filmmaker Posts

An interview with Venita Coelho, “Boy No. 32”

Venita Coelho works with images, words and paint. She is a writer who has worked in film, television and literature. Her published work includes  Dead as a Dodo  which won the Hindu Award for the Best Fiction for Children 2016.  The Washer of the Dead  was long listed for the Frank O’Connor award. She is a screenwriter with films for Dharma Productions and Sanjay Leela Bhansali Productions to her credit. As an artist she works with charcoal and with acrylic paint on glass. She is about to set off on a great adventure – having converted a Tempo traveller into a caravan, she and her daughter are off to travel across India.

Venita Coelho’s recent young adult novel Boy No. 32 is an incredibly gripping book about Battees, an orphan named so after the number given to him — 32. ( In Hindi, the number 32 is called “battees”.) The story is about Battees winessing the presence of a dreaded terrorist, Kashmiri Lall, in his city, Mumbai, and he is now the only one who can help put him behind bars. It is a tremendously well-paced and tautly written book. Impossible to put down once you begin it. Also for the fact Venita Coelho never for an instant “talks down” to youngsters, nor is ever apologetic about the violence around us. Absolutely fantastic!

In this novel intermixing the orphans’ quest for locating Kashmiri Lall with encounters with the eunuchs, the Beggar King, and the horrific complicity of even the adults responsible for them such as Aunty and the cop, is done crisply. The “traditional” bad guys of literature like the eunuch are actually shown to be humane with a little more insight on how their community operates. Equally well-made are the cop and the “aunty” who are so incredibly corrupt, they would do anything for a few extra bucks. Venita Coelho is constantly challenging pre-conceived notions about characters. For instance, instead of giving the warden of the orphanage a name, she is referred to as “Aunty” — a big learning curve for Indian readers who are taught to practically revere an older woman, inevitably calling her “Aunty”, sort of seals this relationship.

Boy No. 32 is highly recommended!

Here are excerpts from an email interview:

I could not help wonder how you came upon this idea? Why?
It came out of the years I spent in Mumbai. The many times I caught the last train out of Churchgate and chatted with all the urchins in the compartment. It came out of all the stories they gave me and the adventures that the city gave.

How long did it take to write? How many revisions did it require?
I am a three draft writer. Knocked the first draft out across one November ” Nanowrimo”. That is ‘National Novel Writing Month’. You sign up at the website and for one month you get cheerleaders who push you along as you frantically write. People around the world are racing to finish their novels and the collect energy is quite astounding. The next two drafts took about eight months. But that was along side being a single mum, earning my living, and surviving Hindi films.

I can see it easily adapted for a school theatre performance — was that your intention?
It’s a movie! We don’t make children’s films in India. Every Hindi film with its songs and dances is essentially a children’s film. There is never a budget to make a ‘children’s film’. So I just put it in a book – Item number and all.

How did these characters come about? Which one struck you first?
Definitely Battees. He’s based on all the cocky little boys who sat down next to me at stations and launched into long stories. I so deeply admire the sheer courage and unputdownability these kids display, and I really wanted one of them to tell his story in his voice. And I have a very big soft spot for Item. Such courage. Such a diva!

Has your day job of writing scripts for the Indian film industry help craft young adult novels?
Not really. Hindi films have no idea of how to talk to young adults. All they ever offer them are mushy love stories. In fact to switch from writing films to books I normally have to do a couple of weeks ‘detox’ when I consciously switch from writing scenes and move to writing descriptions. Another level is moving from the superficial level of films to a deeper emotional level for books.

What has been the response of the kids who have read the book? Have you encountered them at your sessions in different cities?
We’ve had riotous sessions. The kids always love the elephant story – and it gets them thinking about real patriotism. And I always tell them that only one thing separates them from the kid on the street – sheer luck. They could have been born anywhere. And it is their duty to pass that luck on. It always makes for lively discussions.

Do you get different responses to your stories from boys and girls or does a gendered reading not matter?
I haven’t found that gender makes much difference to the response. Girls tend to ask more questions though.

Do you write with a specific reader/audience in mind?
Nope. Never do that. You can never tell how a story is going to turn out. An adult story might find it’s own way to be a children’s story. A writer can’t really predict how pitch and tone will finally tune itself. I let the story find it’s own audience. I try to write interestingly enough for anyone at all to be able to read the story.

Before publishing, do you “test” the story out or go with your instinct. I ask since I found the novel pitch perfect.
I did have three readers for the final round. It was a first for me. I got some good feedback and I will try it. again. But basically I have had so much damn writing practice doing television that it’s finally coming easy. When you do a daily soap you write 5 episodes a week. That’s ten hours of TV a month. That’s a heck of a lot of writing!

What is next on the cards?
I’m working on three different books. I tend to bounce between books. The one closest to my heart is a story based on my growing up in Kolkata. I grew up in a building that the Indian government had acquired to house the jews that it rehabilitated after the holocaust. I grew up hearing stories of the concentration camps. Now I’m finally ready to write them down.

