July 25, 2021 6:45:16 am
“Let’s start work on that book,” Gautam Benegal texted me in early December last year, “before I die of COVID or whatever.”
I shot back three laugh emojis and promised to call him later that evening.
I am glad we did start working on “that book”. It’s this unfinished agenda that will keep my final book with Gautam forever in the present tense.
A couple of months ago, during one of our calls around the project, he suddenly said, “What’s up with you and all the obituaries you have been writing?”
“If you die before I do,” I laughed, “I’ll make mine stand out among the thousands that’ll pour in for you!”
His throaty, gurgling chuckle half ate his don’t-make-mine-soppy-or-long. But I heard it, all the same.
My association with Gautam began 11 years ago almost to this exact day, when I approached him to illustrate a story I’d written for very young children. Best Friends are Forever (2012, Wisdom Tree) was to be the start of the most enriching collaborative journey of my life. We went on to do five books together in the eight years that followed before a natural pause ensued, only to reconnect last year over two more. It seems providential that the last book I completed with him was on losing a dear one. Death was what Gautam and I dissected threadbare during the two years that we worked on our picturebook Boo! When My Sister Died (2017); that still doesn’t make processing his untimely passing any easier.
Gautam and I weren’t friends in the classic sense. We had our moments of innocent gossip here, a hearty laugh there, or a quiet understanding of the challenges either of us was facing in our lives outside of our shared workspace. But for most part, we bonded over kidlit art.
Curiously, Gautam’s love for art for children is not something that his massive army of admirers have known much of. But for those who have seen his picture books, it is impossible to miss reflections of the artistic freedom he had had as a child, surrounded by pots of paints, brushes and papers. His illustrations embody an unrestricted spontaneity, a deep sensitivity, an unimaginable lightness of touch. All these are often the most difficult to achieve in a visual frame and this is his lasting legacy in Indian children’s literature.
As a writer, thought leader, National Award-winning animation filmmaker, artist, social and political commentator with peerless (and acutely acerbic) wit, Gautam was always in the public eye. But for the towering figure that he was, both online and offline, he was an astoundingly humble listener. When we sat together to create a book, his was an unquestioning surrender of sorts to my suggestions, mad what-ifs, annoying how-abouts and tangential-shifts midway through a project. My usual animated bursts of ideas would be met by his monosyllabic and indulgent “sure”, “cool”, “yup” nods. But it was in his occasional questioning of my drafts that real magic happened.
His “you might want to work on the ending a bit” was his way of telling me I was rushing through the draft; his “do you think this book will be a commercial success” told me I was failing myself as a creator by selling my soul; his “not quite there” meant I was shortchanging my work. His wry but phenomenally sharp observations often made me throw in the towel in utter frustration, but he was not the one to let me accept my own complacent mediocrity.
His encouragement kept me afloat through my frequent moments of despair in my publishing pursuits. It was during one such particularly low phase that I wrote to him, “…maybe it’s the general diffidence that has set in in me these days regarding everything I’m attempting…I somehow am not even sure I should be making more books.”
The words that came back from him strengthened my resolve to trudge on, come what may. “…Of course, you should make more books,” he wrote. “My two books were a disappointment and took a long time in the making…but I will write the novel. A beaver builds dams.”
Gautam believed in me way before I learned to believe in myself. He was my creative anchor who wanted to see me grow, to thrive, to make it big; always just a notional earshot away to pat my back and celebrate my milestones, regardless of whether or not it involved his own work. He made sure I didn’t give up on Pickle Yolk Books. Or on myself.
I am going to miss you, Gautam Benegal; miss you bad. And this beaver will continue to build dams, the way you always believed she could.
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