you can’t see it yet, there is always a way out as long as you don’t stop looking.” Much of the talking in this book is done by Rujuta Thakurdesai’s black and white illustrations, which play with the metaphors of darkness and light.

Vaishnav, who also runs a children’s bookstore in Gurugram, informs me that she as well as Thakurdesai have had their own journeys with depression and have known other people who have gone through similar experiences.. She says, “There are many roads that bring you into this space and many that lead you out of it. But while one is stuck in this box, there are certain feelings and struggles that we all share — loneliness, guilt, exhaustion, the struggle to stay functional, the strength that comes and goes, the helplessness and hopelessness.”

Vaishnav and Thakurdesai wanted to capture what this struggle feels like on a daily basis for someone living with depression, without putting any cheerful spin on it. Their book would appeal to adults who believe it is unrealistic to shield children away from the harshness of life, and that it might be wiser instead to discuss things openly in a child-friendly and age-appropriate manner. Thakurdesai adds, “In our society, we do not treat mental and physical health in the same way. We consider children to be too young to understand what depression or any other mental health condition means. Because we do not provide a safe space or appropriate vocabulary, these things fester in their minds.”

Who Stole Bhaiya’s Smile? (2019), written by Sanjana Kapur and published by Pratham Books, is another children’s book that examines the effects of depression on a person’s well-being. The narrator is a little girl named Chiru, who is concerned about her brother whom she calls Bhaiya. He does not feel like playing, gets angry easily, and is unable to get out of bed on some days. Why? “I am stuck with this big monster on my back,” he says. Sunaina Coelho, the illustrator of this book, effectively uses this monster as a metaphor to depict Bhaiya’s experience with depression.

Through the character of Chiru, this book shows how one can be an empathetic ally. She accepts Bhaiya as he is, unlike the adults in the family who give him advice or say, “It’s all in your head. You just have to put your mind to it and you will snap out of it.” Chiru, a little girl, displays immense patience and kindness. She focuses on understanding Bhaiya and what he needs, instead of telling him what he must do. The monster is given a name — Dukduk — and this naming helps Chiru appreciate that her Bhaiya is the same person as before; Dukduk is the one making his life difficult. Bhaiya is not reduced to his psycho-social disability.

“I am stuck with this big monster on my back,” says the protagonist of Who Stole Bhaiya’s Smile? Dukduk is the name given to his cloud of depression.

Kapur says, “There is a reason I chose to tell the story through the eyes of the ally. That felt like the most honest portrayal for me. I personally feel that having someone in your corner, saying that they understand and that it is okay, is a big part of journeying depression.Who Stole Bhaiya’s Smile? also ends with a note that encourages readers to talk to people when they seem sad for no reason. It states, “Tell them that you may not understand how it feels, but you can see it is hard and you would like to help. If you feel that way, tell your family and friends. It also helps to talk to someone like a psychologist or psychiatrist.”

The sibling as an ally is a theme that also makes its way into Shikhandin’s book Vibhuti Cat (2018) illustrated by Shubham Lakhera and published by Duckbill Books. Magesh in this book is on the autism spectrum, and he has an older brother named Vignesh who is extremely fond of him even when Magesh’s innocent actions unexpectedly land him in trouble at school. Vignesh does not have to be trained to look after his young brother. The role of the nurturer comes naturally to him. He is also encouraging of Magesh’s artistic skills.

When Magesh wants to go to his brother’s school, he puts draws a picture of a cat and puts it in Vignesh’s bag

Shikhandin says, “Every autistic child is unique. Each has his or her special characteristics, talents and personality traits. It is important to focus on what the child can do, and take off from there. In Magesh’s case, he doesn’t talk much, but likes to express himself through art.” Magesh has a lively imagination. Though he does not have a pet cat, he loves to draw pictures of cats, and leave them around everywhere. When he wants to go to Vignesh’s school, he puts a picture of the cat in Vignesh’s bag. Magesh’s parents treat both their sons with love, and this is what helps them flourish.

Being an ally does not come spontaneously to everyone. Learning to put someone else’s needs before one’s own can create resentment. Allyship is often work in progress; it demands reflection and making amends. This idea is developed in a children’s book titled Anya and Her Baby Brother (2019), written by Jerry Pinto, illustrated by Maithili Joshi, and published by Tulika Publishers. Anya is fed up of being told that her younger brother is “a special child” and having her parents fuss over him. She feels neglected because he gets all the attention of the grown-ups in the house.

