Maybe it’s the colour. Maybe it’s the fact that they are carrion-eaters. Maybe it’s the collective noun used to describe them. Or maybe it’s the vast mythology associated with them. Whatever the reason, one does tend to regard crows with a certain degree of wariness. Crows are, after all, widely believed to be harbingers of death and destruction, powerful symbols of doom and vengeance, known for their intelligence and resourcefulness.
What Jerry Pinto’s When Crows are White offers us is a slight shift in perspective, an alternate angle, a brief but insightful glimpse into the secret world of these fascinating creatures, while treading a fine, shimmery line between myth and reality.
Pinto’s protagonist, Saawri, belongs to a murder in the only neem tree on a busy street in Mumbai. The story starts with a dream she has one night – that her baby might be white. The dream understandably fills her with dread, for crows are not known to be the most accepting of creatures. So what happens when crows are white? Pinto answers the question and many more with great wisdom and oodles of wit. Add Garima Gupta’s masterful black-and-white sketches to the equation and the results can be nothing but spectacular.
We got in touch with the author and the illustrator for a quick chat about the book—
What made you want to write about crows?
Jerry: I wanted to write a book about tolerance, about the need for it in a country, the need for it in a city, perhaps even in a family…No, the need for it when more than two people are involved. Because we don’t get along unless we get along. And we seem to have forgotten that. Anything divides us. Any excuse is enough for us to turn someone into the evil other.
But I was sure that I didn’t want to write a moral story. I wanted to write it in a way that would leave the message to the kids to decipher. I wanted it to be a delayed release thought capsule that would release its message slowly.
But after several attempts, I almost gave up the idea until one day, I was thinking about the fairness creams that plague India with their disgusting messages that ‘beauty equals white skin’ or ‘success equals fair skin’ and I thought, “If a crow were born white…” That led me to the idea that I could use crows to suggest two messages: one, that the colour of your skin shouldn’t count; and the second: we can’t hate someone just because of where they’re born. (But you can certainly dislike them for who they become.) So I thought using crows would look at two prejudices simultaneously: the dislike of the Other and the issue of complexion in India.
And so: When crows are white.
Did you imagine it as a graphic novel from the start?
Jerry: Like most boys anywhere in the world, I began reading comics when I was young. As a boy, I didn’t care what it was as long as it had pictures. I must say that some comics were better than others; I preferred Archie to Amar Chitra Katha but ACK to Star Comics and Star Comics to Action Picture Library; I preferred Tintin to Asterix and still do; I preferred Phantom to Beetle Bailey; I preferred Peanuts to almost everything else. But most of all, I loved comics. I didn’t care what it was about: love, war, mystery, mythology…I would read them all omnivorously. I was delighted when the term graphic novel swam into my ken. It made reading comics respectable. But whatever it is, Maus by Spiegelman or Buddha by Osamu Tezuka or Persepolis by Marjane Satrapy, it’s about comics, it’s about the lure of the word illustrated. I love that and I always dreamed of a graphic novel with my name on it and Scholastic’s editors had the foresight to see it was possible and to make it possible.
Jerry: I did most of my research by watching the crows of Mumbai, the city where I live and which is home to a million crows. I read a lot about crows but that’s the boring stuff you have to do if you are a writer. But what I discovered about crows is that they’re intelligent enough to have a sense of humour. They like playing. And then there’s the lovely sight of a bunch of crows who decide to take a bus ride. They simply settle on the top of a bus and coast along for a bit. It’s not very comfortable; you can see them slipping and sliding and scratching for purchase but they’re having fun. When they’re done, they talk off again, seguing from being commuters to gliders, from the earthbound to the airborne, as if they’re mocking our human incapacities.
Tell us a bit about the making of When Crows are White. How did Garima Gupta come into the picture?
Jerry: I sent the script of When Crows are White to a number of publishers. All of them came back with the same answer: It’s not a book, is it? It’s a story. Or: Yes, it’s a lovely story but we don’t do this stuff. It was very discouraging. Then on a chance, I sent the script to Sayoni Basu who was then the editor of Scholastic. She liked the book and she went out and asked Garima Gupta and when I saw the first sketches, I loved her work. Then Sayoni left and I felt a cold chill down my spine but Anushka Ravishankar who took over from her, also liked the book. In fact, it was Ravishankar who saw that there were three layers to the my story—and it was she who suggested that three different treatments should be used. This enriched the nuances of the book.
What are some of your favourite graphic novels?
Jerry: I think Art Spiegelman’s Maus is one of my favourites. I have just read and enjoyed Sudershan
(Chimpanzee) by Rajesh Devraj and Neren Imchen.
What was the most challenging thing about illustrating the book?
Garima: Crows is a fantastic script, it’s very well crafted and thought out. The first time when you read it as a linear narration it takes a while to absorb the whole in one go. It took me several readings to start imagining it as a graphic novel. Which, in a way is great, by the time you have read it for the 88th time you automatically start living and breathing the script. You start imagining the scenes, characters and eventually when it’s time to put it all down you are already home.
The story is also being told in a layered manner, so it took me a while to deconstruct it and then put it all together. The book now has two distinct styles, one when the story is being told in a linear fashion and the other when the narrative jumps on to tell stories about the relevance of crows from a mythological context or when it’s drawn from fables.
Tell us about your collaboration with Jerry Pinto. How much freedom did you have as far as the style was concerned?
How did you get into illustrating for children?
Garima: I did my first pet project at NID, in my second year I illustrated a children’s book as a part of my illustration course. I had so much fun that I knew it had to be one of those things that had to be done, forever.
Out of all the books you’ve illustrated, which is the closest to your heart?
Garima: Has to be Crows, very challenging and very lengthy and very interesting one year of loving the work.
Are there any artists/illustrators whose work you particularly admire?
Garima: I really like Oliver Jeffers books, he has his heart in the right place. It shows in all his work. That’s step one, put the heart where it belongs, out in the sun, under the stars, left on the window sill so that it can see the crows flying/fluttering about the tree, out to love, to be. It’s the last step too. It frees you to make beautiful things that matter.