Interview Posts

Interview: Kamila Shamsie on her Bold and Heart-Breaking New Novel, “Home Fire”

My interview with Man Booker Prize 2017 longlisted writer Kamila Shamsie has been published in Bookwitty on 29 August 2017. Here is

Kamila Shamsie’s latest novel Home Fire was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2017 within days of its release. Home Fire explores the complicated relationship Isma has with her younger twin siblings, Aneeka and Parvaiz. It is also a modern retelling of Antigone in which Isma, whose mother has died, works hard to raise her brother and sister. When they reach adulthood, Isma leaves for the US to study at university while her brother, Parvaiz, who has unfortunately become radicalised in Britain, leaves to join ISIS, following in the footsteps of their jihadist father. Aneeka, meanwhile, is torn between her love for her older sister and her twin. The idea of two sisters where one is conventional, bordering on timid but keeps the home fire burning while the other leaves home and enters the world of men with far reaching consequences has been encapsulated in myths and legends. There is Antigone and her sister Ismene from the Greek myth, and Mary and Martha in the New Testament. The Sophoclean chorus giving a background and a perspective on the “tricky” position British Muslims occupy is provided by the character of a Muslim MP and Home Secretary, Karamat Lone, and his son, Eamonn.

Following, are excerpts of an interview with Kamila Shamsie.

….

John McCormack’s song, Keep the home fires burning, was hugely popular during World War I, why did you choose as the title Home Fire and not Home Fires for your book?

Fire, not Fires, simply because there was both a TV series and another novel already out there with the name Home Fires. But actually, once I’d decided on ‘Fire’ I realized I preferred it because it moved away from the WWI song, and I didn’t want people assuming it was a First World War novel.

The title plays on the two meanings of Home Fire: it can mean welcome and warmth, as in ‘keep the home fires burning’ or it can mean a house on fire. I wanted both those meanings in there since this is a novel that has within it both intimacy/love and conflagration.

To read the full interview please visit Bookwitty.

30 August 2017 

Interview with Katy Derbyshire

I interviewed the fantastic translator Katy Derbyshire on her work for Bookwitty. The interview “Loving German Books” was published on Monday, 28 August 2017. Here is a snippet of the interview:

Katy Derbyshire comes from London and has lived in Berlin for more than twenty years. She translates contemporary German fiction. She was longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize 2017 for her translation of Clemens Meyer’s Bricks and Mortar. She has translated 23 books of fiction so far, by writers such as Inka Parei, Helene Hegemann, Christa Wolf, Simon Urban, and Annett Gröschner. She usually manages two or three books in a year, depending on the length. She also maintains an informative blog that focuses on “biased and unprofessional reports on German books, translation issues and life in Berlin”.

Are translations “ageless” or, to use Haruki Murakami’s phrase, do they need to be “rewashed” depending on the time they are published?

I think books that stand the test of time usually benefit from new translations. As a craft, literary translation passes through fashions but we’ve also got better at it as new resources have become available to us. It’s far easier for us to research on the word level now, and we can communicate readily with our writers. Scholars have teased out meanings that might have been missed previously. Editors are no longer as brutal with translations as they were in the 1950s and 60s, either, when whole passages were cut. So new translations often sparkle in a way earlier ones didn’t, yes, to pick up on the washing metaphor.

For more please visit the link on Bookwitty.

28 August 2017 

“Mahabharata”

DK India has published an incredibly sumptious edition of the classic epic Mahabharata. It was put together by a large in-house team working along with well-known mythologists and Mahabharata experts. It has resulted in this extraordinarily beautiful edition, impressive design, detailed page layouts where the text and illustrations complement each other well and incredible layers of information. In a sense the publishers have achieved practically the impossible of transfering the layered and embellished narrative style of oral storytelling into the fixed printed form.

The story is told through the 18 parvas as is in the familiar arrangement of the oral epic. As far as possible the structure of the oral narrative tradition has been adhered to in this print version. Every page a small portion of the story is narrated in simple English making it accessible to other cultures too. To accompany the text every page has been specially designed with different elements relevant to that particular context. These could vary from boxes on cultural details, mythology and folklore associated with the particular story, prayers and rituals passed through the ages, references to the versions of the epic/characters in art and literature, photographs of modern-day dance and theatre interpretations of the stories and a liberal sprinkling of historical artefacts and monuments that may help illustrate the text.

I interviewed Alka Ranjan, Managing Editor, Local Publishing, DK India who led the team which put together this book. Here follow edited excerpts of an interview published by Scroll.in on 20 August 2017:

1. Which version of the epic did you refer to?
We were keen to tell the entire story of the Mahabharata, including the Harivamsa, and, wherever possible, dip into the regional versions as well. To be true to the classical version, we referred to Bibek Debroy’s ten volumes of the Mahabharata, from where came some of the details of the stories and also the quotes. Ultimately for DK India it was the visual rendering of the epic which was more important, something that was not attempted before, and something that makes our book unique, setting it apart from the other books available in the market.

2. How long did this project take to execute from start to finish?
It took us almost 8 months to put together this book. To this we could also add 3 months of production. The entire team, including the technical members, reached 15, in some stages of the book.

3. Does DK have other religious texts illustrated in a similar fashion? Was there anything unique as a publishing experiment in this book?
DK has brought out the Illustrated Bible in the past. This book is in the same series style. Unlike our other reference books which work mostly like non-fiction with their dry, neutral tone, our version of the Mahabharata is yet another retelling of the epic. It was a challenge for the editorial team to adapt their skills to storytelling, to ensure the text flowed like a tale, weave in dialogues wherever needed, and inject drama to create impact.

4. It seems to be meant for the general market but the stories are easily told that a child too can read them. If that is the case then how did you manage such a gentle and easy style?
Our aim was to keep the stories accessible for a large readership, and in a lot of ways that is DK style. While we segregate our books in adult and children categories, depending on subject matter, comprehension level, interests, so on and so forth, the text for the adult ones is almost always aimed at ages 14 and above.

5. If you could have a section on “Mahabharata in art” why not have a section on the history of texts through the publication of this epic through the ages?

We could have done so many things with our book, but because it was going to be a visual retelling we decided to focus on art, showcasing the pervasive reach of the epic in our daily lives, and which made more sense, although a lot of our “boxes” talk about the different versions of the epic, including drawing parallels with Greek mythos.

6. This epic has been translated in other languages. Why not have images of those texts at well?

It was not always possible to get all images that we wanted, but we have used a couple of book covers to make the point about translations or different takes on the epic – mostly for latter. I can think of a book on Yudhishthira and Draupadi by Pavan K Varma which we used to discuss their relationship. We also used Mrityunjaya’s cover (Shivaji Sawant’s much celebrated book on Karna) on Karna’s profile. The choice of other retellings of Mahabharata invariably depended on the context of the stories we wanted to tell and the point we wanted to make and not the other way around. Some of the other books that find mention in ours are:

Kalidasa’s Abhijnana Shakuntalam
Tagore’s Chitrangada (with cover image)
Pavan K Varama’s Yudhisthira and Draupadi (with cover image)
Krushnaji Prabhakar Khadilkar’s play Kichaka-Vadha
Dinkar’s Kurukshetra and Rashmirathi
Shivaji Sawant’s Mrityunjaya (with cover image)
Bhasa’s play performance by Japanese students – Urubhangam

7. It would have been fascinating if a chapter on myth-making in this epic had been included as a standalone chapter rather than inserting boxes in various chapters. Why not address myth-making?

