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An interview with the fabulous YA writer Supriya Kelkar on her debut novel, “Ahimsa”

I interviewed Supriya Kelkar for Scroll on her debut novel Ahimsa published locally by Scholastic India — “How Supriya Kelkar wrote a novel about Indian independence that children around the world relate to“. It was published on 2 September 2018. I am c&p the interview here too. The link for the book on Amazon India is embedded in the book cover given below.

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Supriya Kelkar’s debut YA novel Ahimsa is about 10-year-old Anjali who is unexpectedly pulled into the Indian Freedom struggle in 1942 when her mother leaves the family to become a freedom fighter. A brisk pace and an alignment with current social sentiments makes the book particularly apt for our times. It highlights communal tensions, riots, lynchings, prison conditions, the Quit India movement, Gandhi, and the beginnings of Indian nationalist fervour. In the process, it also steps into the vacuum that is literature on the freedom struggle for children.

Supriya Kelkar was born and grew up in the USA, learning Hindi by watching Bollywood films. After college she got a job as a screenwriter for Hindi films. Ahimsa is inspired by her great-grandmother Anasuyabai Kale’s role in the Indian freedom movement. Kelkar spoke to Scroll.in about her book and her writing in general. Excerpts from an email interview:

Why did you choose to write an activist-oriented novel from the perspective of ten-year-old Anjali?
I actually first had the idea to write this story as a biopic screenplay of my great-grandmother’s story about fifteen years ago. I tried and the script just wasn’t working and then decided to try it as a fictional story. I realised the more interesting point of view in the story wasn’t that of someone who already believed in the cause. It was of someone who was privileged and not yet ready to confront that privilege.

So I decided to tell the story from the point of view of a ten-year-old girl whose mother joins the freedom movement. I’m really happy with the choice. It allowed Anjali to grow and change so much over the course of the story from a young girl who is happy with the status quo, who loves her fancy clothes, and who doesn’t really understand fully her relationship with her colonisers, to one who is ready to make personal sacrifices, be an ally, and stand up for what is right, strong and confident that her voice can make a difference. It’s a pretty big arc and big awakening for Anjali.

The title, Ahimsa, is synonymous with Gandhi and the Indian freedom struggle. Yet it resonates decades later with the younger generations. What made you think of it
The title was one of the first things that came to me when writing this story as a novel, and is one of the few things that has remained from the first draft I wrote back in 2003. Since it was one of the themes of the book, it was an easy choice as a title. But my hope is that the true meaning behind the word really resonates with young readers today, as they realise how powerful their voice is, and how they can make a difference through words and peaceful action and not violence.

What changes did you make in the book over these years?
I think other than the very first moment and the last paragraph, everything in the story has changed over the fourteen year-long journey to publication. It took me a long time to be able to figure out what the crux of the plot should be. And that’s the beauty of revision. Once I was able to become detached from my words and hit the backspace key with abandon, I was able to throw out large chunks of the story that weren’t working and figure out what was. I think my characters and their arcs became stronger with each draft, and they definitely became more realistic, as I worked hard to make sure Anjali was flawed and had a chance to grow, and Captain Brent was able to grow and change too. I write on the computer, but will initially brainstorm on paper by hand. But all my outlining and writing is done on the computer.

Navigating historical landscapes at the best of times is tricky and yet you do it with such deftness. How many revisions did this manuscript require?
I wrote the first draft of Ahimsa in 2003. It was terrible and I was ready to give up, so I set it aside and went back to working on screenplays. But every year, between screenplays and other novels I was writing, I would remember Ahimsa exists and go back to it, throwing subplots and characters and scenes out and adding new things in. This went on until 2016, when it got a publishing contract. And after those thirteen drafts, I did four more revisions with my editor, so there were seventeen drafts in total.

In her memoir Ants Among Elephants, Sujatha Gidla quotes her uncle, Satyam, remembering an incident soon after India achieved independence. “A short, chubby dark boy…had a strange question for Satyam, one that Satyam had no answer to: ‘Do you think this independence is for people like you and me?’” Do you think this question remains valid even today for Dalits?
That is a really powerful quote. While I cannot speak for the Dalit community, I can speak from my experiences growing up and living in America. Here, although equality is a right and on paper everyone should be equal, it is very clear things are not the same for everyone. Systemic racism exists. Discrimination against people based on the colour of their skin or sexual orientation or religion or zip code exists. Hate crimes exist. I think the same can be said in India and in many countries.

Privileged people have to work to confront their privilege and be allies to others. Young readers and older readers alike should be aware that not everyone has the same start in life because of centuries of oppression and discrimination be it based on their skin colour, gender, sexual orientation, last name, etc. When that basic premise is accepted, people can work to address and correct inequality and injustice.

The issues of untouchability, social exclusion and women empowerment are as relevant now as they were in 1942. How did writing historical fiction help you discuss modern instances of these?
It really wasn’t until about a decade into revisions that I realised just how relevant historical fiction can be. I was stunned when things I was writing about in 1942 India were being mirrored in 2016 in America. It made me realise we have come a long way and yet we haven’t.

Women are still not considered true equals everywhere, be it in the way girls and women are sometimes treated in India or how women still do not get paid the same amount as men for doing the same job in America. People are still writing narratives for their countries, be it India, America, or anywhere else, and deciding who is included and who is excluded in their nationalism, and who is being centered. And people are still being treated as less-than all over the world. For me, writing historical fiction helps bring light to all these issues, and it is really incredible to see young readers making these connections as they read Ahimsa and see how the story can be applied to their world.

