storytelling Posts

“Engage Learning”: An interview with Pooja Vir

Engage Learning is a new classroom science magazine, available in four reading levels for children between 3 and 13 years of age, launched in July 2017. Created especially with the children of India in mind, its content is thoroughly researched, with stories and activity pages complementing the school curriculum. The nonfiction content teaches STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics), environmental education and social studies, while improving vocabulary and introducing children to what scientists are doing in real science today. The richly-designed 32-page magazine with activities is published six times a year in July, August, September, November, January and February to coincide with the academic calendar.

Here are links to the Flip Books from the August 2017 issue.

 

Schools and educational institutions receive preferential rates. When a school subscribes they also receive Teaching Guides with worksheets, answer keys, additional activities and links to videos that will help them explore the subject even further with their students.

Engage Learning is created by an international team of experienced classroom magazine writers and local curriculum advisors.

Lata Vasvani – began her career with India Book House. She went on to become their head of sales and subscriptions as well as co-found Crossword, the bookstore. She then went on to lead the launch and sales of National Geographic Explorer in India. Lata leads all school relationships and sales for Engage Learning.

Francis Downey – has been involved with education for more than 35 years as a lecturer, teacher, and publisher. His career has included work with the Dinosaur State Park in Connecticut (designing curriculum that integrated environmental instruction with core curriculum); various planetariums and science museums; teaching history for a decade at the college level (developed courses in US history, African-American history, the history of Puerto Rico, European history, and world history); National Geographic Explorer Magazine (leading the team that developed the magazine). Francis is Editorial Director at Engage Learning, responsible for all content.

Pooja Vir – Grew up in a family of publishers – with one grandfather having founded India Book House, and another the Hindi Milap newspaper. She is responsible for  Engage Learning’s communications and digital divisions.   

Excerpts of an email interview with Pooja Vir:

Why did you start these school magazines?  We created Engage Learning to engage students in nonfiction reading and learning. If you ask a teacher what her/his greatest challenge is today, you will find that it is engaging students in the learning process. Once the student is engaged, the teacher can teach just about anything. We do this through great storytelling and fantastic photos. We also differ from textbooks in that we provide depth and context. A textbook provides a lot of facts and breadth, but cannot develop context. We also work with scientists on our stories and report on what they are doing in real science today. Far too often textbooks concentrate on the science of the past and rarely update their content to what is also being done today.

What prompted you to launch a digital and a print version when most firms are opting for digital? We want teachers and students to be able to access the content on their preferred platform. They may prefer one over the other. Or, if they are like many people, they may want to use print at certain times and digital at others. We are also integrating digital material into the print product through QR Codes that allow students to use their devices to continue the learning. We are really platform agnostic. We want students to access the content any way they want to and when they want to.

How do you propose to enter the school market? Will parents and educators subscribe to the magazine? Is it not an additional expense to the school fees etc? We look at it as an essential expense for schools/parents, and not an extra expense. By engaging students in the learning process, teachers will save time. Also by giving students an authentic reading experience through a magazine that looks like it could be purchased on the newsstand, students will want to read this teaching tool. The magazine format provides a less intimidating format than a textbook. How many children or adults want to read a textbook? As far as how we propose to enter the school market – given our directors existing relationships with several hundred school principals we introduced the magazine via prototypes in January this year and have since been following up individually with each school which have resulted in our current school subscriptions. We also conducted teacher’s training and demo workshops in our subscriber schools in Dharamshala, Mumbai and Chennai.

What are the extra features that the digital version will offer as compared to the print edition? I did not see anything else except for it being a flip book version of the print edition? Right now they are identical, but as we move ahead, we will be adding extra features to both (including voice and video). We are somewhat limited by accessibility. The digital infrastructure in many schools is insufficient and cannot handle a sophisticated digital experience. We provide teachers with the material that they can use in the classroom right now and will add to it as the infrastructure improves. Also, many schools push back on too much digital content. For instance, despite the tremendous teaching power that mobile devices offer, most schools do not allow them. As this environment changes, we will adapt to it. We are already pushing schools to do more digitally.

Who is selecting the content for these magazines? We look at school curriculum and then select stories that support and augment that curriculum. Story suggestions come from a variety of sources, including teachers and students. We also work with a variety of scientists from around the world. They tell their stories and relate them to school curriculum. We are also working with a school curriculum advisor who helps inform the story choices.

All though the magazines are levelled readers the content seems to be more or less the same except scaled to the age appropriate reader. Is that the case? The same basic story is told in all four editions, but the content is levelled. For example, we covered a boiling river in our second issue. This river which flows in Peru is nearly boiling hot. In Levels 3-4, the stories were basically the same. In Level 2, we used the boiling river to talk about how water changes shape and state, and then ended with the water cycle. In Level 1, we used the boiling river as an entry into what a river is. So we changed the content to match what is appropriate at each level. Sometimes that changes are subtle. At other times they are transparent.