I take your point, and it would have been certainly interesting to have such a chapter now that you point it out. However, when we conceptualized the book, we were sure that we wanted the focus of the book to be on retelling the epic and layering them by adding side stories in boxes. We also wanted to have a few chapters/spreads on Hindu gods and goddesses, and philosophies, mainly to facilitate the understanding of the non-Indian readers, people not familiar with our cultural ethos.

8. How did you standardise the spelling of the names? What’s the back story to it?
We wanted us to use the more common spellings of the popular characters (Draupadi instead of Droupadi), although we did finally add the vowel sound at the end of some names, for instance “Arjuna” instead of “Arjun”, “Bhima” instead of “Bhim”, which takes the names closer to their Sanskrit pronunciation, but stuck to “Sanjay” not “Sanjaya” because it was a more common spelling.

9. Does the text of the books mentioned conform to the original text or have some creative license liberties been taken to retell it for the modern reader?

While most of our stories came from the original, classical text, we also dipped into the regional versions to borrow a few. For instance, Iravan’s story (A Human Sacrifice) came from the Tamil Mahabharata. Few other stories borrowed from regional versions are : Pururava’s Obsession

Draupadi’s Secret, Gaya Beheaded, Divine Vessel, News of Home, The Talking Head

10. Would you be creating special pocket book editions of relevant chapters? For instance I see potential in the section on women. If you had to resize it to a pocket edition with an introduction +original shlokas, the sales would be phenomenal.

Thank you so much for the suggestions. The book does lend itself to several spinoffs, and we have thought of a few. However, we wanted the current book to run its course before bringing out another one.

20 August 2017

M.G. Leonard Talks Beetles with Bookwitty

I interviewed the fabulous award-winning writer M G Leonard for literary website, Bookwitty. It was published on 1 August 2017. The original url is here but I am also c&p the text below. 

M. G. Leonard is the award-winning, bestselling writer of the Beetle Trilogy. So far, Beetle Boy and Beetle Queen have been published to a resounding welcome from readers worldwide. These are delightfully told stories about Darkus and his father Dr Bartholomew Cuttle who get mixed up in Lucretia Cutter’s mad, hair-brained, bordering-on-dangerous scheme. The two novels published have a big dollop of the fantastic but are an utterly delicious blend of modern science and imaginative storytelling that explores the plausible but so far speculative limits of life as we know it. The stories are meant for middle-graders, and deftly etch the grey area children and adults cohabit, as children enter their teens. M. G. Leonard spent her early career working in the music industry, and then trained as an actor, dabbling in directing and producing as well as performing, before deciding to write stories. Maya Leonard lives in Brighton with her husband and two sons.

Why write a trilogy about beetles? Was the trilogy worked out as one composite plan or did the stories develop as you wrote them?

Beetles are so interesting, that it would have been impossible to fit everything I wanted to say into one book. It was always going to be a trilogy because I like tightly structured stories, and didn’t want to write an open ended series that went on until readers were bored of the concept or characters. I had a loose outline for each of the three books, but these developed as I wrote them. One thing I’ve always known is the ending for each book in the trilogy.

How did you get into storytelling? The blend of science and stories come together so nicely.

I became a storyteller by working in the theatre. I have worked at some of the best theatres in the UK for nearly twenty years, and had the honour to share a working space with some of the greatest writers and performers in the world. This has been both a joy and an education, and given me the confidence to start telling my own stories. I have never been a scientist, but a playwright that I respect once told me that you should write about what you want to learn about, because the joy of discovery and the wonder of understanding will infuse your work. This is what I have done. At the beginning, I knew nothing about beetles and was afraid of all insects.

How did you get into writing for children? What is your routine?

I did not make a decision to write for children, but I knew my protagonists had to be children because they have open minds, hearts and are curious about the world. More often than not, Adults have made up their mind what they think about the world. An adult could not experience the same journey as Darkus, because they already know what they think about beetles. Of course, now that I am writing for children, I’ve also realised that my inner age is around twelve, I don’t feel like I’m a grown up. I don’t know many adults that do.

If I’m on the road, promoting, then I will write on trains, in hotels or in airport department lounges. If I’m at home, my writing routine is to get up early, before my children wake and write as much as I can. Then I must begin the day and take them to school. Once I return I will edit something else and take care of admin. I write best in the early hours.

Although Beetle Boy and Beetle Queen are meant for children, these stories address a range of “adult-like” issues: environmental disasters, evolution, genetics and transgenics, funeral rituals etc. It seems if you have been concerned about these for a very long time. Is that so?

I am a mother and a gardener, and I fear our attitude to the planet is abusive and will ultimately lead to great suffering and perhaps our own extinction. I mourn the number of creatures who have become extinct because of our attitudes to their habitats, and hope that by writing about these things I may inspire children to care about insects and the environment. Once a person cares about something, they are more likely to protect it.

What is the most interesting aspect of genetics for you?

The debate about when it is right to interfere with the genetics of a creature and when is it not goes back as far as Frankenstein, which is one of my favourite books. I do not have an opinion on what is right or wrong, as I don’t understand the complexities of the science or the implications of the act, but I know that humans have modified fruit flies and mosquitos. It is only a matter of time before someone modifies a beetle, and they are the most evolutionarily successful creatures on the planet. This both terrifies and fascinates me.

This story is worthy of good speculative fiction. Do you enjoy reading sci-fi? If so who are the writers you admire?

I do enjoy sci-fi, but have not read it exhaustively. My favourite sci-fi book, and one of my favourite books ever, is Dune by Frank Herbert. There is so much to be admired about this book. A great sci-fi book marries philosophical thought with science and Frank Herbert does precisely this. As I mentioned above, I am a huge fan of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which is possibly the greatest science fiction book ever written. The third science fiction writer I have to take my hat off to is Douglas Adams, because I like to laugh and I find humour a wonderful digestive aid when it comes to facts. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a delight and ferociously clever. All three books I have mentioned I’ve read more than three times, which is a testament to how good a book they are.

What are your views on the debate about environment versus evolution?

Several well-respected scientists have suggested that there is no intelligent life form on other planets capable of communicating with us because whilst there will be life in the universe, intelligent life evolves to a point where it causes its own extinction. I suspect, unless we alter the way we live, putting the environment first and preserving the balance of the ecosystem, this is what will happen to humanity. There can be no positive evolution without protecting the environment.

Will Beetle Boy and Beetle Queen be optioned for film or an animation series? These seem to be stories that would work very well in the edutainment space.

I will do everything in my power to create a film or animated version of the books, because I wrote them with this in mind, however I feel very strongly that the central message and educational content of the books not be thrown out in a desire to make it commercial. I am searching for producers who will honour these important elements of the stories as well as having the clout to get a production off the ground.