How much research did Ahimsa require?
A whole lot! I read many books and went to academic websites for the timeline and historical facts. I used my great-grandmother’s biography, Anasuyabai Ani Me, to help me fill in the gaps for the way some people thought and how they acted at the time. I consulted professors. I spoke to older family members who lived through the time period. And I relied a lot on my parents to help me fill in cultural details. I actually have several of the pictures of the real-life people, places, and things that inspired parts of Ahimsa on my website for educators and readers.

Historical fiction as a genre requires a ton of research. You have to ensure your book works on a narrative level but you also have to make sure the clothing, the food, and the facts are right. And since India is so diverse, what may be true in one part of India for one family may not be true for their relatives in a different part of India. It was part of what made the editing process so challenging. I felt like we were constantly catching mistakes, which is good, because then they could be corrected. The fact-checking was a combination of my own research, my parents and other beta readers pointing things out, and my editor’s questions that helped navigate the fact-checking.

For instance, I had based Anjali’s house on my dad’s childhood house, because much of it was like it had been in the 1940s. But because my memories of that house were from my childhood visits in the 1980s and 1990s, there were mistakes. I had always described people standing to cook in that kitchen in the book. But my dad caught that mistake and told me although the stove was on a counter when I saw the house, back in the 1940s, the cooking was all done on the floor. So I went back and rewrote the kitchen scenes to reflect that.

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Writing historical fiction in the age of the internet and fake news can also be challenging because you have to make sure the online sources you use are real. It wasn’t until one of the last edits before publication, when I was double and triple checking everything, that I realised that the Gandhi quote I used in the book, “Be the change you wish to see in the world,” was incorrect. There was no proof that he ever said that, but thanks to pop culture, the saying can be found all over America on T-shirts and mugs and written on school walls, attributed to Mahatma Gandhi. I had to research a lot to find a quote that there actually was a record of that could still work in the book.

It is well-documented that atrocities against Dalits persist in India. Ahimsa is not strident, however, leaving it to the judgement of the reader to form an opinion about Dalits. How critical do you think it is as a writer to exercise one’s artistic expression in making stories available that are of utmost social concern to sensitise young readers?
I think authors of children’s book authors have a great responsibility in presenting real world issues in an age-appropriate way. As parents, we often want to shield our children from the bad parts of life. But when they are old enough to handle the information, if we continue to shelter them from reality, I think we are doing a disservice to their generation.

In America, there was (and is) a prevailing way of thinking when I was growing up, called being “colour-blind.” We were taught in school that there is no difference between people based on their skin colour and it isn’t polite to talk about race because we shouldn’t see race.

Although that may seem like a really wonderful way to think about the world, studies have shown that teaching kids to be “colour-blind” leads to children who cannot accept that there is systemic racism, or that someone with a different skin colour than them would have a different life experience than them, be treated by the police differently, or be treated by society differently.

I have experienced that first hand, where so many of my classmates walked the same hallways in school as I did but were utterly unaware of racist incidents happening every day in school. And I witnessed those same kids being unable to accept that people who weren’t white got treated differently in America. So it’s actually doing children a disservice to not talk about race and how the colour of your skin in America does affect how you are treated and the opportunities you have.

That’s why I think it is really important for children’s book authors to not gloss over real-life issues. Young readers are smart and shaping their world view at the middle-grade reader level, so it is absolutely critical that we don’t talk down to them or ignore issues of social justice, and other important issues, in books for them.

What has the response of students been like? Have the reactions varied depending upon the audience? For instance, do Americans have a different response to that of Indians or the Indian diaspora? Or do all young readers respond to the book in similar ways?
I’ve actually found that readers in America, both from the diaspora and not, and readers in India have all been able to deeply connect to the story. Not only that, so many of them have been able to apply the themes of social justice in the book to the real world, regardless of where they live. I’ve had young readers in America tell me they have been inspired to speak up because of Anjali, that they have decided to get more involved in a cause they believe in because of her, and that the story has opened their eyes to injustice around them. And I have had young readers in India tell me they know they can use their voice to change the world because of Ahimsa.

One reader in Delhi told me that she had never really paid attention to how privileged she was until she read Ahimsa. She was chauffeured to school and often tuned out any suffering she saw outside her car window because she was so used to seeing it her whole life. She told me that, thanks to the book, she will no longer ignore others’ suffering and wants to make a difference and knows she will. So although the issues children in different parts of the world (or often the same country) can relate back to Ahimsa may be different, I have found they can all find a way to connect to the story.

Ahimsa moves at a crisp pace while being packed with details, many of which are noticed on a second reading. How did you develop a love for storytelling? Who are the storytellers who have influenced you?
Thank you very much. I developed a love for storytelling thanks to the hundreds of books I read as a child, and thanks to Hindi movies. With each book I read and movie I watched, I was learning about plot and pacing and what works in a story and what doesn’t. Being surrounded by books and movies as a child, I couldn’t think of doing anything else in life but telling stories.

There were several authors whose stories I loved and learned from, like Holly Keller and Beverly Cleary. But the first storyteller who influenced me in person was my dad. He is an engineer but also wrote a lot on the side and was always introducing me to the power of words through the plays he acted in and directed for the Indian-American community we lived in. When I was growing up I saw him writing a script weekly for his Indian radio programme which airs in America and now thanks to the internet worldwide. He also wrote stories and even wrote a couple of screenplays for Hindi movies decades ago.