3 January 2018 

Guest Post: Juggi Bhasin “Different roads, one destination”

 

Juggi Bhasin is a successful writer who ” living out fulfilling a lifelong ambition: to become a writer”.  Earlier this month he began serialising a graphic novel in the popular national daily, Times of India. Recognising this as a new and innovative experiement in creative storytelling I requested Juggi Bhasin to contribute a blog post on what it means to experiment in form, is there any difference to his storytelling etc. Here is his lovely note. Read on. 

Late at night when I climb into bed, I set the alarm to wake me up, sharp at seven, next morning. It is that time of the day when I get up to sip some green tea, chew a couple of almonds and review in The Times of India, my graphic novel and daily feature, ‘Agent Rana’.

It’s a good time for me to review not just the novel but my entire journey through various art forms to reach that one common goal. And that goal is undoubtedly the production and dissemination of creative content that gives pleasure to my readers and me.

Every writer in a sense has had a long journey whether in years or in the mind. My journey began as a TV journalist and in my mind’s eye I can still see myself as the only Indian TV journalist that went to North Korea to meet old man Kim, the father of the present infamous dictator running that unfortunate country. Or that morning of Dec 6th, 1992, when I stood at the Babri Masjid with my TV crew and watched and recorded the structure being razed to the ground. I wanted to write a book about those earth shaking experiences but I did not have the words or the syntax or even the drive then to express my thoughts and emotions. The only weapon I had then at my command was what is popularly called in journalese —a ‘good copy’ ability. Many journalists write good copy but it does not make them into great writers. I had a good eye though, an active imagination and a great visual sense.

In the years after the events of Babri Masjid, I worked on stage, in serials and a couple of films and developed my visual imagination and sharpened my emotional outreach. The words to match my visuals also came to me and became a part of my development. By 2012, I felt I was ready to strike out as a writer. The passion in me to write something was overbearing and I felt I had developed a syntax which in a sense was a very different life form from ‘good copy.’

It resulted in my first book The Terrorist which was a national bestseller. The unusual element in The Terrorist was not only its theme but its usage of highly, evocative, visual imagery almost as if the reader was looking at breathtaking visuals from an Akira Kurosawa war film. The combination of intense passion and a visualised style of writing became the key notes of my writing. Many found it unusual, far removed from the traditional ‘bookish’ qualities, whatever they might be, that they felt a book should have. But it were my real life dramatic experiences of news reporting in Kashmir, insurgency hit areas and forbidden lands helped me to sculpt an intense, visually enriching writing style. My visualised writing style compels me to open a window in the reader’s mind. It is the gateway to explore the imagination; which is a desired goal for any author. My successive three novels after the The Terrorist incorporate this style which now has become an article of faith for me.

TOI, 18 Sept 2017

So when I was asked to write a graphic novel for the Times of India, a commission no one has ever done before in this country, it struck me that it would flow all so naturally for me. I had to produce text that was economic in its choice of words and length. It would have to write a text which supported powerful visuals but was also evocative and stirring. This is what Agent Rana accomplishes day after day in the Times of India.

This brings me to my thesis that all art forms are interconnected to create a single, living organism that pulsates with life and passion. The end goal is to explore the human condition. I, believe, that there is no such thing as a purist style of writing. All creative output is the result of myriad experiences, both stylistic and cerebral. In December, this year, my fifth book, Fear is the Key which has a female protagonist, will be released by Penguin Random House. It is perhaps my most challenging work to date. It is a psychological thriller and tells the story of a man conflicted in his mind.

So, that then is the challenge for me. How do you show the conflicts of the mind as evocative imagery? Writing for different genres is like a seven course meal; each course releasing different flavours at the tip of your tongue. But it all leads to that simple but profound thought at the end of it. ‘I really enjoyed myself. It was a great meal.’

Different roads, one destination. There is really no contradiction in that!

© Juggi Bhasin

18 September 2017 

Lone Fox Dancing: My Autobiography by Ruskin Bond ( An exclusive extract)

(Ravi Singh, Publishing Director and co-Founder, Speaking Tiger Books, sent this exclusive extract from Ruskin Bond’s autobiography Lone Fox Dancing. It is one of the publishing highlights of 2017 given the tremendous fan following Ruskin Bond commands. This autobiography at 100,000+ words is the longest book ever written by Ruskin Bond.) 


And here I must pause to tell you a little more about Ayah, my guardian angel, surrogate mother, friend and beloved all rolled into one and wrapped up in a white sari. My mother, young in years and younger at heart, was often away attending the lunch and tea get-togethers that the ladies of the royal household liked to organize, or she would accompany the younger royals on picnics and excursions. My father spent more time with me, but he would be at work through much of the day. I would be left in the care of the servants—all but the ayah provided by the Jamnagar State. I had no objection to the arrangement, because they indulged me. Most of all, Ayah.

