To run for the hills or away from them?
Children’s author Nandita da Cunha talks of the themes, characters and introduction of the concept of voluntourism in her recent release My trip to La-La Land
CHENNAI: Sit and think, eat and sleep, wake up and read, and sleep some more — nine-year-old Tavishi has the recipe for the ideal lazy summer vacation. Unfortunately for her slothful plans, her mother is an active do-gooder with a more exciting agenda in mind. When thrown into an adventurous holiday to Ladakh (which she prefers to call ‘La-La Land’), where the mother-daughter duo are to build a library for a remote school, Tavishi does everything in her power to hatch an escape plan. Her chances, however, seem bleak with the “chipkoo” five-year-old local Tashi attached to her hip. From her frustrations to transformative realisations, we see the trip through Tavishi’s eyes — more accurately, her travel diary — in Nandita da Cunha 2022 release My trip to La-La Land.
A child’s game
Despite writing not just for, but as a child, Nandita manages to capture a relatable tone and even sneak in humour, where possible. The resistance, cynicism and secrecy that children hold in what she calls the “eye-rolling phase” is lathered on in the book but doesn’t seem unrealistic. For Tavishi’s indifference, there is also Tashi’s infectious enthusiasm. The young, local girl is rosy cheeked, bright-eyed and always smiling; she doesn’t give up even when she does not receive the same enthusiasm from the protagonist. “It was very important to have two strongly contrasting characters. Once I had Tavishi in my mind, Tashi came up as a strong counterpoint to that,” Nandita says.
The diary format is an interesting choice as well. The design of the book emphasises words through bold, large words, checklists and boxes as one would in their diary, and even introduces a few illustrations that help us visualise the story as we read. In some ways, these sketches by illustrator Tasneem Amiruddin are reminiscent of the doodles one may scribble in their personal journals. Though the Comic Sans-esque font is not my favourite choice, it is possibly more enjoyable for a younger audience.
A taste of reality
Instead of a format that feeds you the moral, the book investigates several subtle themes. One being exploring the unknown. City-girl Tavishi who is thrust in the unfamiliar climate of Ladakh finds new experiences — some she likes (like the gur chai and momos), and others (trekking several miles to get to the school and Tashi) she doesn’t. “This is a big, critical theme. A city girl goes to this place and she is a bit jaded, cynical. There, we have people with a totally different culture and way of living. The awkwardness between the two. The mistrust that Tavishi has and the transition to go on to accept and even love another culture. It’s about the growing friendship between two different ways of life,” Nandita explains.
Another theme explored — keeping with the building of libraries — is the importance of books. While they make an appearance for a short while, the books play a pivotal role in the plot. They play the peacemakers, the common interest, the communicators. “The books help to bridge the gap between the children, help them communicate with one another. There is so much in the role that books play in our lives . They create connections,” she exclaims.
It also introduces young readers to the concept of voluntourism, a concept Nandita explored through the experiences of her own family friends on social media. The story, in fact, is inspired particularly by the work done by 17,000 ft Foundation, an NGO that supports education in remote Ladakhi schools. “The organisation does a lot of good work in the hilly regions of north India like working with schools to set up playground and libraries. It’s not just going to touristy sort of places but in a way in which you can give back and that makes the experience so meaningful and you are able to learn from the people there in an authentic manner. A lot of people wrote about how they went to remote schools, the satisfaction of the experience and how their eyes were opened to a different way of life and I found this very interesting. Plus, I love Ladakh. So, it all came together,” Nandita explains, adding that she wanted to set the story in a beautiful setting and what better than the remotely beautiful — hauntingly so, even — Ladakh. You can also see the work done by the organisation in photographs in the book.
At the end of the day, the story is not one to preach. Depending on the age of the reader, they will take something different from the story, observes Nandita. There is a little something for everyone in the story, whether you are an annoyed city girl, a bright-eyed rural native, or a reporter on deadline.
Pages: 72,Price: Rs 199
Publisher: HarperCollins Children’sBooks