Would you ever consider writing a series arc for young adults?
Of course. Just finished the first book of what is meant to be three books in total. I love the space that ‘Fault in our Stars’ occupies. Now that is really young adult space. So I have done a book that is for really young people, with a love story at the heart of it – but also the issues of terrorism, violence and ahimsa. Let’s see how it does!

Venita Coelho Boy No. 32 Scholastic India, Gurgaon, India, 2017. Pb. pp.186 Rs. 295 

“Alice in Wonderland” continues to inspire readers across the world

( My article on Alice in Wonderland has been published in Hindustan Times popular and widely circulated Sunday 20151018_065049supplement Brunch on 18 October 2015. It is a generous two-page spread in print20151018_065100 with the title “Curiouser And Curiouser”. I am c&p the text from the digital version here. The original url can be viewed at: http://www.hindustantimes.com/brunch/alice-in-wonderland-continues-to-inspire-readers-across-the-world/story-NKnM2TiOACiTMXQXtUI51M.html )

Scottish writer George MacDonald persuaded Carroll to self-publish Alice. It had been tested out on the MacDonald children by their mother – and the family loved it. (Above, Carroll with Mrs MacDonald and her children.) (Getty Images/Science Source)

Who’d have thought a self-published story written for the daughters of a friend would become a world classic, eagerly bought, borrowed and downloaded even now, 150 years later?

 Alice in Wonderland was written in 1865 by Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, a mathematics professor at Oxford, better known by his pen name, Lewis Carroll. He wrote it for Lorina, Alice and Edith, the three daughters of his friend, Reverend Henry Liddell.

Start of many things

Alice in Wonderland is about a girl named Alice who falls down a rabbit hole in pursuit of the White Rabbit and discovers a nonsensically delightful world with colourful characters like the Red Queen, the Mad Hatter, the Cheshire Cat and the March Hare. More writers, artists and creators all over the world have credited Alice as an inspiration than any other book, thanks to its imaginative world filled with fantastic linguistic acrobatics in rhyme and prose.

That the book should have emerged in the staid Victorian era of verbose and righteous prose says much for the power of creativity. Carroll was persuaded to publish Alice with his own illustrations, by Scottish author and poet, George MacDonald.

The story had been tested out on the MacDonald children by their mother. The family thoroughly enjoyed the tale, and Carroll self-published it. Then, it was edited and published by Alexander Macmillan.

Alice, coverLewis Carroll requested the well-known artist of Punch, Sir John Tenniel to create the illustrations, many of which were ultimately based on the original drawings made by the author. To commemorate the 150th year of its publication, Macmillan, the original publisher, has produced a scrumptious edition of The Complete Alice, with the original Tenniel illustrations in full colour. It is unusual for a publisher to be celebrating 150 years of a text, but Alice in Wonderland is perceived to be “a world text”.

Alice in Wonderland is about a girl named Alice who falls down a rabbit hole in pursuit of the White Rabbit. On the left is an illustration of the character by Carroll himself, and next to it (right) by Tenniel. (Photos: Stapleton Collection/Corbis, The Print Collector/Corbis)

“It’s one of those texts that IS, like Shakespeare,” says graphic novelist Samit Basu. “Its constant reinterpretations in everything, from zombie comics to action-fantasy novels, have kept the original text alive, and that’s the greatest thing that can happen to any book.”

This is evident by the text’s vast influence across creative platforms and genres – storytelling, play on words, visual arts, filmmakers, still photography and translations.

According to filmmaker and author Devashish Makhija, a lot of motifs from Alice have been uncannily replicated across the world. “Tweedledum and Tweedledee seem to have inspired Herge’s Thompson and Thomson in Tintin,” he says. “Batman’s Joker seems to have shades of the Mad Hatter, at least in his inexplicable (but profound) reliance on creating some sort of chaos in anything he communicates.”

And there’s more. When Alice fell down a rabbit hole to discover a topsy-turvy world, Makhija argues, she opened a clear story-telling device for creators of the future. “The ‘hole’ – although in existence before this book – was used pointedly for the first time as a portal connecting two dimensions through which a character ‘travels’.

It has since been used in versions in almost ALL of fantasy writing: the wardrobe in CS Lewis’s Narnia series, the square drawn with chalk in Pan’s Labyrinth, platform 93/4 inHarry Potter, the bridge of Terabithia, HG Wells’s time machine and even the bathtub in Anurag Kashyap’s No Smoking.”

Follow that rabbit

“Every reader will leave with a different reading,” says Anil Menon, author of speculative fiction. “Fortunately, Alice in Wonderland has remained what it was intended to be: an invitation to play.”

Let loose in the imaginative world of Alice’s Wonderland, children often find their own wonderlands when they become adults, says photographer and musician Ed Valfre. “Several years ago, I wrote two children’s books about a boy in the backseat of a car who creates stories from all that he sees on the road. As Alice decides to go down the rabbit hole to discover the fantastical world of Wonderland, my hero goes down a similar path but it is inside his own head. The rabbit I follow is some ordinary thing we see every day. The rabbit hole is our imagination and we simply have to pay attention to discover it.”