She was probably from one of the fishing communities of Kathiawar or from the poorer Muslim families from the north of India who worked in Christian and Anglo-Indian households. She must have been in her thirties and was unusually large and broad-limbed for an Indian woman, and shaped like a papaya, expansive at the hips and thighs. I was told she had a family of her own but I never saw them, and she never spoke of them. She was the one I spent the most time with at home—she stayed all day, washing my clothes, giving me a bath and telling me stories in Hindustani about jinns and fairies and the snake transformed into a handsome prince by the loving touch of a beautiful princess.

Ayah had large, rough hands and I liked being soaped and scrubbed by her, enjoying the sensation of her hands moving over my back and tummy. She could also use those hands very effectively to deliver a few resounding slaps, because I really was a little devil. But her anger vanished as quickly as it came when she saw me break into tears. And then she would break down herself, and cover me with big, wet kisses and gather me into herself, pressing my face to her great warm breasts. To be hugged and kissed, and generally fussed over, is one of the joys of infancy and childhood. My mother was not a physically demonstrative person—the occasional peck on the cheek was enough emotion for her. But Ayah more than made up for it. She would kiss my navel and nuzzle my tummy and tell the other staff, ‘I want to eat him up! I want to eat him up!’

I was in love with Ayah—it was a child’s love for a mother, but it was also a sensual, physical love. I loved the smell of her skin and her paan-scented breath and her dazzling smile. She was in love with my soft white skin and bathed and dressed me with infinite tenderness, and defended me against everyone, including my parents.

If I swallowed an orange seed, Ayah would say an orange tree would grow inside me. Being an imaginative child, this rather worried me because orange trees, I was told, had thorns on them. I did not want to worry my parents unduly, so I took my problem to Mr Jenkins, who looked serious, thought about it for a few moments, then said: ‘Don’t worry, it will only be a small tree.’

Still worried, I consulted Osman, who laughed and said, ‘Your ayah is just a gapori, don’t listen to her.’

‘What’s a gapori?’ I asked.

‘One who makes up stories—and exaggerates. Go and tell her you’ve swallowed a bean.’

I did, and she said, ‘Oh, baba, now you’ll have a bean-stalk growing inside you!’

‘And there will be a giant living in it?’ I asked.

She burst into laughter, seeing I’d caught her out.

‘Osman says you’re a gapori,’ I told her. And she and Osman had a terrible fight. She chased him around the house and forgave him only when he said he meant she was a pari, a fairy, not a gapori.

Still, I think I learnt something about telling stories from Ayah, as I did from Osman, although I had no idea that I would become a gapori of sorts one day.

Ruskin Bond Lone Fox Dancing: My Autobiography Speaking Tiger Books, New Delhi, India, 2017. Rs 599; hardback; 288 pages + 32-page photo insert

9 June 2017

An Interview with Award-Winning Indonesian Author Eka Kurniawan

( My interview with award winning Indonesian author Eka Kurniawan was published on literary website Bookwitty on 6 February 2017.  In India the books have been published by Speaking Tiger Books.) 

Award-winning Indonesian author Eka Kurniawan, whose writing, often compared to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, is an exceptional blend of myth-making, supernatural, fantastical, historical facts and horrendous amounts of violence. Told with such a flourish, his storytelling is unforgettable. Kurniawan was born in Tasikmalaya, Indonesia, in 1975 and has a degree in Philosophy. He writes novels, short stories, as well as non-fiction pieces. Beauty is a Wound and Man Tiger are two novels set in unnamed places with all the characteristics of Indonesia. His third novel to be published in English,Vengeance is Mine, All Others Pay Cash, will be available in July 2017. Eka Kurniawan kindly agreed to an interview for Bookwitty:

How and why did you get into writing fiction? What is your writing routine?

First of all, it was just for fun. I read some stories when I was a teenager, and I tried to write my own versions. I shared my stories with some of my friends. When I studied philosophy in University, sometimes I got bored with my study and skipped my class to go to library and read a lot of classic novels. And then I found a book by Knut Hamsun, Hunger. After I read it, I felt like I wanted to be a writer. So I started to write stories, seriously. My writing routine? I don’t write everyday. I always think that I am more a reader rather then a writer. I read anything every day, and only write something when I want to.

Who are the writers who have influenced you?

Like I already mentioned, Knut Hamsun. I love his deadpan humor and how he discovered his characters. And then there are three great Indonesian novelists: Pramoedya Ananta Toer, Abdullah Harahap and Asmaraman S. Kho Ping Hoo. The last two are a kind of genre writers. They wrote horror and martial art novels. I can make a very long list of writers that I believe have influenced me, but let me add these three writers: Miguel de Cervantes, Herman Melville, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

Your storytelling is told with such a flourish that at times it is very visual or creates a strong physical reaction much like a response to watching a theatrical performance. While writing, how conscious are you of the reader’s response?

I am very conscious about the reader, but that reader is me. When I write something, at the same time, I always place myself there as a reader too.

“Magic realism” and “historical fiction” are how your books are described but how exactly would you like your special brand of storytelling to be known as?

