Wordless Books

A Visit to the City Market

Manjula Padmanabhan

This wordless picturebook, along with several others, was kindly recommended to me in 2023 by Dr Prachi Kalra, an Indian academic teaching children’s literature at the University of Delhi. She told me that, although there are now several publishers in the country producing stories without words, this was ‘one of the first wordless books to appear in India’.

Aimed at preschool and early school-age children, A Visit to the City Market is a vivid and colourful story that depicts a mum and her two children out shopping in their local market. Not only is the book a window into a familiar activity that many of us experience, albeit in different ways, it is also a touching portrayal of close family relationships, particularly between the brother and sister.

Spread from A Visit to the City Market by Manjula Padmanabhan

The book is packed with interesting things for a young child to see, as well as animals to spot.

While the mum is serenely getting on with her shopping, chatting to people along the way, the children enjoy activities of their own. The girl posts a letter, shares a drink with her brother and buys some flowers. The boy ties his shoelace, looks at the hens and finds a kitten. They both help to carry the shopping bags home.

The trip is not without its perils, though. The boy’s bag has a hole in it, through which all his apples tumble, and later the girl trips over and hurts her hand. Both events are likely to be highly relatable to young children.

Spread from A Visit to the City Market by Manjula Padmanabhan

Throughout the story we see much warmth and kindness. For instance the girl points out the baby chicks to her brother, and he helps her to put a plaster on her wrist. Even the incidental characters are thoughtful. A dad picks up his daughter and a shopkeeper keeps a benevolent eye on the children.

The book also has subtle humour and visual jokes. For instance the pigeon sitting on the postbox looks distinctly nosey, and the three dogs, one of whom is busy scratching himself, are keeping a close watch to see if any treats might be coming their way.

Spread from A Visit to the City Market by Manjula Padmanabhan

The market is itself almost a character, with its varied and abundant assortment of produce for sale. There are numerous fruits and vegetables to identify, such as watermelons, pineapples, aubergines, red onions and carrots. All are displayed in large wicker baskets. Different types of fish are available, too, as well as a selection of flowers. Each of the stall holders is also uniquely distinctive.

Given that it was first published in 1986, there is now a historical element to these pictures. Inside one store we see a shop assistant with some traditional weighing scales, as well as a woman using a dial-up public payphone. While on the busy street outside the timeless traffic rumbles by, including a bus, car and motorbike.

Spread from A Visit to the City Market by Manjula Padmanabhan

Manjula Padmanabhan is a successful author, playwright, artist and cartoonist. She grew up in Europe and South Asia, returning to India as a teenager. She now lives in the United States but still has a home in New Delhi.

A Visit to the City Market was one of Padmanabhan’s early titles for children, but she has also written novels for adults.