Academic and writer Saikat Majumdar’s novel The Scent of God is set in an elite all-boy’s boarding school run by a Hindu monastic order in late-twentieth century India. On the surface of it, it is seemingly a strictly run institution where discipline matters. Academic excellence is combined with the spiritual learnings that are to be learned every day so as to ensure the students are exemplary exam warriors. Yet despite these strict rhythms to the day the students will have their moments of challenging authority or testing limits. The opening pages of the novel focuses on the eleven-year-olds Anirvan and Kajol. And it is from there the plot begins. Read an excerpt Outlook magazine published in January 2019.
Saikat Majumdar’s previous novel Firebird was absolutely amazing to read. It was sharp and used words sparingly. It was a fine example of craftsmanship. Unfortunately The Scent of God does not live up to the expectations one has of Saikat Majumdar’s fiction. Though the premise of writing a same sex novel is a great idea but fictional landscapes also need to be cautious in how these characters are portrayed. Despite the apparent sensitivity with which the author tackles the plot in The Scent of God, it is the lack of literary awareness about the spunk and boldness in contemporary queer adolescent fiction that strikes a jarring note. It is apparent not only in the very adult-like conversations that the eleven year olds engage in but also their explorations of gauging their attraction for each other. There is a tentativeness in the prose that is usually missing in the current crop of young adult fiction. Perhaps The Scent of God is meant for the adult trade market but a little understanding of the young adult literature market that is maturing rapidly in this particular genre would have helped enrich this novel. A truly tremendous imprint is Scholastic’s PUSH imprint that is being led by the impressive David Leviathan. Or this online discussion forum about yalit — I Read YA — that too has animated conversations about queer literature meant for adolescents.
Nevertheless The Scent of God will be regarded as a significant novel to emerge in contemporary Indian fiction for its attempts to tackle a gender sensitive issue and for its excellent timing. It has been published months after the Supreme Court ended Sec 377 thereby decriminalising homosexuality. While there is legal recognition the deep seated social prejudice towards the queer community continues to exist and this will take a long time to combat. So novels like The Scent of God will play an essential role in contributing to the discourse by addressing taboo subjects such as sexual freedoms in a rabid fundamentalist society and exploring how does an individual exercise their free will? The Scent of God will also remain in public view for its very catching cover. It is a bold design by Pinaki De and in all likelihood will be recognised with a listing at a book cover prize.
Every Monday I post some of the books I have received in the previous week. This post will be in addition to my regular blog posts and newsletter. Today’s Book Post 24 is after a gap of two weeks as January is an exceedingly busy month with the New Delhi World Book Fair and literary festivals such as the Jaipur Literature Festival.
In today’s Book Post 24 included are some of the titles I received in the past few weeks as well as bought at the book fair and are worth mentioning.
In December 2018, award-winning New Zealand children’s writer Gavin Bishop was invited to India by the New Zealand High Commission for an author tour. Gavin Bishop is an award winning children’s picture book writer and illustrator who lives and works in Christchurch, New Zealand. As author and illustrator of nearly 60 books his work ranges from original stories to retellings of Maori myths, European fairy stories, and nursery rhymes.
Gavin Bishop participated in the Bookaroo Children’s Literature Festival as well as travelled with his publisher’s, Scholastic India, to various schools for exciting interactions. I met Mr Bishop and his wife, Vivien, at the New Zealand Deputy High Commissioner’s, Suzannah Jessep, residence. It was a lovely evening of freewheeling conversation about books and publishing, children’s literature, creating picture books and the power of stories. Excerpts of an interview are given below.
Here is a picture taken at the Deputy High Commissioner’s residence along with Gavin Bishop. It has been uploaded on the Facebook page of the New Zealand High Commission to India
How would you define a children’sbook especially a picture book as you make them the most often?
A children’s book is one that speaks honestly to childrenwithout pretentions. The worst kind of books are those that pretendto be for children but are really aimed at the parent or adult reading the bookto the child.