I never think about it. People can give me any kind of label they please. But let’s be honest: in my novels, there are not only historical or magical elements, but you can find romance, saga, fighting, horror, adventure, even political and social criticism. I prefer to see myself as an adventurer, with all the literary traditions as my map.

I prefer to see myself as an adventurer, with all the literary traditions as my map.

Your stories seem to rely heavily on the oral storytelling narrative form as the structural basis allowing you the flexibility to expand and repeat details and incorporate supernatural elements…

It is something inevitable. I grew up listening to a village storyteller when I was still a kid. And then there was also drama on the radio, told by one particular storyteller. I was very fascinated by all of these stories, especially because I had only read a small number of books at that time. The stories were usually about village legends, full of monsters, jinn, beautiful ladies and brave men. Many of these stories I actually retold in my novels, including the princess who married a dog.

There are so many brutal aspects of sexual violence which you explore in your stories. Why?

First, when you take a look into Indonesian history (maybe even world history), you can’t help but find yourself faced with this kind of violence. It can be sexual, physical, mental or political violence. Second, I wrote my first novel just two years after the fall of Suharto’s dictatorship. It was time for us to be bolder in writing, to open all these scars in our history and face them. Third, I used to write stories in a “matter of fact” manner, I don’t want to hide things.

You write with the sensitivity and understanding of a woman, often sharing her point of view, making the stories seem more feminist than what some women themselves pen and yet the plots move with a predominantly male gaze. Is this a conscious decision on your part?

It was a conscious decision. Actually, my first two novels were inspired by some women, and they are really at the center of my novels. I tried to place myself from their point of view. It is always something important for me as a writer to be there, to know how they feel, how they see the world around them, and how they react to something.

 

The strong women characters  in Man Tiger and Beauty is a Wound make choices which they follow through only to be labelled by society as insane. Why and how did you choose to create these women?

I think they just appeared like that in front of me. These two characters are very different from each other. They are strong, die-hard, but have different reactions. I never write stories with a plan. I usually just have a small idea, and develop it gradually. The characters come out one by one. I rewrite it several times, and the characters, including these two women, become more complex and have their own personality in the end.

Dewi Ayu (in Beauty is a Wound)  remarks “The best stories are in religious texts”. Your stories seem to imbibe a lot of storytelling elements from the Hindu epics, the Bible and the Quran. How have these stories influenced you? What are the challenges posed in transference of popular tales when trying to recreate or apply them in secular literature?

My grandmother used to tell me stories from the Quran, and my father taught me to read it. So I am very familiar with these stories, as well as stories from the Bible (I read it later) as they are close. I discovered Hindu epics from wayang (puppet) performances, that usually used Mahabharata or Ramayana epics. The challenges occur with the fact that these stories are very popular. Many writers and storytellers retold them. I just picked the basic ideas and retold them in my own stories that have nothing to do with religious aspects, but with a parallel allusion to them.

Are the English translations true to the original Bhasa texts? How closely did you work with the translators – Annie Tucker and Labodalih Sembiring? Also why did you choose separate translators for the books – it is a slightly unusual practice given how authors and translators tend to forge a long term relationship. 

It’s almost true. I worked very closely with the translators and we tried our best to render the original into English. Of course we faced some problems with grammatical and word nuances, as Indonesian and English are very different, and we discussed this a lot. Those two books were acquired by two different publishers. Verso and I approached Labodalih to translate Man Tiger after we tried some translators, and around the same time Annie Tucker proposed to translate Beauty Is a Wound, later acquired by New Directions. So, that’s why I have two translators.

Given the time lag between your novels being first published and then made available in English do you think having Indonesia as the guest of honor at the Frankfurt Book Fair 2015 helped in discovering contemporary Indonesian writers and making them available to the English-speaking world?

To be honest, before the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2015, I knew nothing about that. My books were published in English translation the same year, but we prepared them three years before, in 2012. But of course, as guest of honor at the 2015 Frankfurt Book Fair, this gave us an opportunity to be discovered, including my books. Publishers started to wonder about Indonesian literature…

Who are the Indonesian writers – based in the country or of the diaspora – that you would recommend for international readers?

Pramoedya Ananta Toer, of course, and Seno Gumira Adjidarma.

7 February 2017 

World Book Fair, Delhi, Jan 2017

The world book fair was held in Delhi between 7-15 January 2017. It was another magnificent show put together by National Book Trust. I wrote about it for Scroll. The article was published on 29 Jan 2017. ) 

Three discoveries (and some footnotes) about readers and publishers from the World Book Fair

The death of reading has been greatly exaggerated. Yet again.

At first sight, the World Book Fair in Delhi looked like the scene of family holidays, with up to three generations milling around, some pulling suitcases on wheels filled with books. Actually, with the gradual disappearance of bookshops, the WBF has become an annual pilgrimage of sorts for book-buyers. Here are the three trends we discovered in the 2017 edition:

Children are reading, and reading, and reading…

The findings of Scholastic India ‘s Kids & Family Reading Report (KFRR) confirm that parents most frequently turn to book fairs or book clubs to find books for their child, followed by bookshops and libraries. Eight out of ten children cite one of their parents as the person from whom they get ideas about which books to read for fun.