The other storytellers who have influenced me are people I consider myself so lucky to have got the chance to learn from. I had the great fortune of being taught screenwriting at the University of Michigan by Jim Burnstein. He is a Hollywood screenwriter and incredible teacher who taught me everything I know about structure and outlining and making sure there is logic in your writing.

I had the privilege of working for Vinod Chopra Films right out of college. Vidhu Vinod Chopra taught me so much about making sure your stories are entertaining while saying something. It was through working with him that I learned to really be ruthless in revisions, and go from an impatient novice to a writer who knows the value of revising, even if it takes years to get things right. Abhijat Joshi taught me how to shape a story, and how to really dig deep to get to the crux of a scene and make sure it hits emotionally. And I learned from Rajkumar Hirani how to fill my writing with heart and do justice to each character’s arc, while always keeping the theme in mind.

Did writing for Bollywood films inform the very visual narrative of Ahimsa, or do writing styles vary? Do you find writing for young readers is vastly different to writing scripts for movies?
I actually had to unlearn some of my screenwriting training to write novels. In screenwriting you don’t waste time describing the way someone dresses or the way a room looks or the physical way a character responds unless it is absolutely vital to the plot. That’s because the screenplay isn’t the final product.

A costume designer will decide what clothes characters wear, a set designer will decide how rooms should look, and a director and the actor will decide how they physically react to moments. Because of this, through many drafts of the book, I did not describe how my characters interact with their world to show their emotions other than in basic ways like their shoulders slumping or their smile turning down. It was only in the later edits, when my editor pointed this out, that I was able to momentarily let go of the screenwriter in me and really describe what a character was doing physically.

Other than that, I don’t find writing children’s books that different from writing screenplays. I still use a three-act screenwriting structure in all my novels, and find that the basics of plot and character are really the same in both forms of writing.

Was it challenging to find a publisher, or was it an easier process with the “We Need More Diverse Books” movement?
It was challenging. I had tried for over a decade to get an agent in the publishing world for Ahimsa and other books but I just kept getting rejection after rejection, despite my screenwriting credits. Growing up never seeing myself in a book, I never really thought a children’s book set in India could get published in America. Other than Ahimsa, for almost fifteen years, I only wrote stories featuring white families because I thought that was all that could sell.

As an adult, I saw a couple of children’s books set in India being published and it gave me hope. I’m so grateful to We Need Diverse Books and everyone involved in speaking out for the importance of diverse stories. I was lucky Ahimsa was published by Tu Books, an imprint of Lee & Low Books, the largest multicultural publisher in America. And I’m lucky it’s been published in India by Scholastic. But there is still much work to be done to make sure every child gets to see their story reflected in a book.

How did the striking cover design come about? Unusually, both the American and Indian editions have used the same design. Did you have a say in it?
Yes! I love the gorgeous cover so much. It is by a UK-based artist named Kate Forrester. I love the way she uses intricate design and symbolism and hand-lettering in her book covers. I believe I mentioned that peacock feathers would be nice in the design because of their symbolism in the book and I just adore the way Kate worked them in. I also love Baba’s clenched fist, Ma holding the flag, the spinning wheel, and the plants and the reference to the garden and growth throughout the cover.

Supriya Kelkar Ahimsa Scholastic India, Gurgaon, India, 2018. Hb. pp. 308 Rs 295 

3 September 2018 

Interview with Shikhandin

My interview with Shikhandin was published in Scroll on Sunday, 10 September 2017 as “‘The writer in me doesn’t have a gender, or is made up of all the genders’: Shikhandin“. 

Immoderate Men by Shikhandin is a remarkable collection of stories published by Speaking Tiger Books. These stories meander through the minds of men giving a perspective on daily life which would ordinarily be dismissed. For instance stories like  “Room Full of Presents”, “Salted Pinkies”, “Hijras on the Highway” and “Old Man Sitting on a South Kolkata Park Bench, Ruminating” if taken at face-value are regular stories with a mild twist. On the other hand these stories also dissect with finesse the preconceived notion of “What is masculinity?”  By delving into the mental makeup of the protagonists the author explores bewildering scenarios; thereby brilliantly subverting notions of patriarchical norms by blurring gender lines as often this confused state of mind is attributed to women and not men.

Here are edited excerpts of an interview with the author:

  1. How did these stories come about?

Mostly from the world around me, past and present. A couple are from dreams and visions. Some from newspaper articles, photographs, a conversation overheard, a person observed in a crowd, and so on. My stories usually come from life itself, whether dreamt or experienced or watched. “Room Full of Presents” came to me in a pre-dawn dream, all of it, more than a decade ago. I still remember waking from it, the sensations of the dream falling off me like water droplets as I sat up on my bed, trying to stay still, just feeling the story over me, around me. Dreams have their roots in reality, regardless of their form and shape. I was sure I had seen/met the characters somewhere, sometime. “Ahalya” came from a vision of a girl with cascading black hair running up a hill. I was half asleep, but I could see her clearly; the hill felt mysterious; this story crept up on me at first without any specific shape, smoky, yet tangible. Most of my stories run like little movies on a little screen before my eyes – that is my first sighting of the story. I write what I see and hear in that mental screen. This is how it has always been for me, even when I wrote press ads and ad films for a living, years ago.