Apicture-book is one where the pictures and words tell a story, ‘hand-in-hand’.Neither the pictures nor the text are ’top-dog’, neither one is moreimportant than the other. Both parts have separate jobs to do to tell thestory. The picture book is my passion. It offers so many artistic and literarychallenges that I could never exhaust them all in a single lifetime. Manypublishers, mostly in the USA, have said to me that picture-books arequite simply for children who can’t read yet. I can’t think of anything furtherfrom the truth. There are lots of examples of picture books that work at manylevels and can be re-read over and over again by children of all ages. Ithink my version of The House that Jack Built that looks atthe colonisation of New Zealand by the British in the early 19th century, is a picture book that appeals to older children, children who can certainly read. Many New Zealand schools use this book at upper levels to talkabout the history of this country.
2. How do you select the stories you choose to write about? Where did you hear the stories that you write about in your books?
For stories, I constantly revisit all the terrific folktales, myths and legends ofthe New Zealand Maori as well those from Europe. When I rewrite a story, I tryas much as possible not the change the plot or the outcome. If it isa little frightening, I leave it like that. But if I think aparticular story is more suited to adults, as many traditional storiesare, then I don’t choose it. There are lots of adventures for example, that the Maori demi-god Maui has, that I think are extremely interesting but theycontain adult elements that a child does not to be confronted with yet.
My childhood is another very deep pool full of memories and stories that I diveinto from time to time.
Most of my books take a long time to produce. My pictures are often full of detailand are drawn by hand on paper as opposed to beingcomputer-generated. If I am to live with a creation for most of a year, Ihave to be convinced from the start that the story is worthwhile and willadd something to a child’s life. I know that sounds lofty, but I really believe that as a writer for children my obligation is to present a young reader with stories and ideas that they will find interesting and perhaps have not heard of.
Another huge source of inspiration is reading. I try to read a lot of fiction. Movies are a good source of ideas too. In fact a movie is rather like a picture book except instead of text as in a book, you have dialogue. Some of the movies I seen over the years have never left me. I have beenparticularly inspired by movies I saw as a young adult. Films by Fellini, Bergman, Pasolini and Altman showed me how stories can be told using vivid imagery and characters.
3. Did you consciously choose the style of writing for children as you do in your longer pieces of fiction –simple sentences, very short chapters, precise descriptions with few polysyllabic words?
When I write I do keep in mind that I am writing for children. But this is onlyreflected in the style and format. I try not to modify the story or the humour which can result in ‘talking-down’ to the reader. Although I usesimple sentences and short chapters I don’t shy away from difficult words if I think they are the right ones for the job. When I wrote Piano Rock I probably had 7 or 8-year-old readers in mind. I have been heartened by thenumber of young boys who have written to me to say Piano Rock is the first book they have read right through. I would like to think that thiswas because of the content, but I suspect it had something to do with thefact the book is full of short sentences and quite a few pictures. It is very non-threatening to a reluctant reader. No sooner have you started a chapter than you find yourself finishing it.
4. Piano Rock and Teddy One-Eye focus a bit on the stories narrated to you by your mother and grandmother but your repertoire indicates that this love for stories go fardeeper. When did this love for stories begin and do you still collectstories?
These two books are about me. They are my autobiographies, even though the second one waswritten by my 68-year-old teddy bear. I vividly remember sitting with my grandmother by the fire listening to her reading me stories and singing strange little songs that she plucked out of her memories of when she was a child. One I remember more than all the others, and one I included in Piano Rock was – “Old Mrs Bumblebee said to me the other day, comeand have a cup of tea on the back veranda.” That’s all there is to it, but at the age of 3 or 4 I found it for some reason, intriguing. I can remember trying to make sense of it byputting it into the context of our neighbourhood. “Did Mrs McQuirter overthe back fence invite us over for a cup of tea?” I wondered quietly to myself.
This little ditty has been with me all of my life and I have, in my quest to find itsorigin, mentioned it to lots of people. All have replied they had never heardof it until one day at a talk I was giving an Indian woman stood up in theaudience and said she had heard it in India when she was child.Perhaps the word ‘veranda’ is a clue? The mystery deepens……,
5. How would you define a compelling story?
stories are the ones that become part of you for the rest of your
life. I think this happens more often in childhood, therefore it is even
more important for a children’s writer to put everything they have into
producing the best story they can.