Curiously enough, what parents want in books for their children is often just what the children want too. Despite this being the digital age, six out of ten parents prefer that their children read printed books. This is particularly true for parents of children aged between six and eight. Perhaps surprisingly, a majority of children, 80%, agree: they will always want to read printed books despite the easy availability of ebooks.

The findings of the report were confirmed independently by observing the phenomenal crowds in Hall 14 of the World Book Fair in Delhi in January, where the children’s literature publishers had been placed. These were astounding even on weekday mornings! Over the weekend queues to enter the hall snaked their way round Pragati Maidan to the food court and beyond. Remarkably, everyone was standing patiently.

The pavilions were overflowing with interested customers of all ages. Children scurried around like excited little pixies, flipping through books, making piles, some throwing tantrums with their parents demanding more than the budgets allowed, and many just plonking themselves on the carpets, absorbed in reading, oblivious to the crowds swirling around them.

Their interest was evident even during the packed storytelling sessions with writers like Ruskin Bond, Paro Anand and Prashant Pinge. This is corroborated by Neeraj Jain, Managing Director, Scholastic India, who said, “Using the findings of KFRR we created our stall as a reading zone. The combination of books, events, interactions and dedicated reading zone made it a pleasurable experience.”

Even adults were discovering new titles for their children. For instance, huddled around a shelf displaying Scholastic Teen Voice titles were a bunch of parents and teachers flipping through the books, exclaiming on their perceived difficulty of finding reading material for adolescents. The series in question contains page-turners built around crucial issues that matter to teens – bullying, drinking, technology, nutrition, fitness, goal-setting, depression, dealing with divorce, and responding to prejudice. Added Aparna Sharma, Managing Director, Dorling Kindersley Books: “We found that representatives from school libraries and other education institutions use this event to search out good books and order in bulk.”

And it wasn’t just the children’s publishers. Academic publishers like Oxford University Press had primary school children dragging their parents to browse through the titles, being familiar with the brand from their school textbooks. This held true even for DK books who, for the first time since they began participating in the fair, had a large table laden with books and generous shelf space in the Penguin Random House stall.

Global publishers are more interested in publishing books from India than selling in India

The hall for international participants was thinly populated. Most of the participants seemed to have come for trade discussions. Many of these conversations were taking place on the sidelines or at other events outside the fair ground, since foreign participants, in particular, were daunted by the vast crowds. The launch of the Google Indic Languages cell at FICCI was announced at the CEOs’ breakfast meeting. Another significant announcement came from Jacks Thomas, Director, London Book Fair, where there will be a “Spotlight on India” at the Fair to mark the UK-India Year of Culture in March 2017.

Yet, as an overseas publisher said, “The World Book Fair is exclusively a business-to-consumer fair, quite unlike any they have in Europe”. This marked a significant shift of sorts. In the past the World Book Fair had been known for a range of international publishers, representing diverse cultures, languages and literature, selling their books directly to readers. Even India’s neighbouring countries used to participate in huge numbers, bringing across fine multiple literatures. This was not the case this time. As a result, long-time visitors to the fair were heard lamenting that its soul was missing – it felt as if an era had ended.

But people bought books, a lot of them

Despite the worry about demonetisation impacting sales, brisk business was done, with sales being 25% higher than in 2016, according to back-of-the-envelope estimates.

According to Kumar Samresh, Deputy Director, Publicity, National Book Trust, there were record footfalls at the 2017 edition of the fair, with 4 lakh complimentary multiple entry passes being supplemented 1.9 lakh individual entries based on ticket sales. There was also free entry schoolchildren, senior citizens, and, as usual, VIPs. Rajdeep Mukherjee, VP, Pan Macmillan India confirmed “a 30℅ rise in footfall, mainly led by young adult readers, but it was the Man Booker award winning title like The Sellout which has been a sellout literally!”

The other changes we observed

  • The rising sale of textbooks and educational aids.
  • The increasing popularity of books from franchises like Disney, Barbie, and Lego, or from brands like Marvel Comics and Geronimo Stilton.
  • Older people cautioning youngsters to buy only “relevant” books.
  • The overwhelming presence of religious publications.
  • The preponderance of digital technology vendors, primarily in the area of educational publishing.
  • Print-on-demand books (goodbye, inventories).

( All the images used in the article were taken by me during the fair.)

