These two are always quarrelling like a husband and wife who have been married for too long. But they cann’t even get married when we grow up because Faiz is a Muslim. It’s too dangerous to marry a Muslim if you’re a Hindu. On the TV news, I have seen blood-red photos of people who were murdered because they married someone from a different religion or caste. Also, Faiz is shorter than Pari, so they wouldn’t make a good match anyway.
Debut author and former journalist, Deepa Anappara’s Djinn Patrol on the Purple Lineis set in an urban slum in a nameless Indian city. The story is told from the perspective of nine-year-old Jai. His closest friends in the basti are also his classmates — Pari and Faiz. They are little children who are mostly left to fend for themselves while their parents work for those living in the neighbourhood’s hi-fi apartments. There is a constant undercurrent of violence that is prevalent in this community. These can range from the the sexual assault upon children in the dark alleys to hurling abuses at each other with one of the more favourite curses being called “rat eater” — a reference in all likelihood to the poorest of the poor, lowest in the social pecking order. It is a slum cluster that has people of different communities living together though as the book extract quoted above illustrates that everyone is very aware of the communal differences as well. Slowly over a period of time some of the children begin to disappear. At first given that they are all Hindus, suspicions are cast upon the Muslims living in the basti. But when the young Muslim siblings also disappear, the case begins to puzzle everyone. Unfortunately the communal tensions are exacerbated by now.
Jai and his friends decide to embark upon some of their own detective work to locate the kidnapper. Jai in his innocence coupled with a wild imagination is convinced that this is the handiwork of bad djinns. Nevertheless he is prepared to investigate realising that despite being bribed the policemen are really not interested in helping the affected families. It is not an easy task as the children are strapped for resources, especially finances, making their movement limited. Also they are viewed as poor kids who are not easily trusted by others, so information is not easily forthcoming. It is a challenging situation but the children do their best to find the truth. The novel develops at a steady pace with the focus maintained steadily upon the children while the sinister undertones in the background continue to develop. Whether it is petty politicians, opportunistic self-styled godmen, corrupt police officials, no one really cares for the well-being of the slum dwellers or the abandoned and orphaned kids eking out an existence as ragpickers on the garbage dump, being looked after a benevolent Bottle-Badshah. Yet the unexpected finale of the story comes together brilliantly where it seems fiction merges with reality by bringing up the ghosts of the infamous Nithari crime that was perpetrated upon the children living in the neighbourhood.
It is also extraordinary that Deepa Anappara has chosen to tell the story in a manner that she is probably most familiar with. She unapologetically blends desi words in her English storytelling framework. But the beauty of it all is that the non-English words are neveritalicised nor is the word or phrase explained immediately after its first appearance. It is a joy to behold this absolute acceptance of “foreign” words. A far cry from when Indian writers writing in English first began to publish novels — inevitably a glossary would be produced. No more.
One of the most obvious critiques of this book in coming days will be of it being a classic example of poverty porn and pandering to a preconceived notion of India. Having said that Deepa Anappara is to be commended for her masterful control of a complex subject. More importantly now that she is based abroad she is able to leverage her position as a woman of colour to write about the poverty back home while at the same time cleverly showcasing the distinct identities of the people and the very real preoccupations that govern daily existence. It could be from social ills such as alcoholism, unemployment, runaway or abandoned children, rampant problem of street children addicted to sniffing glue, lack of basic amenities such as sanitation and water, the poor quality of midday meals served in government run schools which the children yearn for as that is probably the only “proper” meal they will get in the day, high rate of school dropouts inevitably amongst the girls as they are required to be at home looking after their younger siblings, the growing menace of bullies, the manner in which women negotiate these spaces to run their households etc. The lives of the families and friends affected by the disappearance of the children is as traumatic a scenario as it is for you and I. These are people. Not necessarily people who can help prop up an exotic story. This socio-economic analysis that is presented in the garb of fiction without it seeming dreary like a pontificating thesis is not an easy task to achieve. Deepa Anappara manages to negotiate this space well.
Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line is the Vintage lead for 2020. It was won in nine-strong bidding auction at Frankfurt Book Fair 2018. In a joint acquisition with Penguin Random House India, Chatto & Windus won the UK and Commonwealth rights after a hard-fought auction with eight other publishers. A portion of this novel won the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize, the Deborah Rogers Foundation Writers Award and the Bridport/Peggy Chapman-Andrews Award for a First Novel. This is a greatly anticipated debut that has been endorsed by a galaxy of literary stars such as Anne Enright, Ian McEwan, Chigozie Obioma, Nikesh Shukla, Nathan Filer, Mahesh Rao and Mridula Koshy. Deepa Anappara used to be a journalist in India before moving base to UK. Much of her research for this novel was based on her experience and reading seminal books on urban studies. This book stands apart from many other examples of equally promising debuts in the magnificence of Deepa Anappara’s craftsmanship in creating fine evenly toned fiction — not a mean feat for a debut author. The style of this book is very much akin to contemporary young adult literature. The dark gem of a novel that is Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line fits snugly with much of yalit even with its fairly realistic conclusion. The manuscript may or may not have begun life as yalit which the reading public may never know but it has been positioned as literary fiction. Somewhere the costs incurred in bidding for this book have to be recovered. Despite the yalit genre exploding with an amazing variety of writers, the segment lacks globally recognised literary prizes that will help increase book sales exponentially. But by positioning it as litfic for the trade market, the publishers are ensuring that this novel is eligible for many of the prominent literary prizes in the Anglo-American book market such as the Dylan Thomas Prize for debut writers, the Women Writers Prize for Fiction, the Booker Prize, the Costa First Book Award, National Book Awards etc. By launching it simultaneously across territories too makes this novel eligible for many local prizes. For instance in India there are the Crossword Book Award, JCB Prize, DSC Prize etc to be considered. And as is a truth universally acknowledged that being longlisted or shortlisted for a prize let alone winning it, boosts book sales tremendously. Thereby helping the publisher recover some of their investment costs in winning the auction and spending on the publicity campaign. A win-win situation for the author which in this case is very well deserved.