6. The imagery in your books is fantastic. It’s almost as if the imagery used complements the illustration. Was that deliberate or an unconscious act?
I am a very visual person and when I’m writing I see everything that is happening in my mind’s eye. I plan my text and illustrations carefully to begin with but after that, when it comes to painting and writing, I rely a great deal on my subconscious. I follow my gut-instinct and often cannot tell whether a picture or a piece of writing has worked until I distance myself from it by leaving itfor some time and not looking at it.
7. How do you conceptualise a book?Is it taking into account the text and the illustration? How does the illustration process evolve?
To beginwith I am directed by format. If it is a picture book, then I know from thebeginning it will most likely have 32 pages. I generally begin with the storyand write it with the length of the book in mind. I have now developed a spare writing style for this sort of book where I deliberately keep description for example, to a minimum so as to allow plenty of room for the illustrations to tell their parts of the story. Sometimes I jot down little ideas for the pictures in the margin as I write. The process at this stage of the book is quite measured. Once the text reaches a stage that I thinkis workable, I draw up a storyboard, a page by page plan from cover to cover ofthe whole book. I usually keep this small, drawing the whole thing onto a single A2 sheet of paper, so that when it comes to putting images into place on the miniature pages I cannot get into too much detail. This results in stronger compositions when these little pictures are increased tofull size later, when I make a dummy. I work in pencil which I go overwith ink. The dummy is based on the page size supplied by the publisher afterreceiving a quote from the printer. I make a dummy with 10 sheets of paperfolded in half. That gives you 32 pages plus endpapers and cover. Next I print off the text and glue it into place throughout the book. This instantly showsme how much space is left for the illustrations. The next couple of months arespent enlarging and drawing the pictures from the storyboard into the dummy. This is really where all the hard work begins. If it is a historical story I do most of my research at this stage.
A completed dummy is useful for showing your publisher what you have in mind for the book it also provides a detailed guide for the next process of producing the finished art work. From the start to publication a picture book usually takes a year.
8. How does your Maori ancestry inform your art of storytelling and fascination of folk tales?
My Maori ancestry tells me who I am and where I belong. Aotearoa/New Zealand is myturangawaewae, my place to stand in the world. I have European ancestry as well and that has given me literature and language but to know that some of my tupuna/ancestors have lived in the South Pacific for thousands of years and I live here now, gives me a great sense of belonging. My mother’s name was Irihapeti Hinepau and her father gave her those names because they areancestral names. I have a large number of relatives in Aotearoa who trace theirancestry back to people in the past who have these names too. Maori myths and legends are as rich and profound as any in the world, yet when I was a child we were told more about the myths and legends from Greece and Rome than the stories from our part of the world. New Zealand has for too long suffered from a cultural cringe, always looking North to the rest of the world for affirmation. As a re-teller of Maori myths for children I want to help the next generation become proud of being part of this country. I want them to know their stories and be made strong by them.
9. How did you get into bookmaking? Have you collaborated with other writers and illustrators?
In the 1960s I went to the University of Canterbury School of Fine Arts and studied painting. While I was there I was fortunate to be taught by Russell Clark, a well-known New Zealand artist with a particular interest inillustration. He saw I was interested in children’s picture books and he encouraged me to pursue that interest. It was not until the late 1970s that I did something about this interest and tried writing my first book, Bidibidi.
My ideal project is one where I write and illustrate my own book, but I have, from time to time, worked with others. Some years ago I wrote about 30 or 40 ‘readers’. Because a lack of time these were illustrated by a series of international artists and published all over the world.
I have also illustrated books for other writers. I have done quite a few with Joy Cowley, the most successful being the Snake and Lizard series. And Margaret Mahy and I worked on what was probably her last book before she died — Mister Whistler.
10. Do your books travel to other book markets in English and have they been translated?
My books have been sold all over the world, particularly in England, Australia and the USA. Some of my books have been translated into Spanish, French, Italian, Danish and other European languages. Recently my books have become very popular in Asia and several of my recent publications appearin Korean, Mandarin and Japanese editions.
