Juggling between reality and idealism
15 April 2017
Apart from being a well-renowned writer, Padmashri Sudha Murty is the chairperson of Infosys Foundation and a member of public health care initiatives of the Gates Foundation. Her books have been translated into all the major Indian languages for which she has received various awards.
In an interview with Swetha Amit, she narrates the difference between authoring books for children and adults. Also in conversation are authors, Roopa Pai and Ranjit Lal who share their experiences on writing for both these segments.
You have authored books for both adults and children. Considering that your children's category of books are also read by adults, how would you describe the difference in penning down books for both these segments?
There is more responsibility in writing for children as I have been careful about choosing the right words, situations and ensure that there are hidden moral lessons in the stories. I cannot write the exact harsh reality as I feel that we need to give them scope to grow up with a ray of hope and dwell in idealism. Once they grow up, they will themselves see the stark reality that is present around them. However, for the adult segment, I feel I can write what I actually see and present the hard hitting reality in my stories to them.
|Publisher: Penguin Random House / Price: Rs 192|
Earlier Children's books were restricted to Amar Chitra Katha and Enid Blyton's series. However, today, children seem to be maturing at a faster rate. What are the challenges that you face as an author in inducing the interest of these children?
I try and make my stories natural as I strongly feel children are smart enough see through artificiality, which will make them lose interest eventually. So, I portray scenarios with multiple ingredients like a dash of kindness, compassion and a dose of humour, which enhances the flavour of the story. This masala mix makes it attractive to children and so far they have keenly read my books.
From Grandma's bag of stories, The Magic of the Lost Temple to the The Serpent's Revenge: Unusual Tales from the Mahabharata, you have captured the simplicity of short stories from an adventure in the interior belts to mythology. What has been the feedback from children about these wide range of books and how do you see the attitude towards mythology in the present Gen Y?
By and large, the feedback has been really good so far. There are one or two people who sometimes share that they didn't like one odd story. I then find out their reasons for it. Normally, when I write a book, I prefer that a child should read it first as children give true opinions.
As for children's attitude towards mythology, I feel if an author writes properly about the subject then they are bound to read them. Otherwise, they will end up reading Cinderella instead.
What books did you personally read during your growing up years and is there any particular book that has had a profound impact on you?
I used to read a lot. I grew up on a healthy dose of books. Books by K M Munshi, Mahabharata by C. Rajagopalachari, works of Khushwant Singh remain some of my favourites.
Ranjit Lal was born in Calcutta in 1955, and educated in Mumbai, graduating in economics and sociology. As a freelance writer and columnist over the last 30 years, he has had well over 1,500 articles, short stories, features and photo-features published in over 50 newspapers and magazines in India and abroad. The publications he has contributed to include all the major national dailies in India, as well as a slew of magazines - big, small and fledgling.
His areas of special interest include natural history (with a leaning towards birds and 'birding') photography, (especially birds and nature), humour, satire, cooking and automobiles, on which he writes for both adults and children. He is one of the few Indian journalists to write satire and humour on a sustained basis, in the hope of lightening the "deadweight imposed on readers by the mainstream media". He is the author of around 35 books. His book Faces in the Water on the subject of female infanticide won the Vodafone Crossword Award for Children's Writing in 2010 and the Laadli Media National Award for Gender Sensitivity 2012. He was honored by IBBY in 2012 for the same title
His book Our Nana Was a Nutcase which deals with dementia, won the Raymond Crossword Jury Award for Children's Writing 2016.
|Publisher: Rupa Publications / Price: Rs 294|
You have authored both adult and children's books. What are the differences and challenges you face as an author while penning down books for both the segments?
Actually all my books, even the so-called ones for an 'adult' reader can be and have been read by children. The Crow Chronicles for example was happily being devoured by 11 year-olds! Writing for children can be challenging but is huge fun.
Our Nana Was a Nutcase, which recently won an award for Best Children's Fiction at the Raymond Crossword Book awards, is a serious topic of Alzheimer's yet written in an endearing manner. How did you maintain that fine balance while writing a book which primarily deals with adults yet revered by children equally?
Writing on serious subjects such as Alzheimer's and female infanticide (which, I did in Faces in the Water) can be challenging. You have to try and imagine things from a child's perspective - and even that will depend on the age of the child. In Nana, for example the twins saw Nana's forgetfulness as an opportunity to wangle deals - and without quite realizing what they were doing, kept asking him the same questions twice a day because they were determined that he did not forget who they were. Which, was treatment in a sense, because that's what a neurologist also does! The elder two girls were naturally more upset because they knew what the future might have held.
Childhood is usually known to be a carefree stage devoid of anxiety and stress. So how do you think children deal with a grave condition like Alzheimer's today?