Your writing is very visual. Do you draw as well?

I do draw, but not well. I think the visual element of my stories comes from being a producer and working with film, which I’ve done on and off for over twenty years.

What are some of the more interesting questions children have asked you?

I get asked all sorts of questions about writing but mostly about beetles, and I can usually answer them, but, after explaining about the short life span of some adult beetles, one child asked me if beetles experienced time at the same speed as humans, and I was flummoxed! Other than saying that time was a human construct, there was no real way for me to answer, and I think it is a wonderful question. I often sit and think about it.

Both the books are originally published by Chicken House and distributed in India by Scholastic India. 

2 August 2017

“Centaur” by Declan Murphy and Ami Rao

God grant me the serenity

to accept the things I cannot change;

courage to change the things I can;

and wisdom to know the difference. 

“The Serenity Prayer” Declan Murphy would recite in school everyday.

 

On 4 May 1994 jockey Declan Murphy was fell down while racing and before he could get up he was kicked in the head by another horse. It has been termed as one of the biggest racing horse accidents ever. Internationally it was a disastrous weekend for the sports world. The day before the world had lost the legendary Formula1 racing driver Ayrton Senna and the day before that Roland Ratzenberger. Declan Murphy was the third sportsman to be injured in what was deemed to be a fatal fall.  He was so badly injured with his skull being fractured in twelve places. There is a vivid description of the course doctor placing Declan Murphy’s helmet and colours still dripping with his  blood in the middle of the room and all the horsemen watching on horror. Racing Post had even readied his obituary which they fortunately never published but only showed it to him once he recovered. Yet within eighteen months he was back riding and won a race!

A racehorse in full flight is a thing of beauty; an artist, an enigma. An elite athlete that bursts into life in a bid to perform. Every minute at full gallop, a thoroughbread pumps some 1,800 cubic litres of air in and out of its lungs. Its heart beats 250 times — nearly five beats a second — to pump 300 litres of blood around its body, all to achieve that singular goal: speed.

That day, the light shone on Jibereen. He was performing for me, one breath perfectly in time with one stride as he raced towards the finish, the organs in his body working together in exquisite harmony, pumping the oxygen from his lungs to his heart, from his heart to the muscles that powered his spectacular speed. 

And I felt it. At that moment, I felt it, like I had felt it my whole life. The spirit of the animal underneath me: the power and the pride, the swiftness and the strength, the majesty and the gentleness and the grace. 

I felt my horse. 

I was at one with it. 

I was a liminal being.

I was CENTAUR.

In a fabulous Afternoon  Edition Extra Declan Murphy described his “deep reluctance” to do this book. It was Ami Rao’s persuasiveness that won him over. He was hesitant to do Centaur as no one knew till he agreed to do this project that he had absolutely no memory of the four years prior to his accident. In the interview he adds graciously that it was “to her credit and to her brilliance really she regained her composure restructuring the period. She had determination. ”

Centaur is a book about sportsmanship. The grit and determination a sportsman has to win over and over again comes through very clearly. This is a book which does deal with the passion and single-minded focus of Declan to win every single race. A great example of his determination and putting mind over matter is the battered and bruised jockey at Cheltenham who insisted on going in for his race only to win it even though his valet Johnny Buckingham said Deccan looked as if he was on a “completely different planet”.  He may not have wanted to be a jockey but when he found himself one he was not going to be mediocre at it. He gave it all that it took and he did a fine job!
Centaur is an extraordinary account of fate and strong faith which are absolutely impossible to explain logically. Ami Rao may recount what occurred but why it happened the way it did can never be comprehended by a logical human brain.  It’s best to go with the flow and appreciate the sequence of events and in the miracle of life.
Renowned brain surgeon Henry Marsh said in his though-provoking memoir  Admissions: A Life in Brain Surgery   “The brain cannot feel pain:  pain is a sensation created within the brain in response to electrochemical signals to it from the nerve endings in the body. …Thought and feeling,  and pain,  are all physical processes going on within our brains.  There is no reason why pain caused by injury to the body to which the brain is connected should be any more painful,  or any more ‘real’,  than pain generated by the brain itself without any external stimulus from the body…. The dualism of seeing mind and matter as separate entities is deeply ingrained in us,  as is the belief in an immaterial  soul which will somehow outlive our bodies and brains. “
Centaur is full of hope and the writing style is so refreshing — probably because both Declan Murphy and Ami Rao are writing straight from the heart that the narrative style does not follow any predictable structure. No wonder the book is being lauded and made it even to the Sunday Times Bestseller List.
Read Centaur.
Declan Murphy and Ami Rao Centaur Doubleday, Transworld Publishers, Penguin Random House, London, 2017. Pb. pp. 308 

22 July 2017

Guest post: On Krishna Baldev Vaid

(Dr Shobhana Bhattacharji retired as professor of English Literature from Delhi University a few years ago. Her doctorate is in Lord Byron’s drama. She is fluent in English and Hindi. She reviewed Krishna Baldev Vaid’s novels when they were first published by Penguin India in the 1990s. Now the books have been rejacketed and reissued. Here is her review with a short introductory note.)

The translations of Krishna Baldev Vaid‘s two autobiographical novels were so different to each other that I read the Hindi versions to see whether the difference was in the originals. Till then, I had not read the original of a translated work I had to review on the principle that a translation is meant for a target audience and I tried to read it like an ideal target reader. Reading these novels in Hindi, however, taught me how much a translator, even if the translator is the author himself, can alter a novel. The Hindi title of Steps in Darkness is Uska Bachpan. The title of the second novel in Hindi, written 25 years later, was Guzra Hua Zamaana, which was also a famous Madhubala/Lata film song from the sad love story Shirin Farhad, filmed in 1956. It is Shirin’s final goodbye to her beloved Farhad as her ‘doli’ (bridal conveyance) leaves for her husband’s home. She begs Farhad not to accuse her of infidelity; her marriage to another man was not of her making. Vaid‘s novel is a searing farewell to his beloved pre-Partition India.

 I met Krishna Baldev Vaid for the first time soon after the review was published two decades ago — August 1996. He told me he had liked it very much. All these years later, I am still honoured and delighted that he did.
Dr. Shobhana Bhattacharji ( June 2017) 

These two novels, written a quarter of a century apart, centre around Beero, who lives in a small town in undivided Punjab. In the first novel, confused by the adult world, and suffocated by the poverty of his home, Beero is young enough to enjoy snuggling in his grandmother’s lap. His parents are embarrassed to beg the shopkeeper for goods they cannot pay for, so they send Beero, whose dignity is lacerated by this as it is by his torn shorts and having to fetch his father from the gambling den. He escapes into his dreams. The filth and stink of their slum assail the reader but Beero entertains himself with a hornets’ nest in the drain. He dreams of tying some hornets together by their legs and making a kite for himself. None of his dreams is fulfilled. There is no money to buy or make kites. His happiness in his grandmother’s stinking lap is free, but is taken away because his mother hates it.