Some ofmy books, such as Kiwi Moon and Hinepau have been adapted for the stage. Kiwi Moon travelled nationally as puppet theatre and the third adaption of Hinepau was performed entirely in Maori.
But oneof my biggest creative challenges was writing the story and designing the sets and costumes for two ballets for the Royal New Zealand Ballet Company. Although they were pitched at an audience of children they were performed by the regular company of dancers with whom I got to work. Original music was composed by a musician friend and the choreography was designed by one of New Zealand’s top dancers. Attending the opening performances of these ballets that were created in consecutive years, were two of the most exciting experiences of my life.
Watch Shantanu Duttagupta, Head of Publishing, Scholastic India interview Gavin Bishop at the New Zealand High Commission.
I felt a Funeral, in my Brain, And Mourners to and fro Kept treading – treading – till it seemed That Sense was breaking through –
And then I heard them lift a Box And creak across my Soul With those same Boots of Lead, again, Then Space – began to toll,
And when they all were seated, A Service, like a Drum – Kept beating – beating – till I thought My mind was going numb –
As all the Heavens were a Bell, And Being, but an Ear, And I, and Silence, some strange Race, Wrecked, solitary, here –
And then a Plank in Reason, broke, And I dropped down, and down – And hit a World, at every plunge, And Finished knowing – then –
Emily Dickinson ( 1896)
Queer young adult novelist Will Walton’s second novel I feel a Funeral in my Brain is an astounding piece of writing. Editor of the PUSH imprint at Scholastic and legendary author himself, David Leviathan sums it up well as a “brilliant and bonkers melding of poetry and prose“.
To briefly sum up the book (if possible!) is that it is about a grieving Avery whose life is topsy-turvy at the moment. He is wheel-chair bound for a while due to an injury caused in an car accident when his mother was driving whether under the influence of alcohol or not is unclear. Avery is also figuring out his sexuality while exploring a relationship with his best friend/classmate/neighbour while looking after his alcoholic mother, living with a grandfather who too has his own set of challenges and discovering his anchor in the world of poetry/poets who came and went leaving a trail of their own set of complicated challenges.
I feel a Funeral in my Brain is obviously a tribute to the great American poets including to Emily Dickinson as is evident in its direct reference in the book title but the novel itself is equally experimental in form. Depending on how the young protagonist Avery is feeling the rhythm of the text reflects his mood. Complicated and not an easy read yet once you immerse yourself in it and do not read it with the expectations of a traditional reader, it will leave you thinking and wondering about a lot of issues.
Every Monday I post some of the books I have received in the previous week. Embedded in the book covers and post will also be links to buy the books on Amazon India. This post will be in addition to my regular blog posts and newsletter.
In today’s Book Post 16 included are some of the titles I received in the past few weeks and are worth mentioning and not necessarily confined to parcels received last week.
Scholastic India has just announced a fantastic collection of LGBTQ titles meant for young adults. Conversations about sexuality at the best of times are a difficult space for parents and educators to negotiate with teenagers but when it comes to having frank and open conversations about the gender spectrum then many folks are flummoxed. This Scholastic India list is a tremendous selection to begin with. The Scholastic group having accrued nearly a century of book publishing experience understands and is sensitive when it comes to making books, especially for young adults. So this is a fine selection of really powerful, thought-provoking and well written books exploring gender issues. Here is a peek in to what Scholastic India has to offer.
Every Monday I post some of the books I have received in the previous week. Embedded in the book covers and post will also be links to buy the books on Amazon India. This post will be in addition to my regular blog posts and newsletter.
In today’s Book Post 7 I have included some titles that I received in the past few weeks and are worth mentioning and not necessarily confined to parcels received last week.
And then there it is, our new, terrible silent routine. And to top it off, I have no birds and the world feels like a different kind of dark than it felt before. Mom isn’t perfect, but I miss her. I miss her picky neatness, I miss her bothering me about taking my nose out of a book and making a friend for once, I miss her getting on my case about my hair. I miss telling her about what I’m reading, what I’m thinking, asking her about work, listening to her carry on about Aunt Joan and whatever drama she’s gotten into. I miss her. There is a sadness I can’t shake, that’s not just from breakfast. There are no birds by the feeder. There aren’t pigeons cluttering the sidewalk as I go to school. I know, now, that last night’s dream was the last flight I’ll take.
Sarah Moon‘s debut novel for young adults Sparrowis about a teenager of the same name who has a nervous breakdown. Sparrow is fourteen. She was whisked away to hospital from school after being discovered on the roof. Sparrow maintains she was bird watching as she has always been fascinated them fly. Sparrow lives with her mother, who is a single parent. Sparrow is named after the bird by her mother because she was “so small and brown, almost breakable, but so strong. Tiny but mighty…”. Few weeks later Sparrow is released in her mother’s care with the stipulation she takes her prescribed medication and visits a therapist regularly. So it is fixed that Sparrow attends regular sessions with Dr. Katz which are protected by doctor-patient confidentiality and even Sparrow’s mother cannot sit in upon the hour-long meetings. At first Sparrow refuses to speak to Dr. Katz but after weeks of therapy Sparrow begins to come around. It is probably listening to Dr. Katz playlist which begins to break the barriers for Sparrow. So much so she orders the very same songs/bands she heard during therapy for her listening pleasure at home. All through months of treatment and close questioning by her mother Sparrow is adamant that she was not trying to kill herself but just wanted to be with the birds. Probable reason for her being found alone on the roof ledge was she was devastated upon hearing of the tragic death of her favourite librarian, Mrs Wexler, in a traffic accident. Mrs. Wexler had been warm and welcoming to the shy and reserved Sparrow, encouraging the little girl to sit in the library any time she felt like it, read, participate in the book club etc. Mrs. Wexler offered the fragile little Sparrow a refuge from a world which constantly overwhelmed her.
Sparrow begins from the moment Sparrow is released from the hospital. She is portrayed as a very lonely girl who slowly opens out under Dr Katz’s patient guidance. By the end of the novel Sparrow finds the smallest steps like conversing with other girls of her age still a daunting task but at least she is doing it! It suddenly dawns upon her during the finale when she is running away from her responsibility that the feeling of being ready will never come. She has to muster courage. “I am not going to be ready. I’m going to have to do this without being ready.” The ultimate epiphany is that the very same music that helped her in therapy is where she finally gets what she has been craving for — to fly away, for her limbs to go light. In fact Sarah Moon created her playlist for Sparrow on Spotify. In it are listed all the pieces of music referenced in the story.
Depression comes in many shades. With the recent suicides of two prominent people Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain within a week of each other has suddenly put the spotlight on mental health. These issues were always there and always discussed but the magnitude of this problem is unthinkable. To quote Dr Anirudh Kala, Clinical Director, Mind Plus:
Clinical depression is the commonest mental illness and it is true that life time prevalence of depression(which means how many people at one time or the other during their life time will suffer from it) is about 18-20% and many times it just comes out of the blue without any stress like any medical illness which Clinical Depression actually is a medical illness. Both drugs and psychological treatment methods help and these help the best when used together.
However many well meaning but ill informed persons and some pop psychologists keep telling the person that the key to getting matter is to feel positive implying that the patient can if he willed to feel positive and get better, which is not true. You cannot will away your depression like you cannot will away your fever or your thyroid problem. And it makes the person worse because because he is told he can and he cant’. That is why the quip,’ Positivity is a scam.’
In Longreads essay “Surviving Depression” by Danielle Tcholakian written after the deaths of the Bourdain and Spade one of the sanest pieces of advice shared for those who battle depression every day as well as those around them is:
…the biggest lesson I’ve learned in wrestling with this illness for nearly 20 years. You can’t get out of it alone. It is also, confusingly, true that no one can save you — you’re always the one who has to do the work, who has to slog through the muddy darkness — but the eminently human kindnesses of friends and family along the way are what make the slog even remotely possible. And the truth is, you don’t have to do much of anything most of the time. Just be there. . . . Depression is a beast that swallows you whole and forces you to live inside it until you fight your way out — always with help, always with the others safely outside the beast who can pull you back.