  1. How long did it take to write these stories?

The stories in this collection, and others too, were written over a period of almost two decades. I love short stories (and novellas and novelettes), but everybody keeps saying there isn’t a market for them. So for many years I didn’t put together a manuscript of short stories, though I continued to submit and be published in journals, mostly abroad. The earliest story in this collection was written in 2002 and first published in an American Magazine the same year. Individual stories have their own pace. Some, like “Mail for Dadubhai,” was written in one sitting. Ditto for “Ducklings”, “The Vanishing Man” and “Black Prince”. They were edited/fine-tuned after what I call the resting/roosting period. In general, a single story may take me anything from one or two days to a week. I leave them alone after that for as long as it takes, before I revisit. Some may take longer, like “Salted Pinkies”. I was inhabiting the minds of young men, the kind who loiter in Calcutta’s cheap cafes. Even though I was confident of their language and mannerisms, I kept stopping to check, which was difficult because I no longer lived in Calcutta. At times I literally had to mentally transport myself to North Calcutta, walk the streets in my mind. Watching the boys and men all over again. The writing time, I would say, really depends on the story. There is a story that I have left incomplete for almost two decades, because I have imagined several alternative endings for it; one will rise up and push out the others I know. For me, it’s the story that dictates. I am merely the conduit.

  1. Are they pure figments of imagination or are borrowed heavily from life or inspired by events? (I ask because there is a tone to them that makes me feel as if there is a pinch of reality infused in the stories)

They are both and neither. Like dreams, our imaginings are also based on reality, grounded in the material world. Even a fantasy-scifi movie like Avatar, is at the end of the day, a story about thwarting colonial intrusion. If my stories are relatable, I have succeeded in writing a true one. By true I don’t mean factually correct or historically acceptable. Truth, as I see it, in fiction is about emotional sincerity, that kernel that makes you weep, laugh, sing or rage with or against the character or situation; the narrative that makes you walk through to the end, because it is probable, plausible, relatable, even when the world the story brings forth seems impossible or in the case of literary stories, unfamiliar and totally strange or even shocking. Having said all of the above, yes, there are stories that were inspired by something almost physical. Like “Ducklings” for instance, which is from a photograph I had seen in a newspaper. Avian flu was sweeping across Bengal and Orissa and also Bihar. It was around 2006 I think. There was this black and white photograph of a Bengali woman, weeping as she clutched ducklings, her pets, to her breast. The ducklings were looking innocently back at the camera/photographer. Having grown up with many animals and birds, and experienced the pain of loss, I am not ashamed to say that I wept for that woman, mourned her loss for days. And then I re-imagined her life.  “Old Man Sitting on a South Kolkata Park Bench, Ruminating” is inspired from an actual conversation, part of it, that I had heard while passing through a similar park in that city. A few old men were gossiping, about the young girls they had seen or knew, and their daughters-in-law. An incident in the story (kissing a baby boy in the crotch) was actually witnessed by me during my college days in the early eighties, and it is still practised. These traditional Bengali men didn’t/don’t think they were/are doing anything wrong. Saluting a baby boy like that is acceptable; displaying a boy baby is a matter of pride. I stitched that incident into my story. And I became an old man in my head when I wrote it.

  1. Curiously you chose to write about the world of men while inhabiting their minds. With this technique it is fascinating the multiple layers of reading it lends itself to. How did you train yourself to write in this manner?

For this I really must thank my rigorous advertising training. One of the exercises copywriting entailed was mentally switching places with the consumer. I discovered it works quite well for fiction when you are writing as someone else, seeing things from another’s perspective. My short experience with theatre also helps. That apart, since my childhood, I’ve had this tendency to feel things intensely- be inside the book I am reading or the music I am listening or the movie I am watching, the food I am cooking. Once my mother tore my drawing book into shreds because I hadn’t replied when she’d called me. I wasn’t ignoring her or being disrespectful, I actually hadn’t heard, but of course I wasn’t believed. Similar problems would crop up in school too. Be that as it may, it’s great fun becoming someone or something else even momentarily! Adventure and action, madness and mayhem all in the safety of your own mind. It helps that I am mostly by myself on any week day. I can laugh or cry without being seen as a lunatic! Right now, a part of my head is a dog, doing doggie things; two dogs actually in two totally different stories, so I had to apportion off my grey cells!

  1. Why use a nom de plume?

Actually in my case, it is not so much as a nom de plume, as acknowledging to myself and everyone, that the writer in me doesn’t have a gender or is made up of all the genders. I ought to have used Shikhandin right at the beginning, but felt shy about it; didn’t want to come across as pretentious. It’s hard enough replying “I write” when folks ask me what I do.

I could have picked up any other gender nonspecific name or initials. There are several versions to the Shikhandin narrative in the Mahabharata. The common thread running through all is that Shikhandin, who was princess Amba of Kashi, in a previous birth, through deep penance and austerities and after several rebirths and a Yaksha’s boon, became a male, Shikhandin, and succeeded in destroying the man (Bhishma) who was responsible for her humiliation and ruin in her first life. Whichever version you read, Shikhandin’s life is a fascinating story of grit, determination and resolve against all odds. For most people Shikhandin represents members of the LGBT community, or those who have rejected gender stereotypes. For me, Shikhandin represents a mind so strong that it can overcome physical boundaries and frailties. It doesn’t matter what you are born as, but who you can become.