His friends unwittingly remind him of his unhappiness. Aslam, for instance, has a happy home and a beautiful married sister, Hafeeza, whom Beero gets a crush on. Beero’s mother hates “Muslas” and warns her son against them, but Beero eats at Aslam’s home and becomes “half a Muslim,” as he says in the second novel in which he also recites the kalma. Beero’s own home is riven with misery. The parents have terrible fights over money, the father’s drinking, gambling, and friendship with a sardar, called “Miser” by Beero’s mother who suspects her husband–rightly, as it turns out in the second book–of sleeping with the Miser’s beautiful wife. The mother spits venom and turns everything into tense misery. Her rages dominate Beero’s life but not his understanding. There is a searing passage where a bored Beero, who wants to hear about kings and princesses, listens to what he considers his mother’s complicated repetitious story of her early married life:

O, it was hell. Your Granny used to starve me for days on end. She used to lock me up in the lumber-room; I wonder I didn’t die of fear. No one ever cared for me. Neglected, I used to cry all by myself all the twenty-four hours. Your father was even then addicted to loafing. He never came home from school. Your Granny is to blame for spoiling him. She was always reproachful toward me because I had no sense. What sense could I have at that age?. . . Girls of my age were still playing hide-and-seek in the lanes while I had to wash mounds of clothes. In winter my tiny hands were always numb. I had fever every night; my bones used to ache; and all I had to sleep in was a worn-out blanket. Oh, the long dark frightful winter nights I spent shivering and crying, silently, for at the slightest sound your Granny would get up and start cursing the day she married her son to me. . . .Very often just as I lay down late at night after a day’s drudgery I would be commanded to press your Granny’s legs. While doing that if I happened to doze off I was kicked and beaten. (49-50).

Stories weave a complex pattern through the novel. There is, for instance, the richly ironic echo of the Ramayan in Beero’s mother’s name, Janaki. Beero’s love for fairy stories is soon replaced with fantasies of a fight-free home. Once he actually makes a fantasy come true. Anticipating a storm if his mother comes out of the kitchen and sees a hated neighbour talking to Devi, Beero’s sister, he efficiently lies to both parties of the potential war and gets the neighbour out of the house. Beero has two aims: to comprehend the world and to make it a less anxious place. When the domestic violence gets out of hand, he tries to die, but even that escape is not permitted. We leave him looking into a mirror which he has broken.

The wonder of Steps in Darkness lies in its graceful intermingling of the child’s confusion with solid details of the place, its people and their relationships. Its power is in its language. When one responds in two languages to a book, one wonders how much of Tolstoy and others one has missed. Some translation, of course, is better than none, and some translations are better than others. In this one, for instance, the curses, especially the vivid “progeny of swine” or “progeny of a dog,” require less than a second to translate back into the original and with it come stomach-knotting memories of school in Punjab where either curse would result in furious battles. Because of such violent consequences, “kutte ka bachcha” means much more–at least, it did forty years ago–as an insult than “son of a bitch,” and one is grateful that the author did not use “son of a bitch” in his translation. There are few glitches. For instance, “loaves” for “chapatis” doesn’t work. “Loaves” would probably remind most middle-class readers of Britannia bread. For readers unfamiliar with chapatis, to speak of two or three loaves per person, even among the well off, would be unbelievable.

On the whole, however, the translation has a cultural flavour that the second book does not. Its English is smoother, less defamiliarized, but sometimes, as in “soul” of a singer’s voice (27), one is uncertain what the original might have been. (It is “soz”.) Occasionally, the translation  illuminates both versions, e.g. “gorilla” for “pehlwan.” Of course, not every reader will respond in two or, as these books require, three languages, but one misses the immediacy of Steps in Darkness.

There is a lot of mysteriousness in the novel. Why do Devi and her father weep at the end of the novel? What is Naresh’s relationship with his “mother”? Why is Aslam withdrawn after his sister leaves for Lahore? Some of the incomprehensibility is consistent with the child’s steps in darkness, but there should have been some way of making the reader know more than Beero.

The wonderful preface of Guzara Hua Zamana has been dropped in The Broken Mirror. In it, the character Beero talks of how the writer created an incomplete Beero in the first novel and then tried to flesh him out in later stories. Twenty-five years later, Beero tells him that he cannot escape another novel about Beero and that if the novelist is going to drag his feet over it, Beero himself will write it. At this point, he says, he fainted and when he recovered, the novel had been written.

In this first person narrative, Beero tries to piece together the images split by the shattered mirror of the end of the previous story but gives up the attempt because, as he says in passing, the partial stories he had written were lost in the Partition riots. The Broken Mirror is composed of his different worlds–Lanes, Bazaar, Lahore, and Borderlands. The English version does not have Beero’s caustic critique of the first novel. Other minor details that have been dropped also take away from a richness that Guzara Hua Zamana has. For instance, Allah Ditta’s incompetence is wonderfully conveyed in the casual comment that he must have murdered some Iranian doctor, stolen his degree, and set up practice here. No one believes this, of course, but the remark has a vigorous and delighted inventiveness which is characteristic of much Punjabi speech (and Bombay filmi dialogue).

Still, The Broken Mirror resolves much of the mysteriousness of Steps in Darkness. Although the publication details in this edition wrongly suggest that it was written nineteen years after Steps in Darkness, the style bears out that it is more than a sequel. The hesitation of the earlier novel which may have been the child’s as well as the author’s, and which resulted in withholding information from the reader, is replaced with a crisp narration of details. The powerful story of Beero’s adolescence and the unlooked for political freedom which incarcerates them in fear and Bakka’s barn does not need stylistic fancy footwork to impress the reader.

The most powerful aspect of The Broken Mirror is the building up of events towards Partition. Initially, the idea of separation remains in the background. Muslim, Sikh and Hindu friends hang out together. Then Aslam notices that the two Sikhs in their group have begun to talk strangely and advises Beero to be circumspect before them. Language and humour are the first casualties of this growing monster of hatred. Occasionally people mention the possibility of Pakistan. Then, with a mere change of tense, they talk of “when the riot occurs,” and Hindus begin to send their belongings to the “other” side. Finally, Pakistan is a reality. Communal positions harden, bewildering Beero even more than the adult world did in Steps in Darkness. In a magnificent few pages, Krishna Baldev Vaid narrates the activity of a Peace Committee meeting which has been called by the marginalized of the town: a Congress man, Keshav, In-Other-Words, and an aging prostitute who says she is like Gandhi because she does not discriminate against any community in her work. The unpredictable swings from hostility to brotherhood and back again are terrifying because they defy rationality, and because we have seen them again in the run-up to and aftermath of the breaking of the Babri Masjid. Then come the engulfing madness and killings of 1947.

Hiding in Bakka’s barn, Beero’s mind is a spate of words. Narrative breaks down just as everything else has. He struggles to understand events and himself. All he knows is that he lacks Keshav’s courage to die for a cause, and that he cannot kill anyone or blame any one side for being the prime mover of the violence. Eventually, in tearless bewilderment and with heads down, they go to the makeshift refugee camp in the school. There, beside an abandoned, bloodied baby girl, Beero finally cries.

