During an antenatal training program, Ranjeeta Mayanglambam, the author of Billie’s Book and mother of the eponymous Billie Lingjel, and her fellow trainees were asked a deceptively simple question: “What is that one thing you want to pass on to your yet to be born child?” Trained perhaps by centuries of social and moral conditioning, it is easy to reply “good values”. But what do “good values” entail in the context of our generation? Some, such as honesty, diligence, and kindness, are automatically included; in a hyperconnected world peopled by uncountable ethnic and racial communities belonging to differing economic classes, genders and sexual orientations, the definition of “good values” has expanded. “I lay awake that night, thinking deeply about that question,” says Eche Ranjeeta in my email exchanges with her. “I came up with all the values which I want my child to have. Most importantly I want my child to know it's okay to be different and that she deserves respect—no matter how she chooses to live her life—and at the same time, she must extend that respect to others.”
Eche Ranjeeta was born in Manipur. She grew up in Imphal, Now based in Sydney, Australia, she is the mother of a 14-month-old daughter and lives with her husband, who happens to hail from Singjamei. She never aimed to be a writer. Billie’s Book is the work of a mother who wants her child to grow up as a decent human being, as someone who takes pride in herself yet also views the individuals around her equally, irrespective of their religion or economic status; someone who does not condone cruelty; someone who cares for the environment.
This is where the charm of the book lies: the absence of parables and fables, and the presence and voice of the parent. Unsurprisingly, the first readers of Billie’s Book were not employees at publishing houses, but the author’s best friend, her sister, and their kids. One mother sharing with other mothers an idea she had come up with for introducing children early to moral and ethical concepts they will later have to imbibe and exhibit as they grow older. Encouraged by the positive feedback from her early readers, Eche Ranjeeta printed a hundred copies and circulated them to her friends, colleagues, and family members. She was advised to approach a publishing house and the book was ultimately accepted for publication by New Holland Publishers.
The format and design of the book is simplistic and appropriate for the target reading group of 4 years and above, with each chapter containing a lesson and an accompanying illustration. The lessons themselves focus on basics such as truthfulness and generosity, and go on to highlight the importance of accepting differences in opinions, faith, and choices. In one of the chapters, the author writes “We can wear whatever we like—whatever makes us feel comfortable”, a pivotal point that many might not give much thought to, probably because the topic doesn’t sound as serious as bullying or racism. Yet it is in keeping with Eche Ranjeeta’s primary objective of teaching the significance of respect and carries the same weight that the other lessons in the book do. The freedom to wear what we want to, to colour our hair burgundy or blue, or even to go entirely bald, is part of the larger movement for freedom of self-expression. It has become vital to let children open up to the existence of the many spectrums of individualities, rather than reinforce established norms through the assignment of gender, racial, and class roles. In another chapter, a young boy can therefore be seen helping both his mother and father wash the dishes.
Having read Billie’s Book, I can say that it puts the spotlight on acceptance. In my humble opinion, I feel that this aspect alone makes the text highly relevant reading and an experience both adults and children can undergo together. Our state is a microcosm of sorts of the world: multiple communities collectively swinging from harmony to discord like a relentless pendulum. There is nothing wrong with learning to love a little bit more. I hope that when the book reaches us, it meets success and receives the support it rightly deserves.
By: Natalidita Ningthoukhongjam
This book got featured in The Moodie report, review by Mr Martin Moodie himself.