Anya says, “I don’t know what’s special about him. He’s not like other brothers. He always has to go to this doctor and that doctor. And he can’t do this and he can’t do that.” She is taken to a mysterious place called The Stupendous Amazing Fantastic Baby-Spirit Making Unit, which is located inside the Manor of Making. Here she learns that no two babies are alike and that Anya’s family was specially chosen for her baby brother to be born in because he would need more care, and her family would be able to provide it. Anya is thrilled to discover that she was chosen to be his sister because she “had a very big heart and it was full of love.”

A spread from Richa Jha’s Machher Jhol, illustrated by Sumanta Dey

There are other children’s books that consciously move away from presenting the character with a disability as someone who evokes pity. Richa Jha’s book Machher Jhol (2018), illustrated by Sumanta Dey and published by Pickle Yolk Books, is a case in point. The story is set in Kolkata, and it revolves around a visually impaired boy called Gopu who loves his father dearly. In this book, Gopu is portrayed as a caregiver for his father rather than as a child who makes additional demands on his ailing father’s time. Disability is not equated with lack.

It was important for Jha to highlight Gopu’s courage. She says, “There is a strong element of pity that usually accompanies an abled person’s interactions with a disabled one. And this same prejudice gets reflected by writers, editors, publishers, illustrators and readers, which borders on both exclusion and tokenism in featuring characters with some form of disability. Either they are not included at all or they have very little agency.” Gopu steps out of the house carefully with his walking stick to buy fish, cook it at his grandmother’s place, and return with a surprise meal for his father. This, Jha remarks, is Gopu’s way of saying, “Baba, I know you’ll be fine the moment you taste this.”

People with disabilities often have to deal with two extremes; if they are not treated in a patronizing manner, they might be put on a pedestal. This tendency to perform othering can be terribly annoying because it constantly reinforces the idea that disability is an aberration from what is ‘normal’. What is needed instead is a respectful acceptance of differences, as evoked in Lavanya Kapahi’s book Kayu’s World is Round (2019), illustrated by Aditee Deore and published by Tulika Publishers. The protagonist Kayu, who is a child on the autism spectrum, has a unique way of looking at the world around him, and he is excellent at bowling. The other children recognise his strengths, and invite him to play as an equal; it is not an act of charity.

Similarly, in Lavanya R.N.’s book The Bookworm (2010), illustrated by Shilo Shiv Suleman and published by Karadi Tales, the protagonist Sesha is recognised for his drawing skills, and other children in his class want to learn from him. They are also impressed with the knowledge he has gained from reading books in the school library, so they seek his help to pick out books for themselves. However, in the first part of the book, before they discover his talents, he is bullied  because of his stuttering. Children imitate him, mock him, and laugh at him. This book made me wonder whether children with disabilities can expect to be treated with dignity only if they excel at something? It seems unfair to me.

Sesha, bullied for his stuttering in The Bookworm, gains his peers’ respect when they see his knowledge and his drawing skills

Manna, the child with Down’s syndrome, in Mini Shrinivasan’s book I Didn’t Understand! (2018) illustrated by Shubham Lakhera and published by Tulika Publishers, is also subjected to bullying. The fact that her school has a ‘special room’ and a ‘special teacher’ for ‘children with special needs’ does nothing to prevent other students from sticking out their feet to make her fall or from throwing sand in her food. Shrinivasan, who is formally trained to teach children with intellectual disabilities, has portrayed Manna as an innocent child who does not understand why her peers do these things and does not hold any grudges. Her kindness even towards those who harm her melts their heart and prompts them to make amends.

I feel a bit conflicted about the representation of children with disabilities as guileless and benevolent. While these characters are endearing, some of the books seem to erase the anger, pain and hurt they might feel from facing rejection again and again, not only from their peers at school but also their parents, teachers, siblings and relatives. Are children with disabilities acceptable to ableist society only when they appear cute, non-demanding, unusually talented at something, and willing to accept structural violence?

Thinking about this question makes me feel unsettled. A disabled person’s life story is not a commodity to be used for inspiration. Any engagement with their story must foreground their voice and experience, their trauma and resilience, in ways that are ethical and meaningful to them and not for the sake of being instrumentalised into self-help literature.

Chintan Girish Modi is a writer, educator and researcher who loves hugging trees, contemplating the teachings of the Buddha, and working towards a queer affirmative world sustained by poetry. 

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