I had heard about Shikhandin as a young child listening to tales from the epics. Later, while still in school, I read a bit. Shikhandin has been with me for decades. And because of Shikhandin I questioned male-female roles as dictated by society, and the kind of character and personality ascribed to each as acceptable. I wondered then, and still do, how gender specific are we in the purely intellectual or cerebral sense. How much of our gendered lives are in fact centuries of conditioning. I think it is nonsense that only women can understand women and likewise for men. Physical violence is not a male characteristic, just as daintiness is not a female thing. As a writer, I don’t want to belong to any specific place or slot. I don’t matter, the story does. At the time of writing, I should have the freedom to become whatever is necessary, whatever is required of me, for the story to unfurl as truly as it can.

  1. When did you gravitate from writing children’s stories to stories for adults?

It’s the other way round actually. I have been writing for adults ever since I can remember.  I wish I had started writing children’s stories earlier. That’s another regret, and hope I can make up for lost time now. I was afraid I wouldn’t be good enough. But the Children’s First Contest curated by Duckbill, Parag (an initiative of Tata Trust) and Vidya Sagar School has boosted my confidence . I enjoy reading children’s fiction a lot, even today, after my own children have grown up. And every time I have written a story or poem for children I’ve come away feeling so euphoric – the sheer joy of being a child is like an elixir. I enjoy listening to children’s patter too. Their sense of logic and observation astounds me. They also know more than many grownups about many things.

  1. Do you think there is any difference in your methodology while writing for children or adults?

Yes, certainly. There is a poem that I’d written and published several years ago, which I think can give you an idea about the kind of heart needed when writing for children:

WHAT THE CHILD DOES

When gossamer tufts come cascading down

From the silk-cotton tree’s bright scarlet crown

Who chases the tufts? Say who does?

The child does

When plump raven clouds thundering their refrain

Suddenly shed weight in vast feathers of rain

Who raises a fountain? Say who does?

The child does

When dew beads strung across blades of new grass

Glisten like rows and rows of glowing elfin glass

Who sees the rainbow? Say who does?

The child does

When within that pupa clinging to a tree

A butterfly softly struggles to be free

Who hears the cry? Say who does?

The child does

When deep down in winter’s icy waters

A timid sun’s shy white ray quivers

Who feels the arrow? Say who does?

The child does

Ah! Everywhere in this world, a new world unfolds

And unwraps and unfurls, expands and grows

Who stands in wonder, then? Say who does?

We do! We do! Yes. But first the child does!

  1. At times you hold yourself back from describing in greater detail the surroundings or situations. Why?

In short stories less is more – usually, because there are always exceptions to prove the rule! The best are those that without shouting, slip inside your head and start to niggle, urging you, the reader, to create possible endings and solutions, extend the surroundings or simply stay on with the story. I try to emulate that standard. I try.

Shikhandin Immoderate Men: Stories Speaking Tiger, New Delhi, 2017. Pb. pp. 190 Rs 299 

12 Sept 2017 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

11 June 2017 

Janaki Ammal, Botanist

janaki_ammal_younger_picture-738x1024Janaki Ammal was a botanist known for her research in sugarcane. She was trained abroad, worked at Kew Gardens, London and returned to independent India at the invitation of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Earlier this year her niece, Geeta Doctor, wrote a magnificent piece about her aunt in the digital ezine, Scroll: http://scroll.in/article/730186/remembering-dr-janaki-ammal-pioneering-botanist-cytogeneticist-and-passionate-gandhian . In October 2016, the Botanical Survey of India, Kolkatta, inaugurated an exhibition on the eminent scientist. ( http://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/science/kolkata-celebrates-botany-legend-janaki-ammal-with-exhibition/article9227048.ece )

Six large blow-ups on her life and her contributions to science, along with several letters presenting anecdotes and highlighting the difficulties the woman scientist had to face during her time, come to the fore at the exhibition.

In one of the letters, dated September 25, 1953, Janaki Ammal wrote to a fellow scientist that the Ministry of dsc06131-768x1024Natural Resources and Scientific Research of the Government of India had accepted her scheme for the reorganisation of the BSI.

Science historians say it was following her memorandum that the BSI was reorganised into four regional centres: Coimbatore (1955), Pune (1955), Shillong (1955) and Dehra Dun (1956), with their headquarters at Calcutta. A number of communications with scientists and officials highlight her struggle to establish herself as a scientist in what was a male-dominated discipline.

The exhibition always provides certain anecdotes, like how she met Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru on a flight and he persuaded her to come back to India in 1948.

janaki-ammalThe Ladies Finger website too carries a wonderful profile of Janaki Ammal: http://theladiesfinger.com/janaki-ammal/ .

Interestingly enough there is a tiny mention of Janaki Ammal in a tumblr_o6rj9utmhh1src5rlo1_500maginificently illustrated book Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers who Changed the World. It has been written and illustrated by Rachel Ignotofsky. ( The other Indian women scientist mentioned in the book is Tessy Thomas who was instrumental in creating the most powerful long-range nuclear missile ever.)

