When Sushmita Mazumdar’s son, Arijit, turned five, he stopped conversing in Bengali and refused to pack Indian food in his Spiderman lunch box, preferring his turkey sandwich with cheese rather than rolled chapatti with curry. It was not till a neighbor from Chile came up to Sushmita and ruefully admitted that her son refused to speak in anything other than English that Sushmita was jolted into worrying about her own situation.
From that moment of reflection grew the vision of an idea that was almost too simple and effortless. Sushmita came up with the idea of crafting picture books that would teach the story of our heritage, our culture, eating habits, and even weather patterns. The stories would inform and entertain; discuss geography and history; talk pollination and ecology; spin a tale, your tale, a child’s tale, a best friend’s tale, a casual acquaintance’s tale or even a grandmother’s tale.
“My child is the CEO of my company,” proclaims Mazumdar with just a hint of amusement. “His questions engender ideas that lead to the creative process, which generates revenue. Isn’t that what a good CEO is all about?” Despite this uncompounded vanilla view, there is no doubt that Mazumdar’s company, Handmade Story Books, has impressed the artistic and literary cognoscenti across the United States. She is listed as an instructor at the prestigious Arlington Arts Center, has conducted workshops at numerous art centers and parks, and more recently, here in the Bay Area, headlined a fundraiser for India Literacy Project (ILP) last month.
“The questions that children ask shed so much light on our lives,” says Mazumdar, “Why do you wear earrings?” “Why is Indian food so colorful?” Each question takes Mazumdar on a quest to her own roots, to find the answers and shape together a story that would interest inquiring minds.
Mazumdar revealed that her popular book, At Cha O’clock, was a result of her son’s question, “Why do you drink cha(tea)?” The words to the story are lyrical, unpretentiously expressive and instantly appealing:
At Cha o’clock,
I get a cookie,
Maybe a bit of Cake
I steep the Cha
And watch the Leaves Stretch
And come Awake!
The stories are fascinating both in their origins and originality. There is a story about green mangoes, kairis, as Mumbai-ites would put it. There is even a tale from Germany where a flag is fashioned from the bladder of a pig, inflated and then flown. The language in the books is humorous, charming, and yet laden with imagery.
It was a Strange Summer Saturday
because my cousins decided
to pour a mug-full of water
on the tiled floor.
Then the boys
quickly took off their shirts
and lay down in it.
Having worked as a graphic designer in the mercurial madness of Mumbai’s advertising world, Mazumdar is assuredly confident in front of an audience, though the nature of her audience has swung from skeptics in boardrooms to the curious in classrooms. When asked whether her work had been informed by experiences in her past, Mazumdar, the quintessential storyteller, launched into a little narrative about her trip to Ladakh, a region studded with mountains and deserts. There, in a little village market, sat an old man selling apricots while turning a prayer wheel continuously with one hand.
A decade later, the prayer wheel has metamorphosed into tiny books filled with prayers, hopes, and wishes to be worn like amulets.
The creative process for Mazumdar includes writing the story, preparing artwork and using techniques like Arabic calligraphy and Chinese pictographs to write on carefully selected paper, and even Chinese scrolls to create unforgettable, keepsake books. According to Mazumdar, a workshop usually is about two hours long, which is the average time it takes to create a book. She wryly comments on how parents sometimes come to her workshops wearing tired expressions and jaded attitudes, but by the end when they’ve actually created a book, there is unmistakable excitement and an almost childlike level of enthusiasm.
Besides teaching children and conducting workshops on handmade storybooks, Mazumdar also takes commissions on behalf of clients across the country. There is no arguing that books are great gifts, but handmade storybooks have an appeal that can be funny and personal, or touching and poignant. One of her clients, Richard Rose, comments about the book he created, “SHURA is a story which I prepared from the recollections of my wife, Susan Irene Rose, who died on May 13, 2008.”
A fellow writer, Ray Anderson, comments about Mazumdar, “I don’t think anyone can really appreciate her works of art without actually having seen one … having flipped the pages and having read the wonderful stories that she has crafted.”
As she talks of her books, it occurs to me that Sushmita Mazumdar is more than just a writer. She is also a teacher, a poet, an artist as well as a craftsperson. Mazumdar, though, describes herself with endearing humility, “I am just a mom with lots of stories to tell.”
Jaya Padmanabhan ran a media company, inMedya Productions, until 2007. She is a prize-winning fiction writer and is currently in the process of writing a novel.