Nani’s visits

My Nani always surprised me with her adventurous ways, her incredible memory, her sense of humour. For me, her visits to Casblanca were filled with tales of far away, with mantras and stories of Hanuman or Ganesha. Her cooking filled the house with smells of our “homeland” and her laughter was very contagious. Four years ago, as part of a project for my Masters degree in picture books for children, I had to illustrate a recipe that was special to me. Following that exercise I was asked to tell a story using both words and images explaining why it was so special. I chose my Nani’s nankathais (cardamom butter cookies). What I didn’t realise at the time, was that this project would transform into the a book where I would tell the story about Partition, about Sindhi Hindu exile, and more specifically, about how a family dispersed over four continents could remain united thanks to a vibrant, energetic grandmother.


The text for the original story is as follows: When i was little, Nani’s visits were very special events. She came from far away and she would stay for a long time. In her suitcase, she brought strange things…especially lots of stories to tell us at bedtime. Nani herself sometimes resembled one of the magical characters from her tales. She would wake up every morning around 4 and would do so many things with energy and smiles. And when she began to cook, our little home began to smell of new things that came from far away, like her. My favourite dish of Nani’s are her famous cardamom cookies. Nani’s Nankhatais. She would awlays prepare them to cheer me up and I so enjoyed eating them and feeling Nani’s scent.
I still do. Now Nani lives at home, and I live far away. But sometimes I can feel her energy. This past autumn, we prepared a very special celebration to share the light of Diwali with our friends. Despite the distance, Nani was with us.


After showing the initial story to close friends and family members -especially my brother Sanjay-  I understood that this project wanted to grow. Nani had so many adventures that I wanted to share. From my early childhood, I remember her as a traveling grandmother, bouncing around from one continent to another, with a suitcase (or two) full of surprises, spices, presents and most of all full of stories to tell us.



My Nani with the initial maquette of the book, telling me stories about Sindh


Around the time that I began working on this book, Nani slowed down on her travelling and gradually spent more and more time at my parent’s house in Casablanca. Although I lived at Madrid at the time, I travelled back and forth frequently so that I could collect her stories, anecdotes, tales and recipes. I documented everything I could, in audio/video recordings, photographs, notes and sketches.


Images from the little sketchbook I used to record my conversations with Nani between 2012 and 2016


A year into the project, Ekaré Ediciones confirmed that they wanted to publish the book. The most wonderful thing about having them as publishers was that I knew they would take care of it, respect my creative process and my rhythm. What I didn’t know was how long and laborious the process would be and that they would accompany me through it all, in more ways that I could imagine.

Besides talking to and recording Nani, I collected my research from my brother and my cousins, who had all experienced Nani’s visits as well. Sanjay, Anjali, Shalini, Sandhya, Kiran, Dinika, Anoop, Soneela, Meenakshi,  Jyotish and Sharan all sent me their childhood memories with Nani. When digging deeper into the past andI delved into family photo albums and fished out images to help me create a visual language for the book.


On the left a photo of Nani and Dada (my maternal grandparents) shortly after their wedding, and on the right  a photo of Nani about 20 years later in Ghana.
On the family photos and sketches. On the right, final image of our family tree

In early spring of 2015, inspired by my fascination for all things miniature, I sketched and wrote the entire storyboard for book on vignettes the size of business-cards. The process took a little over 2 weeks of work, doing little else.

During this time, my mother accompanied me virtually, sending me updated recipes and photographs of Nani’s sweets via whatsapp. Nani had this magical way of improvising in the kitchen, so trying to get precise measurements for ingredients was quite challenging.


In a bigger sketchbook dedicated to the project, I sketched and wrote out the entire storyboard for the book. The text in its entirety was written on these little vignettes – each page the size of a business card – until I finally transcribed them onto a computer after having gone through it with my publishers.
Satpuro and malpuro made by Mum to help me illustrate the recipes for the book


It took almost another year to begin the final artwork for the book. I realised that although I had all the elements to complete it, I was missing both the time and space to do so. In February of 2016, I treated myself to an artist residence at La Cala de Chodes which I have written about in several previous posts. During the residence, I worked on the final drawings for the book and on a mind-map mural which permitted me to tell my version of my family’s story. At that time, Nani was 92 and though less agile and nomadic, in good health and full of feisty energy. Besides her age, there was no indication that she would be leaving us any time in the near future, and yet I felt the need to reflect upon on memory, remembering and death. Nani left us just over a month after I completed the residence. I am very happy I had that time prior to her death to help me prepare for it.


