Lively children’s book Bye, Bye, Motabhai! by Kala Sambasivan follows the tortuous trail of a camel, Pavan Putra Ram Kishen Oont, while he escapes his demoralizing vegetable-cart job with the help of four adventurous children. At each turn, goofy and crafty Pavan (named “wind” for his speed) leaves chaos in his wake, and races toward freedom in Dubai. Readers become caught up in his quest, cheering for the camel -- and rising up against the adult world’s rigidity. The book teaches not only literacy and morals, but also offers a vista into the six million-population city Ahmedabad, India, introducing its flavors, tapestries, and vocabulary.
Pavan, a first-class racing camel who thirsts for international success in Dubai, represents our childhood aspirations trapped behind the drudgery of a vegetable cart. How can we help but root for him? Motabhai, the vegetable cart owner, tries to keep Pavan in his place: “You crazy camel,/ Don’t you dare!/ You’re are not going/ ANYWHERE!” Motabhai’s pea-sized ambitions serve as a kind of parable: Run away from anyone who tries to limit your dreams. Luckily, Pavan’s talent is the very thing that helps him escape.
The illustration by Ambika Sambasivan (the writer’s daughter) pops off the page with textures so three-dimensional, you might touch them and expect to feel bumps and lines. Her collages of intricate patterns show up in unexpected places, such as a floral car roof, a candy cane towel, and the ornate shirt of humble sabzi-wala (vegetable seller) Motabhai. This accentuates the vivaciousness of Ahmedabad’s streetlife, as well as the cacophony of Pavan’s journey. Other visual aspects show thoughtful storytelling. As Pavan races through the city, Ambika outlines background buildings in a calligraphic style, as if to show the city whizzing by. Not until Pavan stops to rest are the buildings filled with rich color, once the camel has the time to notice their full detail.
The diction and Indian vocabulary sprinkled throughout the story mirror the fanciful illustration. When Pavan detours into crowded Manek Chowk, Kala Sambasivan writes: “The market was tightly packed with small shops selling saris, dupattas, shawls, and sheets. Yards of cloth hanging from shop windows danced in the breeze.” Lyrical lines such as these aid children in pronouncing new words. They also resemble a nursery rhyme that readers enjoy repeating again and again.
Occasionally, parallel structure is overused and cliches creep in. For example, “Cars and vans, autos and bicycles, trucks and buses came to a screeching halt. Drivers yelled and honked. Dogs yelped and barked. Little children clapped and laughed.” But crisp and unexpected words predominate, such as “hullabaloo,” “gurgled,” and “meddlesome.” Unlike many books intended for children as young as six years old, Bye, Bye Motabhai! entrusts kindergarteners to appreciate dense details and challenging vocabulary.
Readers follow Pavan as he darts from market to courtyard, charging rightward like an arrow pointing to the next page. Pavan had picked up four children on their way to school at the beginning of his travels, and the students gamely untangle the camel when a clothesline ensnares his long neck. The children, like Pavan, shun their obligations and revel in adventure. A procession of law-abiding citizens trails them: a policeman, Motabhai, the children’s driver, and the owner of a donkey, Bijilee, who gallops beside the rebels at the lead. The children seem to learn more than they might have at school that day as they cleverly devise a way for their newfound friends, Pavan and Bijilee, to abscond from Ahmedabad. They learn that not every rule is worth following.
An entreaty to chase your ambitions wherever they may lead, Bye, Bye Motabhai! thrills with its whimsical collages, cultural lessons, and life advice for readers of all ages.
Rebecca Huval blogs and grant writes at the documentary organization Independent Television Service. Her writing has appeared in Mother Jones, The Miami Herald, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency.