Arshia Sattar’s retelling of the Sanskrit epics are always worth reading. She has a PH.D in classical Indian literatures from the University of Chicago. Her abridged translation of Valmiki’s Ramayana is regarded as one of the definitive presentations of the epic in English. She has written a number of books on Hindu mythology for younger readers including the bestselling Ramayana for Children, Mahabharata for Children and Adventures with Hanuman.
Favourite Stories from Hindu myths is her latest offering. This absolutely delicious book is published by Juggernaut Kids. As with the previous publications by Arshia Sattar, the stories are so beautifully and simply retold. It is almost as if one’s childhood memories of being told the stories by an adult come alive. It is always remarkable at how the transference of the oral tradition to the print seems effortless but is not. It definitely not could not have been easy for these very popular tales such as “The Churning of the Ocean”, “Narasimha the Man Lion”, “Fine-Feathered Garuda” and “Bhagiratha Brings the Ganga to Earth” as everyone has their own way of narrating or remembering the story. Arshia Sattar’s touch is very special. She ensures that the key elements of every story are passed on but at the same time, the storytelling has her distinctive stamp of shortish sentences. Hardly any sub-clauses. Wonderfully descriptive. Very visual. Plenty of action. Yet, as with all oral traditions, she is able to provide spaces to the reader/narrator to embellish the story a bit more when reading it out aloud. The choice is the reader’s to either stick to the text that has been provided or add a little more.
The gorgeous illustrations by Mansi Thakkar are bold, bright, and stunning. The very European art sensibility in the excessive use of pastel shades and an almost watercolour-like effect for stories are an interesting touch for stories that are most often associated with garishly loud colours. This is a wonderful hardback volume of stories, reasonably priced, will make for excellent gifts in the upcoming festival season. Share it widely.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that the best stories are to be found in the holy scriptures of various religions. It is time to make them more easily accessible without prejudice. Hopefully then there will be less scope for vilifying the other but a sensitive understanding and respect for another culture. Syncreticism is the bedrock of Indian democracy. There is no doubt that Juggernaut Kids will do an equally fine job for stories from other faiths too.
Uncle Pai: The Man Behind the Iconic Amar Chitra Katha by Rajessh M. Iyer— I began reading this biography of Anant Pai with interest (published by . Instead it borders on being a hagiography and capitulating to modern sensibilities. It would have been a tremendous effort if the author had made an attempt to make it a biography with gravitas, researched the period, the genre and the subject of his book a little more diligently. For instance, elaborated upon the debate triggered by well-known historian Sumit Sarkar in 1993 as the comics promoting a Hindu cultural ideology that helped fundamentalist organisations. The author dismisses this as “this couldn’t be farther from the truth”. It is at such points in the book that the reader wishes a little more effort had been made to research the history of ACK and the phenomenal role of Anant Pai. Instead frustratingly, nothing more is forthcoming. Plus, added a bibliography of materials consulted. I am disappointed as I enjoy reading biographies and always hope to learn more about the period of time in which the person lived. With Anant Pai, it is always a pleasure to read about his legendary contribution to India’s publishing history with the creation of the Amar Chitra Katha comics. These are a series of illustrated stories in the comic book form that are synonymous with tales from the Hindu epics but slowly evolved into also sharing folklore, tales from Indian history, Jataka Tales, stories about Akbar & Birbal, Tenali Rama etc. They were known to be simultaneously published in multiple Indian languages using the model of syndication. Some of the earliest artists and writers who were commissioned to create stories were not amused as their copyright was taken away. Whereas Pai himself stood to gain from the sales of the comics as per the deal struck with the owners of IBH. He was offered a monthly payment as well as a percentage of the sales, making him part-stakeholder in ACK. A win-win situation with hindsight but at the time of signing, Pai accepted the deal on pure faith that he had a good idea of making perennial favourite stories available as comics, modelled upon the popular American series “Classics Illustrated”. Unfortunately, I abandoned reading this book when I came upon the chapter on “illustration styles and Anant Pai’s background”. In It, the author, chooses to dwell upon the Hindu cultural sensibility, the influence of Raja Ravi Verma and calendar art as being some of the prime motivations for ACK’s characteristic style of drawing mythological figures. Years ago, I read a comment by Uncle Pai in an essay where he categorically stated that there had been innumerable influences upon his artwork but there was no denying that he also turned to the big names of Hollywood of the day as models for his characters. “Uncle Pai” does not even so much as have a passing reference to the popular cultural references that may have impacted ACK’s sensibilities. The book could easily have soared as a publishing history but it seems to lumber on. Plus, the boxes of information scattered throughout the text make it very cumbersome to read. They are tantamount to throwaway lines that are too laborious to develop as ideas in the main narrative. Ideally the points and comments made in these boxes should have been incorporated as one text. It would have made for a smoother narrative.
Here’s hoping that the second and revised edition of this book is much improved for we could do with a good biography of the legend Uncle Pai.
Retelling of Indian mythology by Indian novelists is proving to be quite an interesting exercise as it is allows the modern storyteller to choose and stress upon different aspects of the epics. Aditya Iyengar is one such writer. He writes Indian mythological and historical tales through the eyes of often unexplored and peripheral characters. His works include – The Thirteenth Day,Palace of Assassins, A Broken Sun, The Conqueror and Bhumika. His novel Bhumika was longlisted for the Mathrubhumi Book of the Year 2020. He lives in Mumbai.
How did you get into professional writing?
I’ve always been a voracious reader. But I think somewhere in my mid-twenties, I decided I wanted to attempt to write a novel. I think the confidence came after reading Arun Kolatkar’s poetry and Kiran Nagarkar’s seminal Cuckold. Somehow these made me feel that I could express myself through the English language but in an Indian idiom in a manner that felt entirely natural.
I’ve always been fond of mythology, historical and science fiction, so I knew I wanted to attempt one of these genres. I don’t remember why I decided to write a mythological retelling over the other genres. Perhaps because the story I had for my first novel (The Thirteenth Day) was the clearest in my head. Anyway, it took me a few years to actually develop it into something resembling a coherent narrative.
I don’t write for a living. I have a day job that doesn’t involve creative writing (though creative writing as a skill comes in handy in virtually every trade). It’s a conscious call I’ve taken to take the pressure off my writing. Also, the writing life is a lonely one, and natural introverts like me would never meet people if they decided to stay at home and write all day.
2. What appeals to you in telling the kind of stories that you choose to tell? Stories that are based in myth?
I’m a huge fan of mythological retellings and historical fiction. The past, whether it’s historical or epic, is strange and exciting territory There’s something about reading about characters from the past or from epic fiction and feeling a human kinship with them. In a way it reminds one that we are all connected, and through the years have had the same motivations.
3. How did you develop a passion for mythology? Are there any favourite retellings of the mythological tales that appeal to you?
Growing up, I was very fascinated by historical and mythological stories. I’m not sure why. I’ve certainly never analysed it. Some kids are interested in sports, some find science projects fun – I just really enjoyed reading history and mythology. My childhood fascination for the past (both historical and epic), I think, came out through my novels. Some of my favourite mythological retellings have been K.M. Munshi’s wonderful Krishnavatara, C Rajagopalachari and Kamala Subramaniam’s retellings of the Mahabharata, and Colleen McCullough’s The Song of Troy (which is based on the Illiad).
4. How do you plan your novels? I used to be a rigorous planner. I made notes for chapters, listed out characters, motivations, and tried to find what Vince Gilligan, the head writer of Breaking Bad calls “where the character’s head is at”. I’ve written five novels. My preparatory notes have reduced for each novel to the point that I wrote Bhumika with only a broad story in mind, and no chapter-wise road map. I’ve come to the conclusion that every novel requires a different process of planning. But if you have a broad story in your head, the details can be worked out as you write the novel. One doesn’t necessarily need to work out details before they start the novel, though it can be helpful even if one does.
5. What is your daily discipline to write?
I don’t write every day. I only write when I’m working on a project. Mostly, I get up early, work on my book for a little while, then head for work. Sometimes, I come back from the office and work for a bit too. On weekends, I wake up early and work till about 5 pm, after which I turn off my laptop.
I sit on a rocking chair, and balance my laptop on my lap and type. I don’t eat or drink anything except at meal times, and I end up eating very little if I’m absorbed in my work. I don’t read or watch anything on the telly during these times too. It’s a fairly hermit-like existence. Write, Go to Office, Return, Eat, Sleep and Repeat. Of course, such a lifestyle is unsustainable, so I normally write and finish novels within a few months. I have a healthy respect for deadlines, so I set myself a schedule and try hard to stick to it.
6. How much research does a book entail?
The level of research really depends on the novel. For my historical fiction novel – The Conqueror, I needed to read up on the Chola kingdom and the Srivijaya empire in Indonesia. I read a number of books and many academic papers and articles before I began writing the novel. A lot of my research was also shaped by the elements I wanted to include in the novel – for example, I wanted to write about one of the characters getting heavily drunk so I did research on the kinds of liquors that were available in those times.
For my Mahabharata and Ramayana novels, the research is limited since I already know most of the events through childhood retellings (Thanks, Mom!). Though I have also read some incredible translations that have helped shape my perspective. My mytho-fantasy series on Ashwatthama starts after the events of the Mahabharata and is entirely fictional.
7. What has changed in your writing style from the first book to the present one?
I’d like to believe my style is now more compact. I can express myself with fewer words. Also, I’m more confident using the full toolkit of punctuation marks. When I began, I would only use full-stops and abhorred any use of exclamation marks or colons and semi-colons. While I’m still very, very judicious about how I sprinkle those exclamations, I’ve learned how they can be used appropriately, for maximum effect.
8. Are there any particular darlings in your writing that you have had to kill off knowing it is for the good of the manuscript? Does it hurt to take these decisions?
Oh no, I absolutely couldn’t kill any of my darlings. Take some meat off them, yes – but what is the point of writing for pleasure if you have to kill your darlings?
9. Why create Bhumika in the way you did when the trend seems to be to retell stories in the way we have inherited the narratives?
I think our ideas of the purity of inherited narratives are not accurate. There have been several retellings and re-interpretations of the epics over the years and across different regions all over the country. I’d like to believe I’m following in a grand tradition of re-interpreting stories to make them more contemporary, like so many writers better than me have done before.
10. When do you find the time to read?
I don’t really read anymore. Not like I used to at any rate. I’m currently plodding through Richard Eaton’s A Social History of The Deccan, which is a tragedy because it is such a lovely book that I would finish it in a few days under normal circumstances. These days, between the job and daily chores, I find all my time going in the business of the day. I try reading in snatches of time – before going to bed or after finishing my work or before breakfast – and hastily devour as much of the book as possible. It’s almost become like having a clandestine lover. You meet with great difficulty, away from the eyes of the world, and cherish every moment together.
11. How many more novels have you drafted?
I’ve written a novel set in the film industry – it’s a dark comedy, but it’s languishing on my desktop because I haven’t had the time to do a FINAL FINAL.doc edit. Other than that, I have a few ideas for novels (two historical and one mythological) that I have yet to begin working on.
Dipankar Mukherjee is the Founder & Director of Readomania, an independent publishing house based in India. Under his stewardship, the house has produced more than 80 books in five years of its existence. Dipankar holds an MBA degree from IIT Madras and has been a management consultant in his professional avatar, working in organisations like IBM and Ernst & Young. Apart from publishing his business interests include a consumer electrical products brand, Aeronova and literary resort, Faraway Renz. He loves traveling and can be found playing with his daughter, if not at work.
did you start Readomania?
An entrepreneur starts with a dream. Mine was, and is, to build a company that is known for creating and curating good content. Readomania was, and is, a manifestation of that dream. There is a lot more content waiting to be discovered. There are a lot of stories that need to be told. We want to be a part of this ecosystem that takes this content, and the stories to a wide audience.
2. What attracted you to publishing?
A publishing house plays a very important role in the society. It can drive narratives, influence points-of-view, and be a catalyst for change. This is what makes publishing a perfect choice for someone who wants to bring out a change for good. I aspire to take Readomania to a position where it can do this effectively, along with being a profitable, sustainable venture.
3. What is the focus of your publishing programme? How many titles have you published so far?
We started in September 2014 and our annual publishing list was streamlined from 2016 onwards. We have published 80 odd titles since 2014. As of now, we publish about 18–24 titles a year. Our list includes literary, midlist, and commercial fiction across multiple genres, short stories, poetry, non-fiction, and children’s fiction. The current focus of our publishing programme is diversity in content. We want to bring in as many flavours as possible. We are delving into mythology retelling, historical fiction, period drama, crime, thriller, romance, short stories, poetry, children’s fiction, humour etc.
4. How do you decide what to publish? Do you commission books or select manuscripts from unsolicited submissions? Or do you look at what agents supply?
book is like making a movie, it is not possible to accurately predict how will
the audience—reader in this case—react. Though the uncertainty is less for
based on a potent mix of analysis, instincts, and market trends. Analysis
focuses on the content, market trends on the genre and competition. Instincts
are hard to define but is based on experience, author interaction, and a bit of
We still don’t have fat budgets for commissioning books, so that has still not started. We do, however, discuss projects and potential books with our existing authors and take them forward. Manuscript selections also happen from unsolicited submissions and those that come through agents.
5. Do you think there is an appetite for print books or is the preference for digital books increasing? What are your comments on the digital versus print debate?
Print is winning this debate by a
significant margin. I don’t think this will change much in the near future.
There will definitely be better adoption of digital formats (text and audio)
but that may not dent the market for print books.
Device fatigue is setting in. People want to stop looking at the blue screen. As the awareness for this increases, I feel print books will take up the gap left by some of these devices. However, this may not happen for first time readers. Many of them may directly start reading on a device.
6. Do you look at translations too? If so how does the translations programme operate?
We want to look at translations as well. But we have not started as yet.
7. What is your average day like?
I wake up in a
room full of books and start reading with a cup of coffee next to me. I then go
to a nice bistro, eat some nice food and drink coffee and read more. I then go
to a nice park, sit below a tree, read some more and drink some nice chai from
the local fellow, until it’s time to go back home. Back there, I sit next to my
window and read, until I fall asleep.
Well, I can always dream about this kind of a life. Reality though is a little different. My regular schedule includes sales and collection follow ups, editorial discussions, an hour on social media, an hour on online reading, marketing discussions, and author discussions.
8. How do you distribute books? Via online retail or brick and mortar stores? Why did you start an online store on your website? Isn’t that rather unusual for an indie publisher?
Distribution has been strong for us, at least amongst indie publishers. I think we have done this well. We distribute through all possible modes. For brick and mortar stores, we work with the regular distributors like IBD, Prakash, Variety and Jaico. In addition, we directly sell on Amazon, are represented on Flipkart and as you mentioned sell through our website as well. Our own website is also a very big channel for sales. Since we are very active on social media, it is easy to drive sales through our own website.
9. What is the kind of publicity you invest in? Do book launches help you sell books?
Publicity is a
nemesis for indie publishers. The ROI on publicity is questionable and hence we
are careful treading this path. We use a lot of online resources, bloggers’
community, and outreach for marketing. We do work with the stores and on
Amazon. We still have some work to do in PR and co-branding concepts. However,
we keep trying out different methods of communication and branding for books.
Some work, some don’t.
As for book launches, in my opinion they do not recover the investment made and are a drag on our resources. A book launch, or any event for that matter, works well only when there is a good PR angle.
10. What are your thoughts about the Indian book industry? Is it growing or not? What are the pain points if any? What makes this book market stand apart from the others?
Indian book industry is quite a challenge, especially the trade book segment.
There is growth. However, that growth may not be real. Many systemic issues lead
to this problem. First amongst them is the concept of Sale-Or-Return. How does
one explain growth when returns can potentially come after the financial year
is closed? Does one go back and revise growth figures?
are a lot of positives that do point to the growth-story. Many more titles are
coming up, online sales are strong, and sentiments are good.
As far as pain-points are concerned, there are a select few that I would like to mention, both on cost side and revenue side. On cost side we have GST, payment terms that publishers have with distributors and distribution margins as major issues. The cost pressures have significantly increased. On the revenue side, I think there is over-supply of books. If I may say, India is now a land of more writers than readers. This coupled with shrinking shelf space makes it difficult to reach out to the readers. The power may be shifting away from publishers to distributors or platforms like Amazon, especially since distributors and platforms are now operating as monopolies.
11. What are the changes you have seen in publishing since you began Readomania? What are the genres that sell the most amongst your readers/customers and do you think these align with the more popular buying sentiments amongst Indian readers?
inception, quite a few things have changed. I have seen the self-publishing
industry grow significantly over the years. There has been a good growth in new
genres like true-crime, celebrity-autobiographies, bureaucrat narratives.
Growth in the regional language publishing and demand for translations also is
a positive change. For publishers, a big revenue stream has opened up through
rise in book-to-screen deals. However, there has been a fall in per-title print
runs. I also feel there is now an overload of marketing content for readers and
a big boom in book-marketers who promise the moon but not sales.
for us include mythology, historical fiction, non-fiction, and light reads. I
think the market too would have a similar trend.
12. What are your future plans for Readomania?
We are just five years old and we have many miles more to go. Readomania aspires to be one of the top five publishing brands in the country with a strong list, a few international awards in our kitty, and be the publisher of choice for authors and readers.
Krishna in Rhymeis a fabulous retelling of the story of Krishna by Kairavi Bharat Ram and Ananya Mittal, published by Scholastic India. It is in couplets. Ishan Trivedi’s sumptuous illustrations fit so beautifully with the text, making the reading experience magical. Gift it now. Gift it in Diwali hampers. It is a book for children and adults to read, whether already familiar with the stories or not, is immaterial.
He is always remembered for the fun he had, For being a playful god, beyond the good and the bad.
He represents the child in us, who enjoys life and is free, He’s the balance between fun and responsibility.
He taught us that to your fate you are bound, This idea’s called karma, what goes ’round comes around.
The Gita is perhaps his most famous speech, In this all about duty and dharma he does teach.
When you do what you must, things will always be okay, Following your heart will never lead you astray.
We hope this epic story you all have understood, Remember this forever: evil never beats good.
Ashok Kumar Banker began writing stories at the age of nine. He is the author of over seventy books, including the internationally acclaimed Ramayana Series and the recent Burnt Empire Series which is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in USA and in the sub-continent by Simon and Schuster India. Ashok Banker’s works have all been bestsellers in India, and have been published around the world. He lives in Los Angeles and Mumbai. He has returned to the genre with which he first made his publishing debut – children’s fiction – with his first chapter book series released by Scholastic India. It is called the Secret School Mysteries. The first story called The Invisible Spy was released in July 2019. The second story in the series arc is called Aliens Ate My Homework! It is slated for release in early 2020.
The Invisible Spyis a far cry from your mythological stories that you are better known for. So why venture into children’s publishing? Also why did you choose to tell a school story and not retellings of mythology?
actually the other way around. I started my career as a children’s book author
and only ventured into mythology much later. As the headnote above says, I
began writing at the age of 9. Now, that may seem like childish scribbles, but
that’s when I became serious about writing as a vocation. I started my first
novel at that age. It would be considered a children’s book today and was
several times the length of The Invisible
Spy. I never completed it because it was too ambitious and I had bitten off
more than I could chew. It was titled Childworld
and was about a plane full of children that crash on an island and learn that
all the adults in the world have mysteriously died of an unknown virus, and
only the children are left alive. I was reading my way through the classics at
the time and William Golding’s Lord of
the Flies was a powerful influence. Today, looking back across the distance
of five decades I would describe it as Lord
of the Flies meets Lost meets The Stand.
finished Childworld but I continued
writing stories (and poems and essays and novels) at feverish speed, filling
dozens of ledger books with small cramped handwriting. (Ledger books were the
biggest blank notebooks I could find, and I wrote small to make maximum use of
the space.) I was recently contacted by an old neighbour from that time,
Bianca, who now lives in Canada, and she told me that she remembered me sitting
at the dining table in my grandmother’s house filling page after page,
completely intent on the task. That was when I was ten. Almost five decades
later, I’m still writing.
I wrote at
least one book-length work every single year from the age of nine, several
books – and stories, poems, songs, essays, scripts – and the vast majority of
them were what would be classified as children’s books. I didn’t work up the
confidence to actually start sending them out to publishers till I was 15, at
which point, I would carry the manuscript of my science fiction YA trilogy (The Man Machine, The Ultimatum, The Last of
the Robots) to publisher’s offices in Mumbai, in the hope of getting
someone to read my work.
I was a
published poet by that time – I published a lot of poetry in my teen years, in
journals ranging from Jayanta Mahapatra’s Chandrabhaga
in Bhubhaneswarto Menke Katz’s Bitterroot in New York, was interviewed on AIR and other
outlets. When I was around 19, Doordarshan Mumbai even did a half hour
interview-based feature showcasing my work as one of the youngest emerging
poets in the country. I was published at the age of 14 and was a regular
contributor to the children’s section of almost every newspaper and magazine
that would take my work, from Illustrated Weekly to Evening News, The
Afternoon, Free Press Journal, JS, and I don’t even remember all the other
names now. I also self-published my first book of poems Ashes in the Dust of Time and it was selected to represent Young India at the World Book Fair in
Paris, France, that year. There’s probably copies of it in the National
Archive, Asiatic Society, and elsewhere. I had some wonderfully encouraging
rejection letters from TLS, The Atlantic Review, and New Yorker. (I also never
stopped writing poetry, by the way, and am planning to start sending out some
of my more recent works to literary journals here in the US soon.)
coming back to my children’s books. I found the addresses of Indian publishers
and wrote to them. The first and only one to reply was Zamir Ansari of Penguin
Books India. It was basically just a distribution office back then and I think
he was the only employee. He was kind enough to meet me on a trip to Mumbai and
was the first, and one of the kindest, people I ever met in Indian publishing.
You can imagine a teenager in school uniform (I would take off my school tie
and my Headboy badges in the hope that I would look older than my age, which I
did – I looked mature enough to be allowed into The Exorcist when I was 13), sitting in the coffee shop of The
Oberoi with this elderly gentleman, discussing publishing. I had done my
homework, spending hours in the USIS and British Council Library, reading every
book on publishing, every copy of Bookseller
and he must have been impressed by me. He didn’t read my manuscript but he
gave me some insights into Indian publishing.
persevered, still writing at least one children’s book and one novel every
year, and eventually in my 20s, I finally got accepted by a small imprint
called Better Yourself Books. It was the children’s imprint of the Daughters of
St. Paul, also known as the Pauline Sisters, and my editor was a wonderful nun
named Sister Nivedita. She offered me a small advance and they published what
was my first fiction book, Amazing
Adventure at Chotta Sheher. It sold over 10,000 copies, which in the 1990s
was a huge number, and went in for reprints. I received royalties from it which
was more than I ever expected.
adapted it to a feature film and it won a prize for the Best Children’s Film
Script from the CFSI (Children’s Film Society of India). I was invited to a meeting
with the jury, headed by chairperson Shabana Azmi, and I earned even more money
for the adaptation rights. (I was already working in advertising as a
copywriter, quite successfully, and writing scripts for some of the earliest TV
shows such as Saanp Seedi and
docudramas, winning a number of awards in both advertising and scriptwriting
and making a decent living.) The film never did get made but it was such a
zany, fun book that I wish I had a copy to see if it holds up even today.
(One of my
quirks is that I never keep copies of my own books, I give them all away. I
always believe that I can write much better and keeping my work around seems
like an exercise in vanity. I also give away the books I buy to read, since I
believe books should be passed on, not hoarded.)
time, Penguin had started local publishing headed by David Davidar, and he
published another children’s book by me under the Puffin India imprint. It was
titled The Missing Parents Mystery and
while it was just as much fun as my earlier book, they simply couldn’t sell any
of their titles in the market. I began my career as a children’s book author,
and the mythological books, while great fun to write, comprise only about a
small part of my total output as a writer. So, in a sense, I never really
stopped writing children’s books.
Then I met
my editor at Pan Macmillan India, Sushmita Chatterjee. Later Sushmita joined
Scholastic who then commissioned a chapter book series — the Secret School Mysteries. The first three
titles are The Invisible Spy, Aliens Ate
My Homework, and The Haunted Centre.
some unknown reason, the dam seems to have broken.
picture books coming out from Lantana Publishing (I Am Brown, illustrated by the amazing Sandhya Prabhat) coming in
March 2020, Tiny Tiger to be
illustrated by Sandhya’s sister Chhaya Prabhat coming in late 2020, a baby book
series called Superzeroes illustrated
by Abhijeet Kini coming in late 2020/early 2021, graphic novel adaptations of
my Ramayana Series from Campfire Graphic Novels starting with Prince of Ayodhya coming in September
2019, a graphic novel YA series on Shiva starting with The Legend of Rudra coming in October 2019, a YA graphic novel on
the Gita in early 2020, an adventure series featuring an SC/ST protagonist
called Bhumia Adventures from Tulika,
a YA version of the Ramayana from Speaking Tiger, an original middle grade
fantasy adventure series starting with Pax
Gandhi, Sorceror Supreme, also from Speaking Tiger, and much much more. And
those are only my children’s books, of course.
And I’m only
getting started. As you can see, I have a lot of lost years to make up for!
Besides, I LOVE writing and few books
give me as much pleasure as a zany, fun children’s story. So expect many more.
2. What is your writing routine? How many words can you get done in a day?
Oh, I don’t
write every day. In fact, I don’t write most days. I never have a word target. You
see, I have a problem of too much focus. I’m the kind of person who could write
in a war zone. (I speak from experience, having written an entire book while
reporting from Kargil in 1999 for Sunday Mid-Day and Rediff.com.) I have to be
careful not to let myself get sucked into writing otherwise you would find me
someday, with a miles long beard, filling my 100th Terabyte sized
hard disk! I spend most of my reading, day dreaming, exercising, with my
family. My wife and I take care of our grand-daughter Leia most days of the
week, and she loves to read too. I take a very long time to live with a book
and story before setting fingers to keypad, so when I do sit to write, it comes
out fully formed. When you read a book or story by me, you are reading the
result of several decades of gestation and several hours of actual writing.
I’ll talk more about this when answering your other questions below.
3. You are a phenomenally well-read and an eclectic reader. So do you have a reading routine? What format do you prefer reading — print or digital (eBooks/audio)? In fact, any tips on what makes an individual a reader?
It’s kind of
you to say so. I read for pleasure, and am lucky (as well as unlucky) that I
have such variegated reading interests. I think I actually read about 50 books
a month, but that doesn’t include old favourites I dip into now and then, books
I reference for my work, and books I start but don’t care to finish. It
includes children’s books, which I love because they’re pure story vehicles. I
prefer to read in print, hardcover ideally. (Thanks to the incredible library
system here in the US, I’m able to indulge my love for reading like never
before, ordering as many new hardcovers as I wish, all free. It’s a miracle!)
But I also love to listen to audiobooks – also available here free through the
library apps. I listen to audiobooks in the morning, while checking my email,
cooking my breakfast, eating, and before I sit down to work. Later in the day,
I’ll read a print book. And that doesn’t include the picture books I read with
Speaking for myself, I think growing up in a house full of books (my mother, grandmother, and grandfather were all avid readers) makes a huge difference. Books and reading are like blood and oxygen. You can’t get one without the other. Even as a parent, I was the first one in the house to get hooked on Harry Potter, Twilight, The Hunger Games, you name it. I would buy those books, read them and leave them for my children to discover. They would ignore them or pass them off as “Dad’s latest obsession” until suddenly one day, years later, all their friends were talking about the book and they would come to me and say “Dad, where’s that Harry Potter book?” I was one of the first people in India to register for an internet account and I spent almost all my time (and still do) browsing for books! I think it’s something in your blood.
Leia, as you can see, is fascinated by all my bookshelves and by seeing me reading all the time. But she loves looking at books and being read to, and I have no doubt that she will grow up with books as part of her eco-system. It also helps that almost all my children’s books are dedicated to her!
4. This year is a first for you in many ways — many new book releases, spanning age groups and spanning continents. If the publications originate on different continents, does it inform your writing style, bearing in mind that you may be writing for slightly different sets of readers who perhaps different expectations?
Oh yes, it
changes completely. American editors have a completely different attitude. In
India, editors still consider a book to be the author’s work. Children’s book
authors here, by and large with a few famous exceptions, are essentially
delivering what’s acceptable to their editors.
instance, we have a wonderful boom in Indian’s children publishing right now,
with such amazing books such as the h0le series from Duckbill, books like A Firefly in the Dark by Shazaf Fatima
Haider, Calling Muskaan by Himanjali Sarkar,
Jwala Kumar and the Gift of Fire by
Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar, Amra and the
Witch by Arefa Tehsin, The Hidden
Children by Reshma Barshikar, to name just a few.
all incredible, amazing books. In the US. I’m incredibly lucky to have found a
great editor in John Joseph Adams, and publisher in Bruce Nichols. Having said
that, as I said, I’ve had a little luck and somehow managed to slip one through
the cracks. The critical and reader response is wonderful and universally
laudatory. The book is doing well and I’m very happy with my editor and
5. How do you work upon a series arc? Does the plot take shape as you write it or do you create an outline beforehand?
daydream about it. Over time, it all coalesces in my head. It just comes
together somehow. I accumulate details, characters, writing styles, structure,
all in my mind, and one day, I feel the urge to sit down and “write a little”,
and it all comes out in a torrent, pretty much fully formed. It’s a gift from
an unknown place and I don’t question or analyse it. I simply accept it with
grace and piety.
6. Writing three different kinds of series arcs — chapter books, retelling of the Mahabharata and a yalit trilogy based on Indian mythology — must require a fair amount of mental agility. How do you keep track of all the story plots? Do you make extensive notes?
I read. At
some point, a story comes along. It’s all somewhere in my head. I generally
have several dozen going at the same time, and I have no idea how I keep track
of them all. I just do. No notebooks, no computer files full of notes, no
assistants, secretaries, nothing. Just me and my laptop. Sometimes I write.
Mostly, I read. Always, I dream.
7. Has dividing your time living in Mumbai and Los Angeles changed your perspective on writing or is context immaterial to your writing?
America makes it easier to see India in a different perspective. I’m finally
approaching the completion of a literary novel set in Mumbai which I first
started almost 40 years ago. It’s called The
Pasha of Pedder Road and is one of those mammoth realistic literary novels
that I aspired to write as a young author, but never had the life-experience to
attempt. Ironically, or perhaps fittingly, I had to leave Mumbai (where I was
born, grew up and lived for 51 years) before I could write about Mumbai again.
On the other hand, I no longer feel the slightest bit interested in writing
about the US.
8. How/ where do you find ideas for your stories?
Oh, I could
never find them. They always find me. I believe there’s a Human Directory
that’s secretly handed around by the Story community. My name must feature
right at the top, since my first and last names are A and B. So they constantly
come calling, at all hours of the day. I often have to pretend I’m not home,
otherwise I’d never get any sleep or rest!
9. How did you come up with these five delightful characters — Google baba Peter, gamer Sania, identical twins Usha & Asha, and aspiring scientist Arun? When creating characters, do you work on their backstory or is it sufficient to see them develop as the story moves ahead? (I am always curious whether the character comes first or the plot or is it a bit of both and then it evolves.)
question. I wish I had the answer. As I said, I simply write the whole thing.
All fully formed. More or less the way you read it. When I hold a copy of one
of my books in my hand, I read it and it’s all just as new to me as it is to
you. I remember these words passing from my mind to the screen, but have no
clue how they came to be there. As Erica Jong once wrote: “We write as leaves
breathe: to live.” I simply breathe, and the air comes out as perfectly shaped
stories, characters and all.
10. It is early days as yet but do you have any idea what is the response, particularly amongst children, to Invisible Spy?
first book ever to receive five star reviews, and to be loved by everyone who
reads it. The response is overwhelming. I think for the first time in my 72-book
career I have a book that’s universally loved. It is a wonderful feeling!
11. Who are the writers you admire and may have influenced your writing as well?
every few days. I read so much, it’s like pointing to one fish in the ocean and
say, that one. It’s gone almost instantly, and then there’s another, and
another. Hundreds. Thousands even. More than writers, it’s individual books.
Often, I pick up a book at random in a library and if I like the first page, I
keep reading. I may not even look at the title or author name until much later.
I’ve often thought I would prefer that my books be published without my name
mentioned anywhere. After all, all art is ultimately a collective creative
experience. It takes a village to create a story. A writer merely jots it down.
12. Do you have any all-time favourite stories? Does this list change over time?
Too many to
count or name. Ever changing, ever expanding list. A monster with a bottomless
appetite, that’s me as a reader! As a young kid, I used to read my way through
entire circulating libraries. I can devour whole series like guzzling water. Books
are life to me.
A God in Every Stone is Kamila Shamsie’s fifth novel. It is set at the time of World War I and before the partition of the Indian sub-continent into India and Pakistan. It is about an Englishwoman archaeologist, Vivian Rose Spencer, and her meeting with her discovery of the Temple of Zeus and Ypres war veteran, twenty-two-year-old Qayyum Gul who is returning home to Peshawar. But the story is much, much more than that.
A God in Every Stone will be classified as “Pakistani Literature”. It may have been written by Kamila Shamsie but it could even work as literature of the subcontinent or South Asian literature, with sufficient sprinkling of historical facts that makes it intriguing and interesting for a global audience. It is so clearly positioned in a time of history that it is sufficiently far removed from the present times for the writer to be able to present, analyse, teach and comment–uninhibited. Placing the story during World War 1 and in undivided India is fascinating. It is a story based on some historical facts like the massacre of Qissa Khawani Bazaar (the Storytellers Market) on 23 April 1930, the Khudai Khidmatgars and of the freedom fighter, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan. More importantly I liked the placing of it in a time of history when people of undivided India are shown fighting together against the British. ( In this telling of history/fiction, it is immaterial whether they were Pakistanis or Indians, they are fighting against the colonial rulers.) It is as if the novel is showing a “history from below” much like Subaltern Studies did in academics. For instance giving characters such as Najeeb, the assistant at the Peshawar museum; the soldiers hired by the British to figure in the Great War such as Lance-Naik Qayyum Gul; the young prostitutes–girls of mixed lineage; the storytellers; the letter-writer — are people who would barely have figured in previous fictional narratives.
It is a story set so firmly in the city of Peshawar, but makes the wonderful connect of this region with Greece, the rich history of Peshawar and Gandhara art. The forays into Europe of World War 1, the “betrayal” of Tahsin Bey by Viv, the recuperation of soldiers of Indian origin in Brighton, the VAD etc. Even the subtle transformation of Viv’s mother from being horrified by her daughter dispatched to an archaeological dig in Turkey to encouraging her to make a trip to Peshawar. ( ” The truth was, the war had sloughed off so many rules that no one seemed to know any more what counted as unacceptable behaviour in women.” p.75)
Positioning the story in Peshawar is stunning since much of the problems of early twentieth century such as tribal warfare, being a part of NWFP, Swat valley continue to be relevant in the twenty-first century. What also shines through in the novel is that this region has been alive, settled and of crucial geo-political significance for centuries, something that locals tend to forget or maybe are too absorbed in their daily life. What comes through in the novel is that the locals may be active participants ( willing or unwilling is not the question right now) but local dynamics have a powerful impact on their lives. This is evident through the fascinating badalas that are shared. Of these the one that attracts the most crowd is that of the Haji. Well it could be just a comment of the times but it assumes a different dimension if read with a knowledge of what is happening today in world politics –the Islamisation of Terror.
Even the descriptions of the Gandhara artifacts, the archaeological digs etc criss-cross history marvelously. They bring to play not only the political significance of important regimes of the past such as Darius, the Mauryan empire, Alexander etc but of more recent developments such as what is happening in Afghanistan and the Taliban ( i.e. blasting of the Bamiyan Buddhas). But the inextricable link between culture/cultural expressions and politics. The politicians and kingmakers may no longer be alive but their presence is marked by sculptures, pottery shards, etc that have been left behind or excavated. The connection between Gandhara and non-violence is also striking when one recalls that Ashoka who quit fighting after the battle of Kalinga, became a Buddhist and a staunch believer of non-violence, his first “posting” was at Gandhara. Whereas this novel involves Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, who too believed in non-violent forms of action. Centuries apart sharing similar beliefs in the same region.