With a book that achieves the nearly impossible business of hiding its craftsmanship, there is little one can do except break the unwritten code for reviewers and tell the story. But no retelling can capture the delicacy, intricacy, and strength of this extremely moving novel.

Krishna Baldev Vaid  Steps in Darkness (trans. from Hindi by the author); The Broken Mirror (trans. from Hindi by Charles Sparrows in collaboration with the author) New Delhi: Penguin India, rpt 2017, 1995 (first publd. New York, 1962); New Delhi: Penguin, rpt 2017, 1994 (first publd. In Hindi, 1981)

14 June 2017 

An Interview with Sam Miller on his Tribute to his Fathers

( I interviewed Sam Miller on his memoir Fathers for Bookwitty. It was published on 13 June 2017.)  

Veteran journalist Sam Miller was born and brought up in London but chose to spend the better part of his life in India. His father was the renowned literary journalist, Karl Miller, who co-founded the London Review of Books. His mother, Jane Miller, is a writer who has also worked as a publisher, translator and teacher. Miller joined the BBC World Service and was stationed as the BBC TV and radio correspondent in Delhi and then as Managing Editor, South Asia. His love for India runs deep as is evident in the many books he has published: Delhi: Adventures in a Megacity (2009), Blue Guide: India ( 2012) and a Strange Kind of Paradise: India Through Foreign Eyes (2014).

His elegant essay for Granta, “Gandhi the Londoner” makes for a compelling read. It was propelled in large part by Sam Miller’s curiosity about the years Gandhi spent in London upon his arrival in 1888, a period glossed over in Richard Attenborough’s Oscar-winning film. What comes through clearly is Sam Miller’s obsession to know more about the past, in particular that which is less remembered in the popular imagination, and to weed out historical inaccuracies that may have crept into modern retellings of this period in Gandhi’s life. It is this remarkable quality as a discerning writer and historian that comes together beautifully in Sam Miller’s recent memoir Fathers. In early 2014 Miller returned to his childhood home in London to spend time with his father, who was dying. Shortly after his death, Miller began to write about his father, investigating a family secret that he had been told about years ago, involving his parents and a close friend. With his mother’s help, his father’s documents, and interviews with people from the large circle of his parents’ friends, he put together a heart-warming memoir that explores childhood, marriage, and friendship, as well as exploring the personal relationship each of his parents had with their closest friend from Cambridge, Tony White.


Miller kindly answered questions for Bookwitty:

How many drafts did this memoir take? It flows smoothly as if it just wrote itself. There is almost magically ethereal quality to it.

It was the easiest thing I’ve ever written; it just came pouring out of me. There were one and a half drafts really. I’d written about half the book in conventional chapters, with long passages of prose. It felt a bit stodgy and linear to me, with all those ‘joining together’ sentences that often feel artificial. At the time, I was reading a French book called HHHH by Laurent Binet, and he uses short numbered chapters—and I tried it out, breaking up the text, inserting a few mini-chapters that enabled me jump more easily in time and place. I hope it allowed the text to flow more smoothly, more naturally—bringing it a little closer, in my view, to the way we talk and the way we think. I read my words out loud to myself as I write, and it is important that the text sounds right, as if I were writing for radio.

The elegant manner in which you write investigating your paternity also conveys the immense love you grew up with. Was Fathers emotionally tough to write?

It felt good for me, as if it were a kind of therapy, a way of releasing something that I’d half-buried. But it also was about dealing with grief, and a more specific sense of anger with myself for having not been there when my father died.

This story is as much yours as it is your parents’ and their close friend Tony White. How did you feel about your mother supporting you on this project? Would you have written this memoir if it had not been forthcoming?

I write anyway, not always for publication. So I think I would have written this tale, for myself at least. But my mother was always part of the story, and the telling of the story. I wouldn’t have published it without her support.

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Karl Miller and Tony White at a Christmas party, 1960

How closely involved was your mother with this manuscript? Were you required to make any critical changes in the drafts—sections you felt needed to stay and your mother thought otherwise or vice versa?

I would talk to her as I was writing, but only showed it to her in larger chunks. We did discuss minor changes, but nothing I would describe as critical. I know so much of the story through her anyway (and she is a writer too); that it has a strong Jane Miller imprint on it, though the final version is very much mine in style and content.

The forgiving nature of your father is an extraordinary quality to have just as the calm acceptance of your presence in the lives of the three adults: Karl and Jane Miller and Tony White. While writing Fathers did you ever wonder about the evolution of the institution of marriage? It seems to have been far more accommodating in your parents’ generation than it is today.

I don’t feel very well equipped to comment on the institution of marriage, but I do think that almost every couple’s relationships are pretty different from each other. And therefore simply following convention and ideas of normality are not a great basis for forming a relationship. I’m not quite sure that ‘forgiving’ is the right word here; I think my father’s response was more complicated than that and related to his own upbringing, and to his own ideas about the (un) importance of fidelity.

Does the crucial family secret your mother shared make you ever wonder about the popular debate about genetics vs environment being influencing factors in the growth of an individual?

Yes, I do. But I’ve not come up with any useful conclusions. I’ve been intrigued to notice the ways in which I am similar to Tony White, but these are not necessarily genetic. They could be learned, from what I know of Tony—and more indirectly and even subconsciously via my parents.

Many times in the memoir you allude to your father’s poems describing his friends bordering on the homoerotic or comment often on his close male friendships which, for his generation, seem nothing out of the ordinary. “Karl Miller struggled to reconcile close male friendship with the possibility or reality of homosexual love. My father was not, I think, a homophobe, but was sensitive to accusations that he might be.” Do you think it’s fair to your father and his generation to read in to their relationships what is a popular 21st century concept of homosexuality?

I’m not so sure that it was so different in the fifties; it was just talked about less. I would distinguish homoeroticism from homosexuality, as think my father would, and as I think Thomas Mann would have even before my father was born.

While writing this memoir were there any others you referred to as literary examples to emulate?

Not really. It was written for me, and then my mother. I was pleasantly surprised when the earliest other readers liked what I had written—I had been expecting them to suggest changes, particularly to the structure.

Of all the diverse genres you have published, travelogue, translation and memoir, which has been the most challenging and why?

I’ve written a history (A Strange Kind of Paradise) and a guidebook (Blue Guide India) as well! The guidebook was most exhausting. The history book involved the most research—and that was probably the most challenging—I wanted it to be interesting for people who think they aren’t interested in history. The publication (rather than the writing) of Fathers was quite a challenge – a nerve-racking experience. I was apprehensive about the response to what I had written. But the response has been largely positive.

Sam Miller Fathers Jonathan Cape, London, 2017. Hb. 

13 June 2017 

Geronimo Stilton: The publishing phenomenon it is in India ( and worldwide)

My article on Geronimo Stilton has been published in Scroll on 11 June 2017. It is entitled “Even children who don’t read are addicted to this series of books about a mouse. Why?” I also interviewed Claudia Mazzucco, CEO of Atlantyca SpA. who publish and translate the books as well as Neeraj Jain, Managing Director, Scholastic India who distribute the series locally. 