Writing about a teenager whose mental health is being questioned by everyone around her even though the teenager herself is under the impression that her reality makes perfect sense is probably not easy. Yet Sarah Moon’s undeniable wizardry is evident in her sensitive storytelling. Sparrow can be challenging even for an experienced author to create as it is a potential minefield if not handled well. It can fall apart easily. After Nathan Filer’s The Shock of Fallthis is another great young adult novel to add to a school reading list. Perhaps to be read in conjunction with Matt Haig’s Reasons to Stay Alive which is not a young adult novel, nevertheless an excellent memoir about coming-to-terms with depression and easily accessible to readers of all ages.
Do read Sparrow. It is not always easy to read for it can be a challenge to read but it is time well spent.
Sarah Moon Sparrow Arthur A. Levine Books, An imprint of Scholastic Inc., New York, 2017. Hb. pp. 270
“Dark energy. It’s the energy that helps the universe keep expanding. You might call it a part of the universal life force.”
That sounded vaguely familiar.
“My Baba always tells me we’re all connected to energy — trees, wind, animals, people, everything.” I tried to get my ragged breathing under control. “He says that the life energy is a kind of river flowing through the universe.”
And that our souls are just a bit of that river water held inside the clay pitcher of our bodies?” Neel smiled at my surprise. “Year, I know that story too. They say that when our bodies give out, that’s just the pitcher breaking, pouring what’s inside back into the original stream of universal souls.”
“So no one’s soul is ever really gone,” I finished, repeating the words that Baba had said to me often.
Sayantani Dasgupta‘s The Serpent’s Curseis a delightful fantasy story about a twelve-year-old girl, Kiranmala, who sulks at the idea of being dressed up as a princess for Halloween. She refuses to believe her parents when they claim Kiranmala is a genuine princess and on her birthday ( which alas falls on Halloween) she must dress up appropriately. It is on her twelfth birthday that all sorts of odd things begin to happen. She discovers her parents have disappeared leaving a moving map in their wake for her assistance, two princes have arrived on winged horses to escort her, there are monsters in her backyard and much, much more. It is an exciting adventure she sets off on to locate her parents while trying not to get entangled in the affairs of the Serpent King and the Rakkhoshi Queen.
The Serpent’s Curse is a mish-mash of desi folklore and myths combined with the American experiences of an immigrant family told at a brisk pace. Even though the fantasy elements are familiar and many of the stories told are retellings of well-known Indian folklore, it really does not matter. The beauty of age-old stories is that they can be told once more by a master storyteller and still be magical. The same holds true for The Serpent’s Curse. The fight between good vs evil, the Serpent King / Naga, the Rakkhoshi Queen / Evil Queen, the Underworld, princes and princesses etc.
While this is being promoted as YAlit an eight-year-old reader I met was absolutely charmed by this book. The little girl told me solemnly “I picked up this book at the school book fair because the cover was so lovely. I am now enjoying the story too.” Then at my request she proceeded to write a short book review as well though in her note on the left hand side says it is an “interview”. This is what she wrote:
Interview of The Serpent’s Tail
I enjoyed the book a lot because there were spells, snakes, mysterious parentage and magical lands.
The story is about a girl who had annoying parents and one day she realized that her parents were gone and she set off with two princes one half demon other human and she realizes that her mum is actually someone else and so was her dad. Her mum is actually a moon maiden and her dad is the king of serpents!
I picked the book because it had a cool cover and serpents are cool.
I rate this book: 0/4 serpents and 4/4 moons
The action in The Serpent’s Curse moves swiftly. The dialogue is never dull despite incorporating a lot of “Indianisms”. Having grown up on a feast of stories and desirous of sharing this rich storytelling tradition prompted Dr Sayantani Dasgupta to create her own books that retell Indian myths and folklore for the youngsters of the Indian diaspora. Having said that the book works equally well for everyone! The author is a pediatrician by training but now teaches narrative medicine/health humanities at Columbia University. It probably explains the chatty and accessible style of her storytelling. There is a lovely rhythm to the pace without a word out of place. She acknowledges her colleagues for inculcating in her that “stories are the best medicine”.
The Serpent’s Tale is well worth checking out!
Sayantani Dasgupta The Serpent’s Tale Scholastic, New York, USA, 2018. Hb. Pp. 350 Rs 495