For every Keralite, Chekutty, the tiny cloth doll with a smiling face, is a household name. The brainchild of social entrepreneurs Lakshmi Menon and Gopinath Parayil, it stands as a symbol of the survival of Keralites, especially weavers of Chendamangalam, from the 2018 floods. Chekkutty, who survived the mud, brought back life to many artisans who had lost their assets to the floods.
As the weavers stood aghast, Lakshmi and Gopinath came forward to help them by making tiny toys out of the clothes that got perished in the muddied flood water. Weavers rinsed those clothes with chlorine and fresh water, dried and gave them to volunteers who cut them into small pieces to make the simple Chekkutty. Many people, both from inside and outside the country, gathered to make chekutty, making it a global icon of Kerala’s survival story and harmony.
The Malayalam children’s books with beautiful illustrations – Parannu Parannu Chekutty Pava by Veerankutty and Chekutty by Sethu—have this incident as the base. The authors have created two different imaginary worlds where chekkutty is the lead character. If Parannu Parannu Chekutty Pava has Unni, Chekkutty Pava, Kunjan Pava and Molooty Pava as the main characters, Chekutty narrates the story of Vinodini teacher, Chekkutty a.k.a. Chinnu, Chinnan, Chippi, Chindan, Chinju, Kalyani and Alice.
The books, published by DC Books and illustrated by Roney Devassia, are entertaining and informative at the same time, and can be enjoyed both by children above 10 years and adults. They are part factual and part fictional.
Veerankutty, Head of Department at the Department of Malayalam at Government College, Madappally, who started his writing career with children’s books, uses the plot to teach children about the significance of preserving Mother Nature. Sethu’s narrative is quite emotional and describes the history of Chendamangalam and weavers. Both the writers send a strong message to their readers through the accounts.
Veerankutty’s book begins at a toy shop in a mall where Unni, a toy lover, comes with his father. While all other children neglect chekkutty as it does not meet their beauty standards, Unni finds it beautiful and buys it. Back home, Unni gets chided by parents for adding one more doll to his already big collection. However, little did they know about the change that would happen to their son. Chekkutty loves Unni but is disappointed by the way he is brought up, within the four walls of his home. One day Chekkutty gets wings and takes Unni on a journey, accompanied by Mollootty Pava and Kunjan Pava, Unni’s old friends. They fly up in the sky, understanding the plight of earth and its inhabitants.
On the way, they join children who protest against the quarrying of Chengod hill, witness Nipah outbreak, visit a juvenile home, meet social activist Sheeba and spend time at Manava Gurukulam where children follow their heart. The book goes on to narrate adventures they undertake and how those experiences change their outlook. In a nutshell, Veerankutty exhorts children to travel and see the world.
“Only the thread of the Chekkutty doll was there. I built a world around it,” says Veerankutty. “The flood, which was man-made, was a great lesson for us. We should never forget that. That was my intention while writing the book.” Hence the nature conservation. “The Chengod hill mentioned in the story is close to my home. It is being destroyed by quarry groups and protests are going on. I wanted to bring children’s attention to situations like that.”
Veerankutty. Image: Sasi Gayatri
For award-winning writer Sethu, who is known for his works like Pandavapuram and Marupiravi, Chekkutty is the first attempt in children’s literature. In the book, he focuses on how Chekkutty, who is given the name Chinnu by her mother Vinodini, discovers her own identity. One fine day, Chinnu appears in a different world which has light. She takes time to get accustomed to the light and people around her – Vinodini and Kalyani, her nanny. Vinodini teacher has no children but she has a gift. She can breathe life into dolls. Chinnu has been brought to the earth like that. She hates Kalyani at first sight, but gradually they become friends. As she leads a happy life with her mother, nanny and siblings Chinnan, Chippi, Chindan, Chinju, her world crumbles when her classmate mock her for being a doll-turned-human. The moment she realises her true identity, her life changes forever. The book narrates how she proudly handles the situation and goes on to become a global icon.
Sethu says the plot has been derived from his previous novel Kaimudrakal written about 25 years ago. “Kaimudrakal has characters who give life to dolls and even exports them abroad. That was the basic premise.”
For him, writing Chekutty has been an emotional journey. “Although I live in Aluva now, Chendamangalm is my native. We had weaving looms at home. I grew up listening to its rhythm,” Says Sethu who added that having looms was a status symbol those days. “The history of weaving in Chendamangalam begins with Chalians who were brought from Andhra Pradesh to weave soft mundu and neriyathu for the Paliath Achans. The fabric was quite expensive. Later, the ordinary folk of the place took this as their profession. The early days witnessed men indulging in it. A whole family would be involved in it. With the advent of machine-made fabric which was cheaper, weaving lost its sheen. Men left the profession for better jobs, leaving weaving in the hands of women. I have seen their attachment to the profession. I have also seen their despair after the floods. Fabric worth lakhs have been destroyed in the water,” Sethu explains.
In his book, Chekutty is proud of her identity and scar, something that readers can emulate in life. Sethu says, “What Lakshmi and Gopinath have done is a miracle. The world should know it. That was my aim. I believe I achieved that.” His book also explains how monsoon used to be the favourite season on children of Chendamangalam.
The authors have beautifully blended survival and hope in their works. If a child ever asks who Chekutty is, give her/him one of these books. They will love the tiny mascot.