All About Nothing
by Nina Sabnani, written by Deeya Nayar
(WordBird Books, Spark-Tulika (India), 2005; first published 2000)
Available in English, Tamil, Malayalam, Hindi and Kannada
The slight topsy-turviness in the paradoxical title All About Nothing carries through to the actual format of this beautifully presented book: usually it’s the writer in the ‘by’ line, followed by ‘illustrated by…’ – but All About Nothing started out as an animated short, researched and conceptualised by Nina Sabnani, who has since written highly-acclaimed picture books such as My Mother’s Sari and Home. …And the whole book has been roped into telling the story – the introduction begins on the front and continues inside the cover, offering an overview of a world without zero; and the ending, on the back cover, brings the reader right up to what we know in the present – ‘that today’s important little circle of ‘nothing’, quite certainly, came from India’ – thereby also offering a tantalising blurb for the imaginative story within of how zero might just have come into being.
Sabnani’s research led her to the Bakhshali Manuscript, created around 200AD, which shows possibly the earliest use of zero in mathematical calculations. The text in the book is laid over a bhojpatra (birch) background to echo the original manuscript and the rich palette in the illustrations reflects the fabric dyes of the time. In Sabnani’s imagining of the story, Muchu, a jewel merchant, receives a huge order for diamonds at the end of his working day so that he has to stay up late to work out what the cost will be. Disaster strikes when he spills ink over his calculations and he has to start again – and then of course, he falls asleep, to be woken in the morning by his children who pepper him with questions both practical (Why did you not come home to sleep?) and about the empty circle he has drawn next to some of the numbers…
So the story is simple enough, but really gets across the paradox and wonder of the concept of shunya, as Muchu describes it or ‘zero’, as it became in English, in a way that might just make sense to young readers. Deeya Najar’s written narrative brings the story alive, with lively dialogue and some finely tuned humour. I love, for example, where Muchu comments on his wife’s chanting of the Hindu mantra ‘poornamadah poornamidam…’: ‘How sweetly she sings, “ he thought’ – and then he ‘hummed along tunelessly’ (my italics) – and it’s his humming of the prayer, translated into English in the story, that sets him on his way to unravelling the mystery of zero.
While young children will laugh aloud at the slightly single-minded eccentricity of Muchu, All About Nothing will also catch them up in the excitement of the discovery of shunya/zero, a concept that is now so inherent in our psyche, it is hard to imagine a world without it.
Read Saffron tree’s interview with Nina Sabnani (2013), where she talks about her most recent book Mukand and Riaz, as well as All About Nothing.
Take a peek at the book (via ‘Look Inside’).
Watch Nina Sabnani’s original animated short All About Nothing, which inspired the book.