The flowing lines and strong contrasts of the late and much-beloved Pulak Biswas‘s illustrations dramatize this orphan tale from Rachna Gilmore.
Gilmore first brought stories of an Indian immigrant family to young Canadian and American readers with her Gita books. Biswas, a veteran of Indian publishing and an associate of the legendary cartoonist, philanthropist and publishing guru K. Shankar Pillai, illustrated the wonderfully playful Tiger on a Tree by Anushka Ravishankar. So for me, The Flute is a continuation of familiar rhythms, echoes of a lifetime spent crossing from India to North America and back again.
In many ways, it’s a classic orphan’s tale. When we meet her, young Chandra is a baby, delighted and soothed by the sound of her mother’s flute.
She played of shimmering hot days and the richness of the earth. She played of the cool evening sky and the growing promise of the moon.
But Chandra’s parents are swept away in a flood, and she’s taken in reluctantly by a cruel aunt and uncle. The flute, worn smooth by her mother’s hands, represents her only connection with happier times.
Gilmore turns the flute into a magically endowed object, so that its music and the river seem to blend, channeling the emotions of those who listen. When the flute is lost, Chandra is plunged into truly bleak times.
She did her best to keep her mother’s songs alive by whistling the tunes, but sometimes she couldn’t remember them.
The season shrinks the river to a trickle, compounding the loss and serving as an artful metaphor for Chandra’s own hunger, pain, and grief. It’s deftly executed, so that when the magic turns longing to hope, the story turn is light and mirrored by the blue renewal of the river on the right hand side of the spread.
I found a nicely Indian sensibility as well in the omission of a final, omniscient delivery of justice to the evildoers–which is, after all, what one might expect from a story with some motifs similar to those of European Cinderella stories. Instead, the aunt and uncle are simply distracted and move right off the page, leaving Chandra to proceed, surviving still greater dangers in her path, until she arrives at a final, happy resolution. The lyrical text is imbued with energy by the sweeping illustrations, much as the river bestows magic upon the music of the flute.