Rachel Ignotofsky Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers who Changed the World Ten Speed Press, Berkeley, 2016. Hb. pp. 130 Rs 499 

26 Oct 2016

Sarah Crossan, “One”

sarah( My review of Sarah Crossan’s award winning novel-in-verse One was published in Scroll today. Here is the url: http://scroll.in/article/811911/a-novel-about-conjoined-twins-in-verse-beats-facts-that-can-be-rather-terse . I am also c&p the text below. ) 

She’s not a piece of me
She’s me entirely
and without her
there would be
a gaping space
in my chest,
an expanding black hole
that nothing
else could
fill.

Award-winning Sarah Crossan’s One is a free verse novel about Siamese twins Tippi and Grace. One has been awarded some of the most prestigious awards for young adult literature such as the CILIP Carnegie 2016, the Bookseller’s YA Book Prize 2016 and the Irish Children’s Book of the Year Award. Crossan has also won, along with Michael Rosen, the CLIPPA children’s poetry award. Writers consider the CILIP Carnegie, given by the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals, “the one they want to win” since it is awarded by librarians.

One is about Tippi and Grace, named after Hollywood actresses Tippi Hedren and Grace Kelly. They live with their parents, their grandmother aka Gammie, and their younger sister Nicola nicknamed Dragon. Their father is unemployed and has turned into an alcoholic. Their mother works in a bank but is constantly working at home too. Yet the parents never compromise on their twin daughter’s medical care, regular health check-ups and psychiatric visits to Dr Murphy. The novel has been told from the point-of-view of Grace. It is set in a short span of eight months – August to March.

These twins are of the ischiopagus tripus variety – two heads, two hearts, two sets of lungs and kidneys. Four arms, a pair of fully functioning legs. The vestigial leg has been docked. Intestines begin apart and then merge. They are like any other sixteen-year-olds except for the tiny detail of them being conjoined at the hip.

For most of their life they have been home-schooled but the city no longer wants to fund this. So they have to join a private school, Homebeacon High. The twins dread being in public since they are constantly stared at or called monsters and freaks or cursed as devil’s spawn. Fortunately they are befriended by classmates Yasmeen and Jon, who protect them in a manner similar to their family.

We are tired of getting rides
to school and back again every day
so we take the train home
with Jon
and pretend we can’t hear all the words around us
like little waspy stings.

“I bet celebrities don’t even have it this bad,” Jon
says.

“I can’t imagine what it must be like
for you.”

“It’s like that,” Tippi tells him
and points at
a woman across the aisle with a phone
aimed at us like a sniper rifle.

The twins enjoy their short spell at school before they contract a flu which unfortunately develops into cardiomyopathy for Grace. It means that Tippi’s heart is functioning for the two of them. Complications arise, necessitating the urgent physical separation of the sisters.

It is expensive surgery, although the doctors have waived their fees. Sadly, there is no guarantee that the girls will survive the medical procedure. So far the girls have miraculously surpassed all medical expectations to live beyond the two-year life span predicted for them.

Just before the sudden dip in their health, their younger sister, who dreams of being a ballet dancer, is invited to a tour of Russia. Of course, the family is too poor to afford it. To make things worse, their mother loses her job.

Much against their will, the girls decide to allow themselves to be shadowed by a documentary filmmaker for a handsome fee of $50,000. They are not particularly keen to be in the limelight like the conjoined twins Violet and Daisy Hilton (born 1908), who were the wealthiest performers of their time.

If it were not for the twins being conjoined, One would be like any other YA novel telling a story about teenage angst, love, heartbreak, smoking on the sly, climbing trees etc. And this where the beauty of Sarah Crossan’s graceful craftsmanship lies. She is able to become one with Grace and experience the story, the emotional roller coasters, and focus upon the harsh reality of what it means to be Siamese twins.

This is the only one among her books that she spent more than a year researching. She began writing it after watching a BBC documentary about Minnesotan conjoined twins Abby and Brittany Hensel. As shewrote, “I was immediately captivated by the idea of their lives – fascinated by the ways in which these amazing women managed to live as two separate people in one body, and I made it my mission to find out everything I possibly could about conjoined twins. I knew there was the potential for a novel in there, but I was also petrified of writing about something that was entirely unknown to me.”

Crossan spoke to “Edward Kiely, leading separation surgeon for conjoined twins in Europe, to help answer some of my hypothetical medical questions, forcing me to tighten up certain parts of the plot to create a world that was completely real.”

“Although I was working on Apple and Rain at the time, and actually scrambling to get it to my publisher by deadline, I would go to the British Library every day and instead of focusing on Apple and Rain, would ask the librarians to help me find articles and books about the lives of conjoined twins through history and especially medical research about separation surgery. I had found a topic that I wanted to write about, but I wanted to tell it honestly and accurately, because the more the I read, the more I realised how misunderstood the lives of these people have been, and how ready people seem to be to say, ‘If it were me, I would want to be separated,’ without every fully considering the intimacy of such a relationship, not to mention the many joys it brings.

— Sarah Crossan in ‘The Guardian’


One
deserves all the awards it has garnered, not only for the range of issues it touches upon – for instance what it means to be a conjoined twin with no option to move independently but to be tethered in body, mind and, possibly, spirit – making joint decisions and unable to live an independent life – but also for its unique form.

Normal is the Holy Grail
and only those without it
know its value.

There are also ethical issues at play. The documentary is ultimately made more for voyeuristic entertainment purposes than out of empathy for the twins’ predicament. The medical fraternity’s offer to separate the twins free of cost stems from a rare opportunity to understand this unusual biological phenomenon.