The Geronimo Stilton series is an incredible phenomenon in children’s publishing in India. In the five years since this series – starring the eponymous mouse who is a bestselling writer and the editor of The Rodent News – was launched here by Scholastic India, one million copies have been sold already. The immense popularity of the books – which have been translated from Italian into English – has actually transcended the realm of regular book fairs and book stores, with the pull coming from even stationary and toy stores.

“Geronimo Stilton as a series is rich with everything that children love in their books. They are replete with humour, they have nail-biting adventures featuring action set pieces in an age-appropriate and non-violent way. There was (and still is) nothing like this in the Indian children’s books category,” said Neeraj Jain, managing director at Scholastic India. The marketing campaign has been unique, he added.

“We waited for a while for the series to develop some word-of-mouth publicity,” Jain said. “Once the buzz grew, we went ahead with an on-air campaign on radio. There have been sustained visibility exercises through displays, character visits and special collaterals across schools that we reach out with to book fairs and book clubs. We carried out The Great Geronimo Tour of India in 2016 where there were character visits and activities at Tier II cities across India. The tour was also amplified on radio and social media.”

Children, many of them not big readers in general, have been lapping up these books and waiting eagerly for the next instalment. According to some retailers, schools are actually beginning to issue directives to book exhibitors not to sell Geronimo Stilton books as children are hooked and refuse to read anything else!

In this talk delivered in 2012, Elizabetta Dami, creator of Geronimo Stilton, said that the idea to create these stories came from her storytelling sessions with patients in a children’s hospital ward. She was clear that while the stories had to grip the child’s imagination, they also had to work at multiple levels like inculcating values and giving the young readers hope. Her own publishing house began to create these stories, after which she joined hands with seasoned publisher Pietro Marietti.

In September 2006, Marietti established Atlantyca Entertainment to forge new business opportunities for the company’s library of entertainment book properties. Since then, as chairman of the firm, Marietti has published over 100 titles in the Geronimo Stilton series. It has generated business worth more than $1 billion.

This growth is also attributed to strategic licence sales, such as bi-monthly comic book magazines, toys, stationery products, as well as a Broadway show called Geronimo Stilton: Mouse in Space presented by Orlando Repertory Theatre (January 2017). Amazon Prime has also committed to two seasons (52 episodes) of an Italian-American-French animated series.

Claudia Mazzucco, CEO of Atlantyca SpA., talked about the series, its origins, and what it takes to keep up the momentum of its phenomenal popularity over generations. Excerpts from the interview:

How did Geronimo Stilton come about? There is no guarantee that an anthropomorphised mouse will be a hit with kids.
The Geronimo Stilton editorial series was initially published in eight titles by the Italian publishing house Dami Editore. Then Elisabetta Dami joined the publishing company Edizioni Piemme as a shareholder and, jointly with the owner Pietro Marietti, they developed the Geronimo Stilton project both on the editorial and the marketing side.

Why did you choose to create the text for children in this manner – multicoloured and diverse fonts?
The “graphisms” in the actual format aim to add an emotional meaning in a funny and witty way to the literal meaning of the word. This helps children to catch the meaning in a blink with the valuable result, among other, to encourage even reluctant readers to read.

Are these texts based on some technical knowledge about creating reading material for younger children? Somewhat similar to Ladybird’s Read It Yourself, Harper Collins’s I Can Read and Dr Seuss books? I ask since these books are poised beautifully in that space between picture books and chapter books but with some characteristics of game books such as those created by Livingstone (1970s). The Geronimo Stilton series definitely helps a child read easily.
This result was achieved little by little at the very beginning of the development of the editorial series in Edizioni Piemme, thanks to the editorial team, the leadership of Mrs Dami and Mr Marietti, and the enthusiastic feedback of young readers.

The rapidity with which these titles are released every month matches the pace of a magazine subscription, but it is actually a book. How does your publishing firm manage it?
The editorial team is a very well-trained engine and they rely upon a big community of illustrators and graphics that have been collaborating for years.

Are some of the titles created specifically for some countries and not for the rest of the world, such as Bollywood Burglary?
The titles are created for a worldwide market. Some themes are suggested by foreign publishers but the books are developed in order to be licensed and distributed all over the world.

What is the turnaround time of a story from conception to publishing?
About five months.

The themes of the stories selected are very modern and at times, topical. How does this come about? Apart from an editorial team does the firm also rely on the feedback from young readers? Are there any special moments or letters that have been memorable?
All over the world, children’s publishers have to be open to changes because their consumers are children – the more flexible, demanding, unpredictable community of the publishing market. The editorial team is even more careful because of the strong ethical commitment of this particular intellectual property. Moreover, a website for children and the related community gives immediate feedback with their comments to books and the marketing initiative.

In contemporary fiction for children, three characters come immediately to mind who have had such huge success – Gruffalo, Peppa Pig and Geronimo Stilton. Do you have any thoughts or insights on why this may have happened? Why now? Of these three only Geronimo is in translation.
We have to make a distinction between properties based on an animated series or movie and those which are based on an editorial series. The first ones derive their popularity from the large-scale awareness that broadcasters can grant. The latter have a different, slower and more resilient evolution. A book-based character and the related brand, once they have reached a level of popularity, can last for years, and can influence generations. In Italy, the first readers of Geronimo Stilton, girls and boys who were eight years old in 2000 when the series was first published, are now grown up. They are parents now and their children are Geronimo Stilton readers.

11 June 2017 

Pakistani Author Maha Khan Phillips on her New Novel, “The Curse of the Mohenjodaro”

This interview with Maha Khan Phillips was published on Bookwitty on 7 March 2017. 

Maha Khan Phillips is the author of Beautiful from this Angle and The Mystery of the Aagnee Ruby. She is a financial journalist and the editor of Professional Investor Magazine in the UK, where she lives part of the year, the rest of the time she spends in Karachi.

Her novels are set in Pakistan and her fiction is unusual in its portrayal of the economic basis that defines relationships and her astute observation of social dynamics make her fictional landscapes absolutely believable. Her books show women are empowered if financially sound, irrespective of the socio-economic strata they inhabit.

In her latest novel The Curse of the Mohenjadaro, Maha Khan Phillips has taken her literary skills to a new level by venturing into myth-making and exploring the alternative social spaces of cults which ultimately tend to imitate conservative patriarchal structures globally. She kindly answered questions for Bookwitty about her new book:

Mohenjodaro © CRA-terre Pascal Maitre
Mohenjodaro © CRA-terre Pascal Maitre

Why this story? Why Mohenjodaro?