29 January 2017 

Arshia Sattar’s “Ramayana” for children

img_20161006_092625

Arshia Sattar’s Ramayana for Children is based on the original Sanskrit text of Valmiki. As she writes in a recently published article “…although there are ‘three hundred Ramayanas’, I work only with Valmiki’s text. His is the first version of Rama’s story that we have but it’s also the version that people know the least, perhaps because it’s in Sanskrit. My thirty-year obsession with the Ramayana is thus even stranger − not unlike a scholar spending all their working life reading only the first folio edition of The Tempest.” ( Hindustan Times, 30 Sept 2016 http://bit.ly/2cTU5fl ) The text reads smoothly. One of the toughest challenges in translating a well-known text is how well will it sit with the readers who are more than familiar with its stories. Somehow in this modern English translation of Valmiki’s text the story reads beautifully without any glitches, without any of those annoyingly forced attempts at putting down a living text in words. Instead what comes through is the incredible manner in which Arshia Sattar to retell these age-old stories but in the true spirit of a storyteller who is herself in sync with the stories. She has made it her own and made it available to a new generation of readers. It is a crucial contribution since more families are becoming nuclear and unable to rely on older generations to share these stories. img_20161006_092637 img_20161006_092709 img_20161006_092744

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ramayana for Children has been beautifully illustrated with double-page spreads by Sonali Zohra. There is something grungy-funky with the almost wood-cut like impressions that are very appealing.  The illustrations complement the text well too.

This is a reasonably priced hardback book for children. A maginificent gift for children — to read, to treasure and well timed too given that it has been launched during the navratas when they can watch Ramlila too — making the text come alive!

 

Arshia Sattar Ramayana for Children ( Based on the original Sanskrit text of Valmiki), Illustrations by Sonali Zohra. Juggernaut Books, New Delhi, India, 2016. Hb. pp. 240. Rs. 499

6 Oct 2016 

 

Review of Fiston Mwanza Majila, “Tram 83” : Waiting for Godot in the Congo

I reviewed for The WireFiston Mwanza Majila’s wonderful debut Tram 83, translated by Roland Glasser from French into English and originally published by Deep Vellum ( USA). It has been published in the Indian subcontinent by Speaking Tiger Books on their exciting new list for International Literature. Here is the original url: http://thewire.in/2016/06/02/review-waiting-for-godot-in-the-congo-39893/ . This was published online on 2 June 2016. I am c&p the text below. 

Fiston Mwanza Mujila’s Tram 83 is a bold experiment in form, set in an anonymous ‘City-State,’ which unnervingly parallels the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Credit: Speaking Tiger Books.

Credit: Speaking Tiger Books.

These recorded sounds are historical monuments, works of literature, poems, tragedies. Through the rust and other elements, you can feel history, the history of peoples, the memory of migration. 

Fiston Mwanza Mujila burst upon the international literary landscape with his debut novel Tram 83. It was originally published in French in 2014 by Éditions Métailié and translated into English by Roland Glasser in 2015. Tram 83 is inspired by the city of Lubumbashi in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where the local economy is driven by diamond mining. The story is about ‘City-State,’ which could be anywhere, yet is distinctly a mining town. In City-State, one of the most popular restaurants and hooker bars is ‘Tram 83,’ and it is frequented by:

Inadvertent musicians and elderly prostitutes and prestidigitators and Pentecostal preachers and students resembling mechanics and doctors conducting diagnoses in nightclubs and young journalists already retired and transvestites and second-foot shoe peddlers and porn film fans and highwaymen and pimps and disbarred lawyers and casual labourers and former transsexuals and polka dancers and pirates of the high seas and seekers of political asylum and organised fraudsters and archeologists and would-be bounty hunters and modern day adventurers and explorers searching for a lost civilisation and human organ dealers and farmyard philosophers and hawkers of fresh water and hairdressers and shoeshine boys and repairers of spare parts and soldiers’ widows and sex maniacs and lovers of romance novels and dissident rebels and brothers in Christ and druids and shamans and aphrodisiac vendors and scriveners and purveyors of real fake passports and gun-runners and porters and bric-a-brac traders and mining prospectors short on liquid assets and Siamese twins and Mamelukes and carjackers and colonial infantrymen and haruspices and counterfeiters and rape-starved soldiers and drinkers of adulterated milk and self-taught bakers and marabouts and mercenaries claiming to be one of Bob Denard’s crew and inveterate alcoholics and diggers and militiamen proclaiming themselves “masters of the world” and poseur politicians and child soldiers and Peace Corps activists gamely tackling a thousand nightmarish railroad construction projects or small-scale copper or manganese mining operations and baby-chicks and drug dealers and busgirls and pizza delivery guys and growth hormone merchants, all sorts of tribes overran Tram 83, in search of good times on the cheap.

This long passage is best read aloud and that is the distinctive breakthrough in the novel. It is less a novel than an oral performance. There is absolutely no point in trying to read it as a classically structured novel. The writing has a structural rhythm defined by the punctuation. In an interview, Glasser said that while working on the translation he would spend some time walking around in the garden reading the text out aloud to himself.

Mwanza Mujila is a performance poet, something that gives him a natural feeling for the song in the words. The fabulous performance that he and Glasser gave at Malvern Books, accompanied on the saxophone by Chris Hall, shows how in tune he and his translator are. Ever since he was a child, Mwanza Mujila wanted to learn how to play the saxophone, but was unable to get one so instead he taught himself to use his voice as the instrument. He demonstrated it at the Brooklyn Book Festival. Woven along with these musical influences is the very strong impact of evangelical Christianity. The way that the words and lists build up to crescendos in the book are very similar to a tub-thumping pastor’s sermons.

