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A love letter to Chennai's alleys, gulleys, people and pets

Aparna Karthikeyan’s new book for young readers is a tribute to the greatest loves of her life—the city of Chennai and dogs

An illustration from the book 
An illustration from the book  (Courtesy Karadi Tales)

Looking for Laddoo, writer and independent journalist Aparna Karthikeyan's sixth book, is about two of her greatest loves: the city of Chennai and dogs. It captures a day in the life of a little boy, Karthik, and his mother, a vet, as they drive through the city in search of Karthik's missing puppy, Laddoo, "small and white with brown spots." The book, a Karadi Tales publication and the third in their City Series, takes you right into the city of Chennai—which turned 382 this year—introducing you to the people, places and animals that make the city what it is.

"The idea was to showcase Chennai to both an audience who knows the city (where you will kindle nostalgia) and also an audience who doesn't know Chennai," says the Chennai-based Karthikeyan. The story of a vet going around town, treating animals, passing or stopping at some of its most iconic spots such as Kalakshetra, Marina Beach, Pondy Bazaar, St Thomas Cathedral, Parry's Corner seemed "obvious", she adds. "I've always wanted to be a vet," she says with a laugh, admitting that this was her way of living vicariously. 


An illustration of Pondy Bazaar
An illustration of Pondy Bazaar (Courtesy Karadi Tales )

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The book, released on August 22 to mark the day that the British East India Company purchased the coastal village of Madrasapatnam or Chennapatnam in 1639, "raises information about the history and culture of Chennai and enables children to look at everyday places and people with awe," says the introductory note by the publisher. This job is undoubtedly made easier thanks to illustrator Tanvi Parulkar's gorgeous artistic renditions of the city. "She brought the city alive," agrees Karthikeyan, adding that Parulkar managed to capture the essence of every spot Karthik and his mother visit. 

Writer Aparna Karthikeyan
Writer Aparna Karthikeyan (Lasya Karthikeyan)

Mumbai-based Parulkar, who could not spend time in Chennai for research because of covid, says that her process involved going through photographs, talking to friends, watching videos and using her prior knowledge of the city to create her art. "It was challenging to depict places accurately based on just photographs that were never there in the angles we decided," says the illustrator and graphic designer, talking about her artwork, which was all done analogue in watercolour. "It was a lot of visualisation on my part while trying my best to stay true to reality," she adds. 

She does so, and remarkably well. Looking for Laddoo ends up being a delightful romp through a city brimming with culture and life—a book any Chennaivasi will relate to easily. Though the book came into being when Karthikeyan was living away from the city, in Bombay, this is very much an insider's take on the city; no imaginary homelands here, turned hazy with time and distance, haunted by nostalgia and loss. Instead, Karthikeyan captures Chennai and, more importantly, its people with the vividity of a boots-on-the-ground reporter. She says it helped that she once worked on the "I am" series for The Hindu, reporting first-person narratives of people in the city, which saw her traipsing down roads and bylanes she wouldn't ordinarily have visited. It also made her speak to people she may not have noticed before, Karthikeyan says, adding that some of these characters have sidled into the book. 

Illustrator Tanvi Parulkar
Illustrator Tanvi Parulkar (Courtesy Karadi Tales)

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Take, for instance, Bhavani, the sowri (false hair) seller, who Karthik and his mother meet outside the Nalli store at Pondy Bazaar, where they treat Bhavani’s kitten. Or Raghavan, the boom boom mattukaran, who belongs to a nomadic tribe from Tamil Nadu and tells fortunes with the help of his constant companion, a decorated bull. (The vet helps Raghavan's bull in the story.) "I wanted to write a book, not just about the elite but about everyday people in the city," says Karthikeyan. Too often, a city's ordinary people get invisibilised, she adds. And yet, these are the very people who look after the animals who live on the streets. "I may go to feed stray dogs twice a day, but they are there with the creature all the time," she says. "I wanted to hero these people."  

Looking for Laddoo is available on the Karadi Tales website and other platforms.

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