Images by Rubén Vicente at La Cala
On the left, the first magic-realist scene in the book. My grandfather Dada, whilst on his deathbed, transforms into the bird-god Garuda, and flies around the world with Nani showing her all the homes she will have (those of her children) once he is no more. On the right, a miniature painting of Garuda.

During Nani’s last weeks, I just happened to be working on Chapter 3 of the book, which talks about the death of my grandfather, who had passed away almost exactly 33 years before. I spent ten days by her side, in the clinic, reading the Upanishads and sketching while she was asleep. It was then that I began to realise just Nani’s stories about Hindu mythology had marked my imagination through the years. I decided to accompany each chapter with the presence of at least one deity. As I was working on the chapter dealing most directly with death, I included Lord Yama, the god of death, in the final scenes of my grandfather’s life. Though the structure of the book remained exactly the same, this decision completely changed the book.

In the months that followed, I thought lots about how the constant presence of mythology, rituals and celebration accompanied me through childhood to my adult life. I know that much of this rich cultural heritage was transmitted to me by my Nani. Well into the final stages of the book, I began noticing works by other artists with similar stories about cultural transmission.


On the left Yama, Lord of death. On the right, image in process of the end papers of the book with a series of gods and goddesses


As I was living in Paris at the time, I bought Michele Petit’s Lire le Monde in French, devoured it within days. I was fascinated by her analysis of cultural transmission and how it is transformed or broken in families who have suffered exile. Weeks later, I attended one of her lectures at the BNF.  I was so moved to tears that I was unable to speak with her and after a few days,  wrote her a note to express my experience of her words. Months later, she asked to meet me and over cups of tea in a charming tearoom in the Marais neighbourhood of Paris we shared experiences of how stories had in some way transformed us. This haphazard and at once succinct encounter reconnected me to my own creative process. It transported me back to the very initial intention of my entire project: our lost homeland of Sindh to which my Nani constantly provided a link, through her language, her mantras, her songs, her stories and her cooking.

Once I had handed in all the original drawings for the book, I slowly climbed out of my creative bubble and began reading and researching again. I came across some works which really struck a chord within.

In her graphic novel Estamos todas bien, Ana Penyas records conversations with both of her grandmothers, their experiences through the dictatorship, how they cope with ageing. By capturing scenes and objects from daily life, she evokes a whole range of emotions, tenderness and memory. As I had just handed my own manuscript to the publisher, I was very happy to know that other artists around me were involved in such similar endeavours as my own.


Although I have yet to see her documentary about Sindhi exile titled Sindhustan, I came across Sapna Moti Bhavnani’s instagram account around the same time. A celebrity hairstylist by profession, she began recompiling stories and experiences of Sindi exiles. To pay homage to her ancestors she began tattooing representative images of each story in madhubani and ajrak style drawings on her legs. She explains it in beautifully in this interview.




The documentary was released in 2019, and is gaining international acclaim. On the official website of Sindhustan. Sapna writes about how she began the entire process:

“A decade or so ago, I was visiting India after living in America for 14 years. My body by then was considerably inked. One afternoon while lunching with my ‘nani’ (maternal grandmom), an inked woman herself, I found myself desperately trying to cover my inked body. She knew. She caressed my ink, smiled gently, and said, “Sapna, you’re so old fashioned”.

“You know, when we first came as a human race, we all had our markings, we all looked like you. Somewhere down the line we were told to wear clothes instead, shoes instead. Somewhere down the line, someone decided that’s how we were supposed to look. I’m happy to see you going back to our roots, your roots.” And this entire time I was getting inked rebelling Indina culture and expectations of being and looking like an “Indian” woman!

This was the afternoon that changed me forever.

My documentary includes stories from India and Sindh (Pakistan) and mine illustrating their journey on my skin using art forms like Arjak (Sindhi) and Madhubani (India) to tell the story of a land carried on the shoulders of its people and not rooted in any soil.

My legs, symbolising our journey and my feet, the lack of our roots.”



The book Las visitas de Nani was finally published in Spanish in September of 2018, six years after having begun the process. Since then, there have been presentations and exhibitions in Madrid, Santander, Barcelona, Guadalajara and Mexico City. The exhibition in Madrid evoked to me recreate the mural I began during my residence; only this time, it included originals from the entire book, objets, gods and goddesses, photos, recipes, letters, spices and a life size family mango tree. I will write about it in a future post.


Photos of las visitas de Nani, by La Particular Estudio


Song of the day

Mr. Cardamom – Nani