One is a seminal book for its refreshing experiment in form and content. Crossan has to be admired for the sensitivity with which she has written the story, without being crudely inquisitive or didactic. She has raised the bar many notches for YA literature.

Sarah Crossan One Bloomsbury, London, 2015. Hb. Pp. 432 Rs 499 

 

 

“Feminists and Science:Critiques and Changing Perspectives in India”

9789381345078In 2015 STREE published the first volume of a collection of essays called Feminists and Science: Critiques and Changing Perspectives in India. It has been edited by Sumi Krishna and Gita Chadha. The principle behind these two volumes of essays is to have a “more comprehensive and grounded understanding of gender and science in India”.  According to University Grants Commission (UGC) data women in medicine accounted for 44 per cent of the total, the same percentage as in the ‘arts’ ( i.e. humanities and social sciences together). Women in science made up 40 per cent, which was slightly higher than women in commerce ( 37 per cent). In the science-based professions, the ratio of women to men was about one in five: engineering 21 per cent; veterinary science 21 per cent; agriculture 17 per cent.

These are some of the statistics for India today. But this book has some fabulous essays like Mandira Sen’s “A Gender-Sensitive Practice of Psychiatry in India: The Story of Dr. Ajitha Chakraborty”, the first woman practising psychiatry in India or Sumi Krishna’s essay, “Recognizing Gender Bias in Life Sciences”. Yet the point remains that despite all these women scientists making fantastic contributions to their disciplines, gender bias and sexism exists. Mina Swaminathan points out in her essay, “Differences in gender roles are still usually ascribed to biological differences rather than social determinants, and the idea that gender relations are power relations is even harder to communicate.” ( p.218) Despite these challenges India has produced some eminent  women scientists such as Dr Janaki Ammal. ( Janaki Ammal“Remembering Dr Janaki Ammal, pioneering botanist, cytogeneticist and passionate Gandhian” by Geeta Doctor. http://scroll.in/article/730186/remembering-dr-janaki-ammal-pioneering-botanist-cytogeneticist-and-passionate-gandhian ) . She was a plant scientist, who put the sweetness into our sugarcane varieties and served as the head of the Botanical Survey of India in the isro-womenAFP1950s. Recently women scientists at ISRO were seen celebrating the successful launch of Mangalyaan mission to Mars. Read Sandip Roy’s fabulous article documenting some of the amazing Indian women scientists.  ( “Mangalyaan’s unexpected gift: The glimpse of Isro’s ‘Rocket Women'” 25 September 2015 http://bit.ly/1XqMaH9 )

Earlier this year Nobel Laureate, Tim Hunt, a biochemist, made some Tim Hunthighly inappropriate gender discriminatory remarks at a conference in South Korea, “Let me tell you about my trouble with girls,” Mr. Hunt told an audience at the World Conference of Science Journalists in South Korea. “Three things happen when they are in the lab: You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticize them they cry.” Given how these gender biases towards women scientists are so deeply embedded in the system, books like Feminists and Science are very welcome.

Here is a list of contents:

Preface            xi

Introduction

Understanding Gender and Science in India:   xiii

Institutions and Beyond  Sumi Krishna

Tracking a Consciousness: Questions, Dilemmas and

Conundrums of Science Criticism in India  Gita Chadha  xxxvi

1 Feminists Discuss Caste and Gender in Science: An Online Dialogue           1

Anita Mehta, Chayanika Shah, Gita Chadha, Mary E John, Mina Swaminathan, Prajval Shastri and Sumi Krishna

2 Unravelling the ‘Gender-Merit’ Conundrum:

Do Women Deserve to Do Science in India?         22

Jayasree Subramanian

3 Re-Cognising Gender Bias in the Life Sciences        52

Sumi Krishna

4 The Science of Psychology: Where Is Gender?         79

U.Vindhya

5 Science, Gender and Reproductive Technologies: A Case of Disability      96

Anita Ghai and Rachana Johri

6 Gender Inequities in the Science World: An Experiential Perspective           122

Prajval Shastri

7 A Gender-Sensitive Practice of Psychiatry in India? The Story of Ajita Chakraborty 132

Mandira Sen

8 Women Water Professionals in the Maharashtra Water Bureaucracy 153

Seema Kulkarni

9 Women, Livestock and Rural Livelihoods: Challenges for Veterinary Scientists  185

Sagari  R. Ramdas

10 Bridging the Gap between Natural Sciences and Gender Studies: Notes on a Pedagogical Experiment 211

Mina Swaminathan

11 Integrating Gender into the Curricula of Health Professionals:  Experiences and Reflections   235  K. Sundari Ravindran

12 Teaching Feminist Science Studies in India: An Experiment 257

Chayanika Shah and Gita Chadha

13 En-Gendering Bodies of Knowledge: Scientific Institutions and the Production of Science in Science Fiction   273

Suchitra Mathur

List of Contributors  297

Table of Contents, Vol2           301

Sumi Krishna and Gita Chadha ( Eds.) Feminists and Science: Critiques and Changing Perspectives in India ( Vol 1) STREE, an imprint of Bhatkal and Sen, Kolkata, 2015. Pb. pp. 310 Rs 500 

30 November 2015 

Dharamvir Bharti, ” Chander & Sudha”, translated by Poonam Saxena

Poonam Saxena reading "Chander & Sudha".

Poonam Saxena reading “Chander & Sudha”.