The flitting between the imagined and real worlds. Creating the myth of circlet of Scylax so convincingly could only have been done by a person who is passionate about Greek mythology and loves research. It meshes beautifully in this story.
A God in Every Stone is exquisite. With this novel Kamila Shamsie has set a very high benchmark for literary fiction–worldwide.
( After reading A God in Every Stone I posed some questions to Kamila Shamsie via e-mail. )
Q1 Have the film rights been sold to this book? Who chose the extract for the Granta special?
No. And I chose the extract.
Q2 How did do you decide upon this story?
I didn’t. I had decided on a very different story which started with the massacre in Qissa Khwani/the Street of Storytellers in 1930 and continues until 2009. But my plans for novels always end up going astray. It did have both archaeology and the anti-colonial resistance in Peshawar as elements right from the start so the germ of the novel was always there but finding the story was a slow winding process which involved lots of deleting and quite a bit of re-writing.
Q3 Where was the research for this book done?
Mostly in the British Library where they keep colonial records – and also have a wonderful photography collection. I also went to some of the novel’s locations in Peshawar. And the Internet is an invaluable tool for research, of course.
Q4 How did the idea of a woman archaeologist, Vivian Rose Spencer, strike you? I wish she had more of a presence in the book.
The idea of an English archaeologist struck me first – originally the archaeologist was going to be male but while reading a piece of travel writing by the Englishwoman Rosita Forbes who was in Peshawar in the 30’s I became interested in the experience of Englishwoman in Peshawar. At that point the structure of the novel was very different and there were more primary characters. I’m pretty sure that, regardless of Rosita Forbes, I would have made the archaeologist female once it became clear that the soldier and archaeologist were the two primary characters. I wasn’t about to write a novel in which both the main characters are male. Male writers do more than enough of that!
As for wanting her to be more of a presence – she has more pages in the novel then anyone else. But her story is more the focus of the first half of the book. The anti-colonial story has to shift it’s focus to the Peshawaris.
Q5 How much history did you delve into? Did the historical research come before the writing or specific research happened after the story took root?
Lots. And lots. I research and write as parallel processes – and the research doesn’t really stop until I’ve finished the book.
Q6 This is literary fiction similar to what Subaltern Studies is in academics–telling the histories from “below”. You made heroes of figures who were considered rebels in “mainstream” narratives. Did this happen consciously?
Whose mainstream?, would be my first response to that.
What I am interested in, which relates to your question, is the stories that have received less attention than other stories. Whether it’s women archaeologists rather than men archaeologists, Indian soldiers in WWI rather than English soldiers, the non-violent Pashtun rather than the one who picks up a gun.
Q7 What is the difference between literary fiction, historical fiction and fiction set in history? Would A God in Every Stone even fit into any of these categories?
It’s not something to which I give any thought when writing a novel. Which category will make people want to read it?
Q8 There are many women characters in your novel, who only serve purpose for that particular moment in the story, no more. Yet their fleeting appearances are powerful, almost like a painting, they leave a deep imprint on one’s mind. For instance the infant bride and the teenage prostitute, are they figments of imagination or based upon sketches that you came across?
I certainly see then serving a purpose beyond a single moment. Everything in a novel has to serve the entire novel. (The infant bride grows up to be a very important part of the novel – she’s the green-eyed woman.) They aren’t based on sketches. I know there were prostitutes in the Old City and I know very young girls were given away in marriage. Beyond that, I worked out the particular stories that best suited my purpose.
Q9 Why did you choose to write about Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan or “Frontier Gandhi” ?
I grew up barely even hearing his name which is why I wanted to write about him. He’s been written out of Pakistan’s history, except in KP, which is a terrible shame. Also, he was such an important figure in his own right that it seems only correct that we should call him by his own name or honorific – Ghaffar Khan or Bacha Khan – rather than by reference to anyone else, regardless of who that anyone else is.
Q10 Are the badalas yours or recorded?
Q11 Have you ever worn a burqa. The confusion that you show the young girl to be in can only come from an experienced moment.
No I haven’t. Novelists imaginations fortunately often thrive quite happily without experienced moments!
Q12 Now that you have British citizenship, how do you see yourself? British-Pakistani writer, Pakistani writer, of South Asian origin?
I am looking to speak to and interact with authors who have self-published in any genre or field. It could be fiction, non-fiction, children’s literature, cooking, photography, wildlife, memoirs, travelogues, poetry, medicine, academic, religion, mythology, short stories etc. They could have published printed books or ebooks or used any of online platforms like Kindle Direct Publishing ( KDP), Smashwords, Lulu, Author Solutions, Partridge Publishing etc. It could also be in any language but my impression is that these services are predominantly being offered in English only.
I would like to connect with authors who have only self published or even hybrid authors so as to understand this form of publishing. Please email me jayabhattacharjirose dot gmail dot com . Please mark the subject line as “Self-publishing”.
Also if anybody is interested in attending two events about self-publishing, to be organised in Delhi or Mumbai, please message me. It is only by invitation.