I wonder what Charles Dickens was thinking when he wrote, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times … it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” In the cusp of spring and summer, with the news of Covid-19 patient count in India spilling over from hundreds to thousands blaring on the television, on a warm sunny afternoon, I read this book while marvelling at its sheer relevance.
‘The Mystery of the Missing Soap’ is a story based in the village of Dakshinpur. The village Sarpanch, children and adults loved each other and lived in harmony. But far away, there was a conspiracy shaping against them. They realise only when the soap goes missing! But what for? It’s only a soap!
Geeta Dharmarajan, tells the story in a most enjoyable way. It is explicable. If you read it, you will know. It is a picture book, illustrated by Suddhasattwa Basu and Charbak Dipta, and recently published by Katha. Released as an e-book, the publisher very kindly offers free circulation and is up on their website as open access. The book is available in five languages – English, Hindi, Marathi, Assamese and Tamil.
The story unfolds Covid-19 as a community disease, indicating its symptoms and the necessary safety measures to be taken. Alongside, the book also offers steps to make soap at home. A fun activity for children to try out, followed by a list of dos and don’ts, written in a crisp and positive style.
The book reminds me of a piece by Paulo Freire where he indicates how reading the word is about reading the world; when the context incarnates through characters and incidents, it helps the reader with a higher perceptual ability. The narrative of the book does exactly that. Also, knowing that reading helps reducing fear, the author very consciously presents the abstractness of a virus through a concrete and relatable plot. Personifying the virus as an army of evil beings, juxtaposing against a humble community scenario helps children connect easily. And the symbolic representation of the virus perhaps makes it more meaningful for children.
For those who may not have adopted precautions as a part of their daily practice, the appeal of the story could be an enabler. It falls in line with the role that literature plays of making the reader travel across, sometimes identifying that people there could be me, traveling through their experiences, and then when back in one’s own world, the story is remembered in a way to ease a behavioural change. However, I wish the story was a bit longer with more incidences that could have made it further wholesome. Also, if this was pre-intended for e-circulation, I wonder if a simpler page-layout could be more appealing.
With maximum e-reading now more than any time before, Katha, through this book, contributes to Indian children’s literature in the light of contextual reading. It demands an inclusive audience, of both children and adults, across different geographies of the country. For all the art that is emerging in this time of crisis, this is a good one to be added to your list of books in the time of corona and after.