When he could school his mind to stay calm, when he could endure everything with a smile, why couldn’t Sudha? He was the one who, with his every breath, had fashioned Sudha into what she was. He had, bit by bit, constructed her, polished her, embellished her. She was his work, his creation. How, then, could she exhibit his weakness? ( p.143)

The house shone like silk. But within every ball of bright, colourful silk there is always a little silkworm–sad, silent, holding its breath, waiting every second for its imminent death. In the middle of all the hectic activity, the preparations, the excitement, there was one person whose lifebreath seemed to be ebbing away, whose eyes were slowly losing their sheen and mischievous sparkle, whose heart was emptying itself of all joy and happiness — Sudha. ( p.161)

Dharamvir Bharti’s popular novel Gunahon ka Devta or Chander & Sudha has been translated into English by prominent journalist Poonam Saxena. It is a story set in Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh in the 1940s.  Sudha is the daughter of Dr Shukla and Chander is his student. Chander spends a lot of time at his teacher’s home, practically lives in it and moves in after Sudha gets married and leaves.  Chander & Sudha is a “love story” more than a romance, told ever so lovingly by the 23-year-old Dharamvir Bharti. The gentleness with which it is recounted is absorbing to read, never dull; all though the storytelling and the ending is reminiscent of Bollywood films of the 1950s. Nor does the language sound stilted even though Chander is prone to intense self-reflection and being privy to a lovestruck Romeo can get quite painful to read if not written about deftly–probably a large part of the credit for a readable story goes to the translator, Poonam Saxena.

Chander & Sudha is a novel which will probably make it to the longlist, even the shortlist, for any award instituted for translated literature in India. It is a book that tends to occupy one’s mind for a long time after it is over. Time well spent.

I am posting excerpts of an email interview conducted with Poonam Saxena earlier this week.

1 What are the sales figures of this novel in Hindi? You say it is still in print and selling well. Who is the publisher?

I don’t have any exact sales figures for the novel but I do know that it was written in 1949 and has never been out of print. I have two copies with me. One is a 20th reprint 1986 hardcover that was first published by Bharatiya Jnanpith in 1959. (I don’t know who the earlier publisher was). Then I have a paperback copy also printed by Bharatiya Jnanpith in 2014 which is the 70th reprint. Hardcover + paperback from 1949 to today — I don’t even know how many copies it must have sold, but the numbers must be huge. I do know it is widely considered to be Hindi’s biggest bestseller.

2 Was the author only 23-years-old when he wrote it? Does it not make him similar to the young authors we have today, who commercially success — Ravinder Singh, Durjoy Dutta etc?

In Hindi and Urdu writing, many authors did finish very successful works when they were very young. For example, Rajendra Yadav wrote Sara Akash at 21, Sahir Ludhianvi wrote Talkhiyan at 22.

3 What was the purpose of your translations when you began it — be true to the source text or reader friendly to a modern reader?

My translation is not literal. It is not true to the text in the sense that I haven’t translated every single line as it is written in Hindi. The idea was to be true to the characters, emotions and feelings in the book and to make it work as a novel in English. I didn’t want it to sound stilted. I kept some things in mind — for example, the book is written in 1949, so I tried to avoid casual, modern words and terms like ‘stressed’ or ‘hassled.’ (I also felt that people hardly write great love stories any more — but here was one which still touched your heart even though it was written so many years ago. It needed to be translated.

I didn’t skip over passages, I didn’t omit chunks. I retained what the writer had said – the metaphors he had used (for example, the temple, the oil lamp – these are the images he has used throughout the book when writing about Chander and Sudha’s love). There are long passages of reflection, philosophy, all of which I have retained. I have tried to keep them as true to the book but at the same time I have tried to make them work in English. Also, just to give you another small example, there is a long passage early in the book when Chander is wandering about in Beritie’s rose garden, where there is a detailed description of flowers. I could have cut that passage but I didn’t. I kept it. On the whole I tried to be true to the writer’s voice and way of expression while making it fluid when translated into English.

4 Why did you change the title of the novel from Gunahon Ka Devta to Chander and Sudha? What would you have translated Gunahon ka Devta as? Isn’t the title in Hindi far more apt than the one chosen by you for the English translation?

The Hindi title is absolutely beautiful. Gunahon Ka Devta is an incomparable title. But when you translate it in a literal way, it becomes ‘Lord of Sins’ or ‘God of Sins’, which doesn’t sound right at all. My editor and I went through about 20 titles and somehow none sounded okay. We finally settled on Chander & Sudha because really the book is also a great love story. I guess there was some inspiration from titles like Romeo & Juliet which are based on the two lead characters’ names.

5 How old were you when you first read this novel and fell in love with it?

I first read the novel in my twenties and fell in love with it.

6 The article you wrote in Scroll ( 15 March 2015,  http://scroll.in/article/713676/why-a-66-year-old-hindi-love-story-needed-to-be-translated-into-english ) was adapted from the afterword published in the book, was it not?

Yes it was. They wanted the piece quickly, literally overnight. They were okay with an extract from the Afterword too, but I adapted it and sent it. The Afterword as it is gives out the whole story, so obviously I didn’t want that.

Dharamvir Bharti Chander & Sudha ( Translated by Poonam Saxena) Viking, Penguin Group, Gurgaon, India, 2015. Hb. pp. 330. Rs. 499

21 March 2015