Jeff VanderMeer, who won the Nebula 2014 for his novel, Annihilation, says that Alice “was such an influence. I Jeff Vandermeer, Southern Reach Trilogy, Rabbit Totem, illustrated by Jeremy Zerfossstarted a far-future novel when I was 13 in which a human-sized bio-engineered white rabbit is found murdered at the base of Mount Kilimanjaro. What appealed to me was the surreal aspect of Carroll’s book, even more so than the kind of mathematical logic and the humour. I couldn’t escape Alice even if I tried. It’s one of those constants, or compass points, that for some odd reason draws out originality despite being riffed off again and again.”

There are no white rabbits in filmmaker Paromita Vohra’s work, Unlimited Girls, but Vohra says it is deeply influenced by Alice in Wonderland. In the film, a young woman is drawn into an Internet chat room – kind of like a rabbit hole – and then proceeds on a journey through the world of feminism where she meets all kinds of characters and undergoes all kinds of transformations.

“I think Alice is (like a good Bollywood film, almost) one of those works that gives you permission to make a work out of what you see, what you feel as one,” says Vohra.

In many ways, Alice is a nonsense book. Not in the sense that it is the product of a muddled mind, but because of its willingness to see more in the world than a single outward façade. That’s the aspect that influenced children’s author, known especially for nonsense writing, Anushka Ravishankar the most.

“I remember reading Alice as a child and being fascinated, but also really disturbed because of the strange creatures and the weird, unworldly goings-on,” she says. “It was only much later that I began to appreciate the other elements – the nonsense, the logical games and the clever theories which the nonsense hid. I studied mathematics, so I do believe that Carroll’s mathematical mind came up with things that seem nonsensical but are actually possible given a different mathematical frame.”

It is extraordinary that a story spun to entertain a six-year-old girl on a boating trip has continued to brighten the lives of generations spanning more than a century.

And so just like the way it began in the beginning, Alice in Wonderland remains what it is – a story to delight children.

“My greatest joy,” says Samit Basu, “was the completely context-free sizzle that went through my brain when I first read it as a child, and there’s nothing that can either truly explain or analyse that.”

**

Looking back through translations

On 4 October, 1866, Lewis Carroll wrote to his publisher Macmillan, stating, “Friends here [in Oxford] seem to think that the book is untranslatable.” But his friends were wrong as the editors of Alice in a World of Wonderlands: The Translations of Lewis Carroll’s Masterpiece, would tell Carroll if they could.

Alice in a World of Wonderlands: The Translations of Lewis Carroll’s Masterpiece documents the classic’s translations in 174 languages and over 9,000 editions and reprints. (Pictured in it is Alice Liddell, the little girl the book was written for)

This book, edited by Jon A Lindseth and Alan Tannenbaum, documents translations in 174 languages and over 9,000 editions and reprints of Alice in Wonderland and its sequel Through the Looking-Glass.

“There are nine translations of Alice into Tamil, plus an unpublished draft, a short story, a serialised story, and a graphic version,” says Dr Rajamanickam Azhagarasan, contributor to the book. “It was popular among those involved in the movement for children’s literature from the ’40s through the ’70s. Each translation was unique, depending on which aspect the translators wished to highlight.”

Alice has been translated in Assamese, Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi, Kannada, Konkani, Malayalam, Marathi, Oriya, Tamil, Telugu, Urdu, Nepali and Sinhala. Here (left to right) are translations in Malayalam (2000), Urdu (1981) and Oriya (2002).

Much like the way storytellers have always found new stories to weave out of the Indian epics, Alice’s translators in India have created different Wonderlands – for instance, by weaving mythological elements into the story.

“The Telugu translation of Alice was available as early as the mid-1950s,” says Suresh Kosaraju, trustee, Manchi Pustakam, Secunderabad.

Editor Sushama Sonak says, “Mugdhachi Rangit Goshta (The Many Coloured World of Mugdha) written in Marathi by short story writer GA Kulkarni was heavily influenced by Alice.”

In Malayalam, the first translation was published by Balan Publications. Lewis Carroll certainly influenced the well-known children’s nonsense writer in Bengali, Sukumar Ray, as well as Hemendra Kumar Roy, who wrote wonderful detective stories in Bangla and translated Alice in Wonderland: it is called Ajab Deshe Amala.

Even Vladimir Nabokov, the author of Lolita, translated Alice into Russian. According to translator Sergei Task, “By and large, [Nabokov] translated the text as is, except for Russifying the names (Alice/Anya, Mabel/Asya, and the Rabbit got a last name – Trusikov) and introducing pre-revolutionary forms of address such as barin (master) and vashe blagorodiye (your honour). Of course, with the playful verses, he had to take liberties – again, trying to adapt them for Russian readers.”

18 October 2015