I visited the ancient civilization of Mohenjodaro a couple of times when I was a child on school trips. I was enthralled by it. The thing that resonated most was that nobody knew what happened to its people, or how the civilization declined. I remember being bored and surfing the web one day and idly typing in “Mohenjodaro Mystery”. I wanted to see if there was information out there about the decline of the civilization. Instead, I was astounded to discover the so-called Forbidden History/Forbidden Archaeology movement. I learnt that an archaeologist named David Davenport had written a book entitled Atomic Destruction in 2000 BC (Italian, 1979) and that Mohenjodaro was the epicentre of many conspiracy theories about ancient technologies. I decided it would be a great premise for a thriller. In those days, I wasn’t writing at all, so I sort of forgot about it, for a few years, and then picked it up after Beautiful from this Angle.

How long did the research for this book take?

In reality, researching Mohenjodaro was the easiest bit, because there is so little known about the Indus Valley Civilization. I spent some time learning about archaeology in general, and had some help from a couple of brilliant archaeologists. I also researched Mesopotamia and Egypt in an attempt to get inspiration when creating my imaginary Mohenjodaro. But mostly, I researched cults, the psychology of cults, and the Forbidden History movement.

The Forbidden History movement is a term that derived from conspiracy theorists who believe that any artefacts or discoveries which question mainstream history or current theories of evolution are either dismissed, or covered up. They believe in ancient technologies, in humankind being older than we think, in alien influence on pre-historic earth.

Your fascination with trying to understand cults is evident in the ruthless characters of Iaf and Sohail. Why cults?

I could talk about this for hours… I’ve always been fascinated by cults. How do they work? Why on earth do people fall for charismatic leaders, giving up everything, even their lives in some cases? I suppose in my mind, there’s a resonance with the political world now. People have started positioning themselves with these myopic identities and ideologies and aren’t willing to broaden their thinking. Cults are very much about ‘Us and Them’ and I feel the world is heading in that direction too. Look at all the fake news we have been seeing, and how quickly it’s being disseminated as gospel through social media. Look at religious extremism. And, perhaps the best example – was there ever a cult leader as successful as Donald Trump? I don’t know what’s in the Kool-Aid he’s been handing out, but he’s tweeted his way to cult like devotion amongst his followers, in my opinion – providing them with an ideology that will not help them, and yet spinning the tale so well that they believe life will get better.

How did the creation of the Shakari, Goddess-Blessed and the Bloodstone myth-making come about?

I knew I had to have something – some supernatural force that would cause the chaos which occurs at the beginning of a novel, when the archaeologists go missing and are set on fire. I probably spent more time on trying to figure out what that would be than I did on anything else. In the end, I settled on a stone, because I liked the physicality of having something that could be held in someone’s hand. As for Shakari, many icons of goddesses were found in Mohenjodaro, and so I liked the idea of a matriarchal society which had been corrupted, but which believed in a Mother Goddess. I knew there would be priests and priestesses, and the Goddess-Blessed emerged as those priestesses, for want of a better name for them.

The icons of Goddesses were clay figurines. Numerous kinds have been found in the Indus Valley, wearing headdresses, for example. These could just be images of women, but archaeologists believe they are goddesses .

To my mind the character Jaya’s story was far stronger and tautly told compared to the Nadia & Layla story. Yet how do you occupy two dimensions/time and write two powerful stories?

For ages, I resisted the idea of setting anything in the ancient Mohenjodaro/Meluhha. I felt I couldn’t do it justice or make it credible, not without knowing more about the place. But that information simply wasn’t available. Eventually, I realised that it was the not knowing that was liberating. It meant I could let my imagination go wild. With so little information out there, I had a blank canvas to make up whatever I wanted. But before I made that realization, I had written an entire novel in the present day. It didn’t work, and so I tried other things. I initially wrote a couple of the ancient scenes as dreams that Nadia had, as a way to give context to some of the modern day plot. I quite liked those scenes, and they were so easy to write, they came pouring out. So I started writing more. And soon, I realised I wanted to intertwine the two narratives.

Why interweave stories? How did you decide to break one story with the other while retaining the reader’s interest?

I’m not sure I consciously thought about it. I’m a big fan of the novels of Kate Mosse, and she did this so effectively in Labyrinth. But more than that I didn’t want to give up either story, I felt emotionally invested in both. I let the writing decide when it was going to break from one story to another – I just did it when it felt like a chapter was finished.

The financial details of your novels are always so fascinating. For instance in this case “River trout which was bartered” and even the activities of Giving of Light Foundation have a clear economic basis which are outlined logically. Do you work out the economic intricacies along with the fictional landscape? 

I suppose that’s the financial journalist in me! I’m really aware of how economic realities affect our lives. I would argue that the Financial Crisis brought about Donald Trump and Brexit, for instance. I didn’t feel like the decline/destruction of my ancient Mohenjodaro/Meluhha was credible without a bit of an understanding of why the civilization’s economic system may have failed them, particularly since the character Iaf is driven by greed and power. I was also quite interested in how the people in this ancient civilization would have traded with one another. I loved the cubes they discovered on the site, and the weighing scales, it was such an advanced approach to trading.

The defiant assertion of independence by Jaya, Layla and Nadia against Iaf and later, Sohail, are very well etched. How challenging was it to create these women characters fighting “patriarchal” structures?

I think the challenge for me, at least early on, was actually to make them less assertive and bolshy! I needed, at least initially, for them to be reactive. For example, I needed to justify Jaya’s decision to remain in Meluhha, despite the loss of her parents, to passively accept her fate. I needed Nadia to go to Pakistan without asking too many questions. It was later that the characters all started to fight back, once they realised what they were up against. That was a more comfortable place for me to be in! Some of what happened in the ancient city is mirrored by patriarchal societies which still exist, which we see all around the world. That was deliberate, on my part. I liked that my characters were strong enough to take those on. I am a feminist, and my family is full of strong women who have never let anyone stop them from achieving whatever they set out to achieve, so I enjoyed writing these kick ass women!

“I set up the Foundation after 2001, after the Taliban destroyed the Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan. I’d been a banker then, but I have always been passionate about antiquity. Our history often defines our future, don’t you think?” It may be unfair to read the personal in fiction you create but somewhere does this novel stem from what you too feel – maybe the importance of getting to know the past better and how it informs our present?

Trust you to find the one sentence in the entire novel that means the most to me personally! Yes, I passionately believe this. History gets lost, but without it, we don’t know who we are. How can we learn from our mistakes, if we haven’t understood when and how we made them? Mohenjodaro belongs to the world – we’ve seen people in Scotland trace their roots back to Mohenjodaro, for instance. There is a worrying trend, as I mentioned, for myopic ideologies, and we have seen what ISIS does to pre-Islamic history and how they want to abolish the past. In their mind, there’s a good reason for their actions. The past can be dangerous. It shows us that we are smaller than we think we are. We will all, eventually, belong to history ourselves. And so we should not seek to impose our ideologies on others because no ideology, no civilization, no one culture, can withstand the sands of time. Instead, we should celebrate our extraordinary heritage and be made richer by what we learn from it.

Maha Khan Phillips The Curse of the Mohenjodaro PanMacmillan India, 2017. Pb.