It is fascinating to discover that Mwanza Mujila is pursuing a PhD in Romance languages & literatures. Romance literature emerged out of the textual recording of oral forms of storytelling like the Arthurian cycle. It is also phonetically written, lending itself to varying rhythms when read aloud. These stories also served a definite purpose of recording contemporary socio-political-economic events like the tin trade between France and Glastonbury but were also thoroughly entertaining. Obviously a form of storytelling that many centuries later continues to be popular.

A Beckettian relationship

This is not to say that the plot is unimportant. Tram 83 is primarily about two characters – Lucien, a writer, and Requiem, a hustler, who were close friends but drifted apart. Lucien is upright and ethical, while Requiem is wonderfully amoral, minting money however he can, from illegal sales to blackmail. Lucien returns from the “Back-Country,” having completed half of a “stage-tale” entitled “The Africa of Possibility: Lumumba, the Fall of an Angel, or the Pestle-Mortar Years…Characters include Che Guevara, Sékou Touré, Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, Lumumba, Martin Luther King, Ceauşescu, not forgetting the dissident General”. He moves in with Requiem, who continues to flourish with his disreputable activities, but their relationship is now imbued with a deep-seated love/hate resentment towards each other. It is a particularly Beckettian relationship reminiscent of Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot especially with the refrain peppered throughout the text – “Do you have the time”. Many times the conversations do not make any sense unless read aloud. Out of nonsense emerges a narrative.

Around Lucien and Requiem swirl people and conversations, with a plethora of walk on parts. A few characters remain throughout the story, such as the publisher Ferdinand Malingeau. It is like a well-constructed theatrical performance, an opera, but it is surreal given the unnerving parallels with the DRC. In an interview with Asymptote the author said, “…the “City-State” could be anywhere; a non-place, in the same way that, in his view, DRC is a non-country — no stable government, borders constantly breached by armies from neighbouring states”.

Women are marginal to the story. Mwanza Mujila defended this decision in an online interview, saying, “Anyone who has spent at least one day in a quarry or mine knows that masculinity is a necessity (for the diggers) in this environment, and that this particular masculinity is constructed differently to that found in cities or out in the countryside, often to the detriment of women”.

Tram 83 has already garnered significant literary prizes, such as Grand Prix SGDL, the Literary Prize of Graz, Austria, 2015 Etisalat Prize for Literature and had been longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize 2015. It is a bold experiment in form and an absolutely marvellous debut – tough to read but intelligently crafted.

Buy it. Read it. Become a fan.

Fiston Mwanza Mujila Tram 83  Translated by Roland Glasser, Speaking Tiger Publishing, Delhi, 2016, 210 pages, Rs. 350.

2 June 2016

 

Literati – “Storytelling” ( 6 Dec 2014, The Hindu)


Jaya Bhattacharji Rose( My monthly column, Literati, in the Hindu Literary Review was published online ( 6 December 2014) and will be in print ( 7 December 2014). Here is the url http://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/literati-a-look-at-the-world-of-books-publishing-and-writers/article6667631.ece . I am also c&p the text below. )

Watching Ameen Haque of The Storywallahs perform at the Kahani Tree, Bookaroo, was a treat. He wove stories, poetry and music together and had the audience singing and laughing along with him. In the short interaction, the children were introduced to the radical idea that crying is perfectly normal for boys and grown men.

Telling tales

Even when adults communicate, it is inevitably through stories. We call it conversation. Break up the conversation and analyse it. It is anecdotal, replete with stories and vignettes. The impact of a well-told story is immeasurable. Similarly a book allows a quiet engagement between the author and a reader. Books make you see the world afresh. It works for all age groups.

This relationship between books and young readers was apparent at an event organised by SCWBI India in partnership with Goethe-Institut/Max Mueller Bhavan and the Bookaroo Childrens’ Literature Festival. The topic was “LSD: Love, Sex and Darkness in Books for Children” and the participants were educationist Dr. Shalini Advani, author Samina Mishra, illustrator Priya Kuriyan, and publisher Sayoni Basu.

“Should children’s books only deal with happy things? What about death, violence and sexuality? What about darkness and ugliness?” These were some of the questions raised.

Dr. Advani pointed out that adults tend to be more uncomfortable than children. “For adults, our role is to drag these issues out into the clear light of day. To normalise them as a part of the circle of life so that children — who think about them anyway — learn healthy ways of talking about them and thinking about them. It’s not happy worlds that young people seek. So it is not about whether a book has death or perfidious adults or parental divorce or pain. But more about how it is done — young people don’t like to be lectured to or even gently educated.”

