Writer Himani Dalmia’s older daughter was two-and-a-half years old when her grandmother passed away. Grief can be too much for a young child to comprehend, and Himani told her daughter that her Thammi “had turned into a star in the sky, and was watching her from above”. This poignant anecdote forms the premise of the recently-released Thammi’s Gift (HarperCollins). The picture book, targeted at children aged four to eight, has illustrations by Priya Kurian.
In the book, five-year-old Devika is nervous about starting out in a new school. She gets help from her beloved Thammi, who takes her on a magical journey to the moon. The book is Himani’s tribute to her mother-in-law Bandana Sen, who created libraries that were full of life for over five decades as a librarian at the American Embassy School and Pathways Schools in New Delhi.
Speaking over phone from Delhi, Himani, mother of two, says, “The book is my attempt at keeping her legacy alive,” adding that she has dedicated it to librarians and educators. Himani remembers the first time she stepped into a library that Bandana set up. “I was 15 then,” she recalls. The memory is still fresh: “I remember walking in and losing my breath. It was as though I was in Disneyland. There were books everywhere. The walls had beautiful paintings on them; the space was done up with puppets and masks; there were cosy reading spaces…”
Years later, when Himani married Bandana’s son Akash, the pioneering librarian created a library for her granddaughter. “She filled it with 1,500 books,” Himani says, explaining how it was Bandana’s gift for her granddaughter, one she lovingly put together by bringing in stacks of books every other day even while Himani was pregnant.
Thammi’s Gift talks about how this library was born, and has illustrations of Bandana in her signature handloom saris and silver jewelry, reading to Devika even before she learned to sit up. The book will take its young readers into this “magical library” that opens up many adventures for Devika, who eventually learns to deal with her fears through books, with a little help from her thammi.
The home library, that was the last one that Bandana set up, continues to expand. “She had filled it up with books for up to the age of five,” says Himani, adding that they have added around 500 more. “She would have added much more,” she says. The libraries Bandana created, according to Himani, were not merely made of books. She saw them as thriving communes that helped children grow. “For elementary school children, she placed books on low shelves so that they could pick them easily,” she points out, adding that Bandana arranged the books with the titles facing the front so that they easily caught the attention of the reader. “She held a lot of events in the library in the evenings; she would ask children to write their own books, and held read-alouds…”
Himani says that Bandana felt that a librarian should know every book in the library, and should be able to recommend the right book for the right child. She adds that “it feels apt” that Thammi’s Gift will now join the shelves of the many libraries Bandana created.
Thanks to Bandana, Himani says she “truly started appreciating picture books.” The co-founder of Gentle Baby Sleep India, a peer-to-peer support group on infant and toddler sleep, Himani is also the co-author of Sleeping Like A Baby: The Art & Science of Gentle Baby Sleep. But she hopes to write more fiction for children, with a few ideas in the “nascent stages.” “With children’s books, more than the writing, 99% of the work is stumbling upon a bright idea. I’m waiting for that to happen,” she says.