Little Baalu didn’t like apples. Their skin stuck between his teeth. And his tummy made funny noises after he’d eaten one. So when his Mama sat him on her lap for his lessons and opened the first page of his ABC book, his tummy began to growl. Just looking at that large, red, shiny apple next to ‘A’ made him wriggle uncomfortably. He would have loved to turn the page, but what lay ahead was worse.
It was ‘B for bee’. Poor Baalu…one winter, while playing outside his Ammamma’s house in Palghat, a bee had flown right into the hood of his jacket. First it startled him. Then its buzzing tickled his ear. And before he knew it -- he felt a sharp pain in his neck and screamed. He kept screaming with fright till Mama came running out to save him. No, he certainly didn’t like bees.
But there was no escape. Waiting on the next page was ‘C for crocodile’. Ballu had never seen a real crocodile and had no idea that it could eat up little boys if it found any. But he didn’t like its green eyes. They seemed to be looking right into him. When Mama came to that page, he tried looking only at the tail, but the sharp ridges on it somehow made him shiver.
He had to wait for ‘D is for drum’, to really relax. Yes, here was something he loved. Drums, drummers, empty cardboard boxes that he could beat and make up a song with. But every nice page was followed by many un-nice pages. He hated ‘E for egg’, mainly because boiled eggs were the worst part of his breakfast. ‘F for flower’ didn’t scare him or cause his stomach to turn, but it was really quite boring.
So naturally, by the time Mama turned the page to ‘H is for harp’, little Baalu lost all interest. What on earth was a ‘harp’ anyway? Even Mama said she’d never seen one. He’d slide off her lap and vanish into his Akka, Sudha’s room.
Akka had her homework to do because she was a very big girl…in Class 4. But she allowed him to play at her feet, sometimes using her paints. Or sharpening her long pencils endlessly till they’d become small stubs. But while Akka looked like she was studying very hard, she wasn’t. She actually listened every day as her brother Baalu tried to learn the alphabet. And it bothered her that he never got past ‘H’. All her friends’ little sisters could reel off their A-B-C-Ds, non-stop up to P, or T and some even upto Z.
But she had a plan. She knew what Ballu liked. So she decided to put all his favourite things into his A-B-C-D book. What he loved most in the world was his grandmother, Ammamma. So, in she went, onto the first page of his book. Sudha cut out a large picture of her grandma and pasted it over that shiny apple. ‘A’ was now for ‘Ammamma’!
With a shudder, Sudha remembered that Baalu loved anything that made a noise. So out went the bee, replaced by “B for a blue balloon”, and she added, in her neat handwriting, “…that Baalu burst with a bang!” She wrote ‘BANG!” in big red letters and sat back to admire her work! She was very pleased with herself for squeezing in 5 words beginning with B.
The creepy crocodile was replaced by a bright orange carrot. And Sudha wrote, “C is for the cat who curled up to chew on a carrot!” Oh, this was so much more fun than her homework. She knew Baalu loved the drum, so she left that page alone. But then added a picture of their Hindi-speaking grandmother, Dadima. And she wrote, “D is for Dadima who drives a dump-truck (Baalu’s favourite toy) and plays the drums.” Sudha giggled at the thought of frail Dadima driving the heavy truck!
For ‘E’, she cut out an elephant and pasted it beside an ice-cream cone with multi-coloured toppings. Sudha wrote, ‘E is for the elephant who enjoyed Extra toppings of Everything!” ‘H’ naturally HAD to be a hippopotamus, who hated harps!
By the time she’d reached ‘T’, Baalu had excitedly joined her. He wanted a tiger, tooth-paste, a toy-train and some toffee on that page! Sudha thought deeply for a while…and came up with, ‘T is for a toytrain topped with toothpaste for the tiger who ate too much toffee!’ U was for ‘Uncle Muthu who hid under an umbrella in his underwear…’By the end of the week, all Mama’s friends wanted to know how Baalu had learnt the alphabet so fast! Sudha knew she’d done the best thing ever when she heard her brother tell his friend, ‘With my new ABC book, I feel just like the zebra on the last page who ‘escaped from the zoo by zooming away, zigzag-style to Zanzibar’! Yes, she had helped him escape from that dreadful ABCD book.