With our education system I don't think childhood is carefree anymore! Every day I see these poor kids plodding to school with enormous weights on their backs! But yes, children too will be upset when confronted by grave conditions - but I think have the ability to get back to their normal lives as soon as possible. They probably accept the situation much better than, maybe, adults do. I had major congenital heart problems but simply accepted the fact that for example as a child I could only play cricket once a day. No major psychological trauma here. You just accepted the situation and went on with your life.
What are the books that have influenced you during your childhood?
When I was a child, there was really only Enid Blyton and a few other children's writers: Richmal Crompton was a big favourite, as were the Biggles books. Books that I enjoyed would include The Three Musketeers, The Scarlet Pimpernel, The Prisoner of Zenda, The Count of Monte Cristo, books by Dickens, R K Narayan, Anita Desai (for their descriptions), Gerald Durrell, Lawrence Durrell, Kipling's Jungle Book, Jim Corbett, James Herriot, Mervyn Peake, etc. They are plenty of others too... (Umm...some of these authors/books were of course not exactly read when I was a 'child' but then you can remain a child even when you're post 60!)
Roopa Rai is a computer engineer who always knew she would write for children. She is the author of over 20 books, including Taranauts, India's first fantasy-adventure series for children, and the pop-science book What If the Earth Stopped Spinning? Her bestselling The Gita for Children won the Crossword Popular Award for Children's Writing in 2016. When she is not writing, pai combines three other loves - history, teaching, and in her hometown Bangalore her job as tour guide with heritage walks and tours company, Bangalore Walks.
While many authors write fantasy adventure for children, what made you choose a unique topic like the Gita to write about?
I didn't choose to write The Gita for Children, it chose me. I know, I myself would have found this kind of statement cheesy before I wrote this book, but it was really the way it happened. It was my editor at Hachette India, Vatsala Kaul-Banerjee, who wanted me to take a shot at interpreting the Gita for young readers. I resisted staunchly - I had never read the Gita in its entirety, and I was convinced therefore that I was not the person to be entrusted with the task of writing such a book.
But Vatsala didn't give up, and six months later, I finally agreed - not to write the book, but to read the Gita in the original and see if it changed my mind. By the time I had read the first two chapters, with the help of various commentaries and conversations with people who knew the text well, I was completely hooked. In fact, I began to regret that I hadn't read it earlier, and became determined to make it accessible for the children of today so that they wouldn't miss out like I had. And that's how this book happened. I had never imagined, in my wildest dreams, that I would write a book like this.
|Publisher: Hachette India / Price: Rs 220|
Your book Gita for Children recently won the popular award for children's fiction at the Raymond's Crossword Book Awards. Considering how complex the Gita is, how challenging was it to pen it down in a language that could be grasped easily by children?
I have been writing for children for over 20 years now, so the language was not the difficult part. I took a decision, quite early on, that I would use two language styles in the book. One a more classical style, for the part where I retell the actual conversation between Krishna and Arjuna, so that the reader never loses sight of the fact that she was reading an ancient book of wisdom, and the other a more contemporary, conversational style, for the Lessons from the Gita section that followed every chapter, in which I speak directly to readers about my interpretation of a key lesson from that chapter. The challenge was to come up with examples that 21st century children could relate to their own lives to understand the Gita's wisdoms. In the end, though, that didn't prove to be too difficult either - I ended up thoroughly enjoying the whole process.
With children growing up at a faster rate as compared to the earlier generation, how do you, as an author, manage to induce the interest in children to read your books? What has been the feedback so far?
Children, and adults, are always up for a good story, engagingly told. The medium of storytelling could be different - television, cinema, YouTube videos, newspaper articles, books - but if it is a good story, people will gather around to listen and read. In my experience, children are more willing to listen to something that sounds like a conversation rather than a speech, that shows them paths to walk on that they can pick from rather than taking them down on a particular path. So that's what I try to do with my books. The feedback to my books so far has been very positive, which is very gratifying because children are really hard to please and will not hesitate to let you know if they don't care for your book.
What is the difference in writing a book for an adult as opposed to writing one for children?
Not much. In both cases, you have to have a healthy respect for your reader, build a cast of memorable characters, and keep the narrative engaging. The only difference, perhaps, is that children prefer shorter sentences that aren't too 'dressed up' with big, descriptive words. They prefer to have the author cut to the chase rather than dwelling too long on descriptions and 'mood', and always enjoy humour and action as part of stories. But this is only a general observation, there are as many kinds of children as there are kinds of adults, and each child has his or her own preferences.
What books did you read during your childhood? Any particular favourites?
I read voraciously as a child. Amar Chitra Katha was a perennial favourite, as were Gerald Durrell and Ruskin Bond. But it was Enid Blyton who totally lit up my childhood. Books that caused the earth to shift beneath my feet included Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, The Diary of Anne Frank, and John Steinbeck's East of Eden.