A New Children’s Book Illustrates the Enduring Power of the Story of Noah
Offering an Indian twist on the Great Flood, The Enduring Ark finds universal themes in a biblical tale that resonates today
If you search for “Noah’s ark” under children’s books on Amazon, you’ll get 671 hits.
Both my kids were addicted to a board book version of Noah’s Ark by Lucy Cousins, creator of the ubiquitous little mouse who exists only in profile, Maisy. The book is colorful and full of adorable fluffy animals. (Yet I note that in our age of neurotic parenting, some Amazon reviewers were distressed that the text says that God made a flood to destroy the wicked people; why include that, they demanded, since it would be upsetting for their precious little flowers to read? To which I say: Uh, if you’re worried about upsetting your children, stay away from the Bible.)
Why is the Noah story so resonant, especially if it can be so scary? And with so many variations on the same story already available for children, do we really need another?
A new version of the tale helps answer these questions. The Enduring Ark by Joydeb Chitrakar and Gita Wolf gives Noah a Southeast Asian twist. The book is illustrated in the Bengal Patua style of scroll painting. Traditionally Bengali artists and songwriters traveled from home to home, unfurling a scroll of pictures that accompanied a chanted story, in a kind of narrative graphic art. The scroll was made from many panels of parchment stitched together and rolled up, inscribed with plant-based ink and employing tree gum as a binder. (Sound familiar?) The scrolls often tell stories of Hindu gods, but they can also tell stories of history, rules, or how to live. (Sound familiar, again?)
The technique continues today, though artists now may use store-bought inks and brushes and paper. The scroll is still filled with colorful imagery, usually with dark, heavy outlines and bright colors inside of and overflowing the lines. Old saris might be used as backing materials, providing additional texture, pattern, and richness. (Visually, it’s just a tad livelier than the Torah.)
This technique is adapted for The Enduring Ark. The book is made of one giant accordion fold, with images of water flowing from fold to fold. The first image shows a giant crying eye, with the tears turning into a river that flows like a border along the bottom of each page, rising as the flood waters do, taking up more and more of each fold as the waters sweep people away and the ark is stranded on the top of a mountain with water all around, and finally receding as the dove returns to Noah with an olive branch. The river then turns back into a border, and finally into the blue of the rainbow, soaring up into the sky. It’s truly lovely. The book’s visual style recalls illuminated Indian manuscripts, with their rounded shapes, heavy black lines, and boxed areas. Noah and his wife wear draped fabrics; the colors are electric blues, greens, yellows, and reds.
It’s hard to describe the way you read the book, but I’ll try: You have two choices. You can flip fold-to-fold until you get to the moment when the flood begins, then flip the entire section of folded pages back and start reading again on the flip-sides for the continuation of the story. (It’s more intuitive than it sounds.) Or you can unfold the whole thing at once, like a Torah on Simchat Torah, and read it all at a go that way. The structure works perfectly for the story itself—it proceeds like a flow of water, gentle at first and then scary and then gentle again. The first set of folds builds up to the terrible thing, and then the last set of folds leads to God’s covenant and a new world and the receding waters.
The Enduring Ark is published by Tara Books, an Indian company that seems particularly suited to a story of hope and renewal: It’s a collective, a co-op of writers and designers committed to feminist and egalitarian principles, respecting tribal and folk art. Tara runs a Tamil literacy initiative for kids and a cultural space in Chennai called The Book Building that hosts children’s events and exhibitions.
Is it really surprising that the story works in a Bengali context? Every culture is drawn to flood stories. Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Baha’i all share the Noah story proper, and epics about floods in general appear in a zillion other traditions, including Indian ones … and don’t get me started on Gilgamesh, Greek mythology, or Mayan and Muisca lore. Adults of all cultures thrill to the evidence of the terrifying power of nature. We want to think we’re in charge, all-powerful beings. Natural disasters are quick to show us we’re not. What we build, floods and great winds destroy. The Noah story in the Torah offers the added frisson of a little PTSD-fueled drunkenness, nudity, and filial disrespect. The Torah story doesn’t end after the rainbow; it ends after Noah plants a vineyard, gets smashed, gets naked, and gets mocked (or worse?) by his son Ham. Again, the tale tells how scary a loss of control can be. It’s just like The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, if Mickey got plastered and had a creepy son.
The first graduating class at Yeshivat Maharat may not have the title, but they do have jobs at Orthodox synagogues