9 May 2017 

Kunskapsskolan Book Week ( 1-5 May 2017)

I was invited by Kunskapsskolan Gurgaon to curate their book week. They have nearly 1200 students. The book week had to be created for all grades from pre-Nursery to Form 10. Since it has been recently established in India the classes are bottom-heavy with a larger number of students in primary school. Also the teaching staff is young, energetic and eager to learn new ways of learning particularly using technology.

Kunskapsskolan has been established in India via a joint venture partnership between Sweden and India. The schools follow the KED programme whose motto is: “Personalize each student’s education according to their individual needs and abilities. All resources in the school are carefully designed and organized around the student in a complete and coherent system.” Another characteristic of Kunskapsskolan schools is to align themselves with the educational system approved by the government of the country they are establishing schools in. So in India they are recognised by the CBSE board. Having said that they implement the curriculum using theme-based learning and from grades 3-8 it is primarily using digital resources. A unique aspect of Kunskapsskolan is its inclusive policy to have students with behavioural and learning challenges. There is a department that has skilled educators and councillors who are instrumental in the integration of these special children with rest of the school community.

Given the interesting mix of students with varying capabilities and incorporating the simple mandate of the school management — “By making a qualitative difference to the school community by immersing everyone in a world of books. It is also to introduce children to the love of reading via various methodologies and a well-curated book exhibition.” It was decided to hold the book week along with Scholastic India. With ninety-five years experience of publishing for children worldwide, of those twenty in India, Scholastic India is equipped to meet the requirements of the school. For instance putting together a theme-based book fair, introduction to audiobooks, ebooks and levelled readers for students such as Book Flix ( primary) and LitPro ( middle and secondary).

Teacher’s workshop led by Jaya Bhattacharji Rose, 29 April 2017

The book week began with a workshop for the school teachers on the “promotion of reading and digital resources”. I led two workshops. First for early years and primary school teachers. The second one was for middle and secondary school teachers. The emphasis was on importance of reading as a lifelong skill to acquire and not just to complete school curriculum. Given that this is the information age where its imperative to know how to read and glean

Anu Singh Chowdhary

knowledge, reading as an activity has to be enjoyable. It has to inculcate a love for reading without making it a chore. Today there are multiple formats by which children can access books for pleasure and information. According to Kids & Family Reading Report 2016 (KFRR ) children prefer reading for fun and helps develop a fondness for the activity. Parents too agreed that reading is important.

  • 86% of kids interviewed said their favourite books – the ones they were likely to finish – were the ones they pick out themselves. This is close to the USA average of 93%.
  • Across all ages, an overwhelming majority of children (87%) say they would read more if they could find more books that they like.
  • Children and parents prefer curated selections as it is easier to discover books. The top sources of books are the school book fairs, book clubs and word-of-mouth recommendations.  Libraries and bookshops are a close second.

    Anupa Lal

A primary school teacher’s feedback on the sessions and book fair, 5 May 2017

The teachers were introduced to online digital resources ( free and subscription based) that were age-appropriate and supported their curriculum. The workshops had been customised to align with KED methodology. So though the focuse was on resources available online many scrumptious examples of print books were also shared to gasps of astonished delight. A teacher who works primarily with children who have learning disabilities wrote in later to say “I simply loved the session!”

Something similar was witnessed at the Kunskapsskolan Book Week.

A student’s enthusiastic response to the book fair.

On the first day two little tiddlers hurtled down the stairs breathless with excitement, ” This book fair is awesome! The collection is so good!”

Paro Anand reading out aloud “Wingless”

Every single day there were sessions with authors, illustrators, storytellers, dramatists, cartoonists and editors. The idea being to introduce children to different aspects of books and reading. There were even sessions planned around audio books and animations based on popular stories as with Book Flix. Unfortunately due to privacy issues I am unable to upload some of the magnificent pictures taken during the events. Children, irrespective of whether they were toddlers or young adults, were mesmerised by the sessions. I have pictures of children who were trooped into the sessions and sat very quietly not knowing what to expect. Within minutes of the resource people beginning we had children absorbed listening to the stories in wide-eyed wonder, small or big the students were sprawled across the carpets, some were sitting under classroom desks and peering out, others were clapping their hands in glee and yet others body language was a delight to watch.  Inevitably within minutes the students would surround the resource person and it was absolutely marvellous to watch the adult engulfed in a sea of blue with loud chirrups of happiness from the children.

Simi Srivastava, storyteller

Simi Srivastava told a deliciously onomatopoeic tale about a bear. It was narrated accompanied to music. It went down very well with the toddlers. After the session a little boy came and gave her a tight hug while planting a slurpy wet kiss of appreciation on her cheek. Another girl came up politely and said “It was nice” but her twinkling eyes noted her deep appreciation of the storytelling performance.

Paro Anand, an exceptional storyteller, read out aloud her brilliant fable Wingless to a mesmerised audience of 9 and 10 year olds. ( According to KFRR, across all ages, the overwhelming majority of kids (85%) say they love(d) being read books aloud.) When she said she had written 27 books for children, a tiny little hand went up and a solemn little child said, “It means you are ‘experienced'” much to Paro’s delight.

Later Paro Anand had a session with the senior children around her recently launched graphic novel 2. It is the first Indo-Swedish collaborative book and it was apt that the first school event was held at an Indo-Swedish school. Paro Anand has written this book with Swedish writer, Örjan Persson. Her session was converted into a writing workshop too. The children were broken up into teams of two and given the task of writing stories together, aping the collaboration between the authors of 2. They were given two days to work on the stories. Three winning teams were awarded prizes along with notes of appreciation by Paro Anand.

There were sessions planned with renowned storytellers like Anupa Lal, Anu

(L-R) Anu Singh Chowdhury, Anupa Lal and Blossom D’Souza

Singh Chowdhury conducted a session in Hindi introducing children to Gulzar’s poetry and stories, seasoned publisher-cum-author Arthy Muthana led a workshop on editing and book production wherein the children looked astonished upon hearing of the “small pile” of manuscripts waiting to be read on her desk, dramatist Vanessa Ohri had the children spellbound, and cartoonist Ajit Narayan’s infectious enthusiasm for drawing characters was palpable as children quickly sketched in their art books while he demonstrated. He was provocative with his remarks like “I still have not found the right picture” but it only spurred the children on to improve. They drew furiously and clucked around him for appreciation.

Ajit Narayan

Arthy Muthana

While the book week was on a team of student volunteers had banded together to form a temporary editorial team. These four senior school students were entrusted with the task of creating “books” documenting the book week. They could choose any form of narrative as long as it contained highlights of the sessions and brought in different perspectives. For this they interviewed the resource people, students and teachers to get their views too. The students chose to illustrate with line drawings and soon took photographs to accompany the text. The books are to be placed in the school library. The exercise helped give an insight into the team effort, creativity and patience required to put a book together.

By the last day I too had students smiling and greeting me. The primary school students would give a broad smile or a hug. The senior school students were a little more reserved but it did not prevent them from lurking behind pillars and popping out unexpectedly to waylay me for a chat. It was a tremendous experience and I look forward to many more such occasions.

8 May 2017

*All the pictures except for the one of the school entrance have been taken by me and posted with permission of the school management.