If you are one of those annoying members of the human species that author-editor Bijal Vachharajani calls “groan-ups”, you probably do what almost all adults do in her new book, A Cloud Called Bhura (Talking Cub): put on your blinkers (and breathing masks) and learn to cope. One fine day, four teens in Mumbai — Amni, Tammy, Mithil and Andrew — wake up to find a fat brown cloud squatting over their city, gobbling up their sunlight and air, and turn it into a simmering, smoke-filled cauldron. What do people in charge do? Minister Motabhai calls the cloud, Bhura, an “anti-national” and a conspiracy against India’s growth; news anchor Vaatodiyo Bahuche wonders if this Hollywood-style disaster is a sign of our “economic progress”; an ageing cinema superstar tries to vacuum away the dusty cloud in a televised dance performance; and numerous other parents plan to leave the city. The smog of denial is as toxic as Bhura.
But the children want answers and go about looking for them, despite the despair and disinformation all around. “I strongly believe children have the power to challenge things more than adults, because they observe. When you talk to them, they listen and act. I have worked with many children, some have asked me to sign tiger petitions, raised money for tiger conservation; written letters to chief ministers,” says Vachharajani. She began writing the book in 2014, five years before a 16-year-old Swedish girl would grab the world’s collar and force its attention on a dying planet. “That children would be a part of the solution wasn’t as clear then. There was no global climate strike at the time,” she says.
Even then, Vachharajani knew that the brown cloud was not just a figment of her imagination. She was an environment and animal rights activist in her twenties, and in 2012 did a Master’s in climate change from the University of Costa Rica. “In our climate science classes, we saw satellite images of seasonal brown cloud formations, mostly across the south of the world, caused by pollutants. But there was so little political will to do anything about them,” she says. The story seeded in her head also because of the number of days she would open the weather app and find her hometown Mumbai “under smoke”.
The children’s literature community in India is a vibrant, passionate and close-knit one — and Vachharajani is one of its many spunky champions. As a senior editor with Pratham Books, Vachharajani curates books that are fun, intelligent and rooted in Indian life. Her work, as an editor and writer, also reveals a welcome interest in equality. A Cloud Called Bhura not just stands out for its biting satire, the way it breaks down climate science for kids, but also for being a rare children’s book that talks about Ambedkarite politics.
While we enter the book through the perspective of Amni, a smart nerd from a privileged family, it is Tammy, her Dalit friend, who helps Vachharajani engage with questions of caste and inequality. “Tammy came from my late partner Abhiyan. He and I had several conversations about the Ambedkarite movement. He was very outspoken about discrimination, about the marginalisation he had faced. They made me
realise that his experiences as a child were very different from mine. It left him feeling more alienated than anything else,” she says. While Amni is “someone many of us know,” Vachharajani knew that was not the only perspective. ‘Climate change is going to impact the more vulnerable sometimes. And that frightens me sometimes. So, I wrote a whole draft only from Tammy’s point of view. And then I merged it with an earlier one,” she says.
While the book is her way of getting children talking about the climate crisis, Vachharajani is not an optimist about the planet’s survival. “Sometimes, I think we are in a car crash,” she says. “Change has to happen at many levels, but most importantly at the policy level. Finally, the children have forced out attention, what do we do with it?” Do the kids end up winning the battle? Let’s just say, Bhura has a fight on its hands.