Some recently YA books — Talking of Muskaan by Himanjali Sankar about a teen who may be a lesbian;Smitten by Ranjit Lal about a teen who is molested by a family member and Jobless Clueless Reckless by Revathi Suresh about a pregnant teen — have tackled these tricky topics.

***

Fiction relies upon storytelling to represent experiences, although its impact depends on the author’s magic with words. At times the storytelling has visible weaknesses but the reader persists, usually out of curiosity about a new topic. For instance, Sonora Jha’s Foreign (farmer suicides in Vidarbha); Pia Padukone’s Where Earth Meets Water (9/11 and the 2004 tsumani), Gaiutra Bahadur’s Coolie Woman(indentured labourers on sugar plantations in British Guiana), Mira Jacob’s The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing (Syrian Christian family in New Mexico), and Robert Allison’s The Letter Bearer (WWII, amnesia).

Inclusive fiction

Exquisite storytelling and its impact is apparent by the recent online conversation between Amitav Ghosh and Raghu Karnad regarding Flanagan’s 2014 ManBooker Prize-winning novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North. The two Indian writers discussed the inclusive capacity of historical fiction and the “duty” of a novelist but also gave insightful comments about a moment in history that had been made accessible through contemporary fiction.

The legendary publisher Gordon Graham puts it prophetically in a 1980 essay reprinted in As I was Saying: Essays on the International Book Business, “Creative composition in the electronic age will not happen at the moment when the author and the publisher decide it is releasable.” It will happen with the active participation of the reader. A statement that holds true 35 years later.

Irrespective of age groups and formats, the importance of storytelling can never be negated since it is an important module of communication and transmission of information, requiring the active participation of all stakeholders.

Update ( 6 December 2014):

In the paragraph listing the debut writers I should have clarified that it is not only fiction, but also nonfiction by relies upon the art of storytelling. Hence I have included Gaiutra Bahadur. My original list was much longer than was finally published.

6 December 2014 

Guest post: Paro Anand, storytelling in multiple tongues to children

Guest post: Paro Anand, storytelling in multiple tongues to children

 

In Nov 2003, Paro Anand and I were invited by the French Government to attend the salon de livre jeunesse. It was a wonderful trip. While there Paro was invited to tell stories in a French bookstore. I was fortunate to attend the session with Paro. It is nearly a decade ago and I have some wonderful pictures from that particular evening, including one of a child sitting under a table listening to Paro with his mouth open. Subsequently Paro has narrated stories on various platforms, to multi-lingual audiences. In the post below she shares some of these experiences.

Logo I decided to ask Paro Anand to write this note after realising that Jumpstart 2013 would focus on “Speaking in Tongues”.( http://www.jumpstartfest.com/home) It is a platform meant to discuss children’s literature across languages and address the idea of bibliodiversity. What better way to do it than hear from a practitioner of the trade, who has done exactly this…told stories in multiple languages to various audiences around the world. Unfortunately Paro Anand will not be attending Jumpstart this year.

 

Paro Anand telling stories in English, Hindi and Punjabi to a French-speaking audience in a Parisian Bookstore, Nov 2003.

Paro Anand telling stories in English, Hindi and Punjabi to a French-speaking audience in a Parisian Bookstore, Nov 2003.

Storytelling is all about language, about words – right? I thought so too. And if someone told me that it was possible to tell stories to an audience who did not understand a word of what you were saying, well, that would be absurd. I thought so too.

Except that I have been put into this situation on several occasions – four times, in fact. The first time was early in my storytelling career where I was faced with an audience of Telugu-speaking children to whom i was a ‘firangi’. I flung my body into service and mimed and acted out every word. They got it. Well, most of it.

The next time was in a bookstore in Paris. I had a few animal stories prepared, but the young, French-speaking audience was totally unfamiliar with English. So i told the story in Hindi – and Punjabi. I peppered it with a handful of French words and the kids were singing Punjabi songs by the end of the session! Armed with that success, I repeated the experiment in Geneva, Switzerland, this time along with an Indian storyteller who also spoke German and French. I performed in Hindi and Punjabi and she answered my questions in German and French. It’s not as if the kids only understood half the session. They had a grip on the story as a whole and many said they’d enjoyed hearing a story in another language. I asked which part they liked best and they said the lion’s part. Not the French part, just the lion’s part!

But the crowning glory in multi-language crown was doing a session with a Zulu South African performance teller called Gcina. We met for the first time on stage with the audience already assembled. I had no idea which stories she was going to tell, I did not know her work and she did not know mine. But the kids were Hindi speaking so she needed a ‘go-between’. We were both game, though and that’s all that mattered. She launched into her story using English with a bit of Swahili where it would be apparent what the words were and I mirrored her action for action, word for word. It was magical, for me most of all. By the end, the audience was shouting out the Zulu words and Gcina was answering in Hindi!

Which only goes to show that it’s the heart and soul of a story that we absorb, the words are only a vehicle. I have personally enjoyed hitching a ride on an unknown vehicle and discovering where that journey will land me.

27 Aug 2013

(C) Paro Anand

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