When Crows Are White is a wise, witty, informative book for children, published by Scholastic, with words by Jerry Pinto and art by Garima Gupta. The illustrations are all in grey and black, done in a style that is designed to engage, rather than entertain the child’s eye.
|The crows in the book inhabit a space between the real and the mythical
The story too is full of nuggets that should nudge children (and perhaps their parents) gently towards thinking for themselves about issues that matter. The crows in Pinto’s story inhabit a space between the real and the mythical.
They live in a neem tree on Lady Jamshedji Road, Mahim, but their names come from all over the place, each one evoking the colour black. Protagonist Saawri is given to dreaming, but always wakes up, most frustratingly, when her dream is about to culminate in heroic action.
At the start of the story, she is deep in a fearful dream about giving birth to a white baby. But before the baby has time to come out of its shell, she is woken up by a cacophony of cawing. The leader of the crows is dead and the residents of the neem tree are cawing their farewell to him.
The leader’s name is Obsidian. Savour the sound. What a majestic name for a crow to have. But what does it mean? Pinto’s chatty footnote explains. Obsidian is “black glass that pokes out of the ground. No really.
Volcanoes do this kind of thing. The lava pushes out of the ground and cools, and you get obsidian.” Then he raps himself on the knuckles, saying, “What am I doing? You should look up the names in the dictionary.” Pinto isn’t out to trip up children with esoteric names.
When he introduces a crow named Noir, his footnote says, “Black in French. I put this in because you might not find it in an English dictionary.” But he is certainly out to make them fall in love with the language. Obsidian is the leader of the “murder” of crows that inhabit the neem tree. Help! What’s a murder of crows? The footnote tells you it’s the collective noun for a flock of crows.
Then Pinto licks his chops over more linguistic delicacies — an exaltation of larks, a parliament of owls, a raft of auks — finally inviting readers to invent collective nouns for parrots and hens and their own group of friends.
My grouse against the book is that the font used for these lovely footnotes is so small, you can barely read them. For a narration that departs radically from the conventional, the footnotes could easily have been given spacious pages to themselves, with illustrations to boot. Why not? My other grouse is its format. It’s a large rectangle and I can see harassed mothers scowling at it wondering where they are going to store it to keep their children’s rooms tidy.
My copy lies on my worktable, having failed to sit comfortably on any of my bookshelves. Back to the contents. It is through funny, informative sub-stories about why crows are black and how the world came to be created, that Pinto threads the story of Saawri and the baby she not only dreams of having, but actually has. Like all mothers, she worries about how her little one will be treated by the others who live and think traditionally.
Crow tradition demands that weak or dying crows be killed. Saawri suspects the tradition may extend to crows that are different. Her fear leads to lovely exchanges between her and the other crows. Why do crows kill their own, she asks Obsidian. “Crows never kill,” is his reply. “When one of us is wounded?” she asks. “That’s a cull, not a kill,” he retorts. “But why cull?”
“Because we are crows, that’s why.” Another time it is, “The crows of the neem tree on Lady Jamshedji Road have always done it this way.” Period. Traditional wisdom has it that a crow by definition is black. If it is any other colour, it is not a crow.
Does the fact that a crow has given birth to it not make it a crow? No. If such a thing happens, then the mother must be declared “not a crow”. Under no circumstances can tradition accommodate difference. Saawri’s baby is born — not white, but grey.
Crow judgment declares it “not a crow”. Saawri rejects the judgment. The last line in this subtly narrated story is hers. “It is a crow, it’s a crow with a difference.”