This is an extraordinary novel. Beautifully told by debut writer Kate Allen. It is about a young girl Lucy whose mother was a marine scientist specialising in the study of the Great White Shark. They live in Cape Cod where sightings of the sharks have been spotted and Helen had anticipated their arrival in a few years time as the local seal population grew. Unfortunately Lucy’s mum, Helen, passed away unexpectedly when Lucy was a seven years old. Her father, a rescue diver for the police, brought up Lucy with the support of his kind and warmhearted neighbours. Lucy is particularly close to her neighbour Maggie’s son, Fred. The youngsters did everything together including spending every moment of their waking hour in each other’s company. They also worked on a school projects together like the field guide on sharks that involved Lucy drawing and Fred providing the scientific explanations. Sadly, tragedy strikes. It devastates Lucy for whom it is a double blow. “The Line Tender” is an extraordinary glimpse into the world of adolescents as well as how adults around them help form a community and provide support whether in times of sadness, learning or navigating their way through the beauty this world can provide. It is not an us vs them kind of yalit but calm look at how everyone is managing their griefs too and they can reach out to each other for support. It is a way of looking outwards and the manner in which it helps heal Lucy. Read it.
“The Letter Q: Queer Writers Notes To Their Younger Selves” edited by Sarah Moon and contributing editor, James Lecesne, is an anthology of letters by award-winning authors and illustrators such as Armistead Maupin, David Levithan, Amy Bloom, Jacqueline Woodson, Brian Selznick, Bill Clegg, David Ebershoff, Eileen Myles, Michael Cunningham, and Arthur Levine to name a few. It is an interesting anthology where the letters have a markedly controlled tenor that is probably nowhere close to the confusion and mixed feelings they experienced as youngsters. As adults the contributors are expected to exhibit some maturity and share experiences in a measured tone. Having said that it is hard to believe that while recalling their past and writing to a younger self, raw wounds were not opened once more with accompanying emotional upheavals. But the editors seem to have managed to cap it all and produce an anthology that is readable and is able to communicate calmly with its intended audience. In all likelihood it will work for teenagers as well as counsellors, educators and care givers too. This book has been edited by Sarah Moon in collaboration with James Lecesne, founder of The Trevor Project, an organization’s dedicated to preventing LGBTQ teen suicide. This is a book meant to be read. Share it. Discuss it. Use it as a conversation starter.
Book Post 47 includes some of the titles received in the past few weeks. Wherever available Amazon’s Kindle widget has been embedded in the blog post. It will allow you to browse through the book before you decide to buy it.
Nadya is a stunningly powerful graphic novel about thirteen-year-old Nadya who witnesses her parent’s marriage deteriorate. The story and the art work are devastating. The artist-cum-author Debasmita Dasgupta has created a very moving portrait of a family falling apart at the seams but also how the little girl, at the cusp of adulthood, is witness to a catastrophic set of circumstances. Her secure world crumbles and she feels helpless. Yet the staid portrait of the professional at her desk on the dust jacket belies the confused and anxious teenager portrayed on the hard cover — a fact that is revealed once the dust jacked is slipped off. It is an incredible play of images, a sleight of the hand creates a “flashback”, a movement, as well as a progress, that seemingly comes together in the calm and composed portrait of Nadya at her desk, tapping away at the computer, with her back to a wall on which are hung framed pictures. Many of these images are images of her past — pictures of her with her parents in happier times as well as when the family broke apart. A sobering reminder and yet a reason to move on as exemplified in the narrative itself too with the peace that Nadya discovers, a renewal, a faith within herself to soar. Scroll sums it up well “Teenagers may read this story of a nuclear family living in the hills for relatability, but for everyone there is the poetry of the form that this graphic novel poignantly evokes.” Nadya is an impressive debut by Debasmita Dasgupta as a graphic novelist. Nadya, is releasing on 30 September 2019 by Scholastic India.
Debasmita Dasgupta is a Singapore-based, internationally published Kirkus-Prize-nominated picture book illustrator and graphic novel artist. She enjoys drawing both fiction and non-fiction for children and young adults. Working closely with publishers across the world, she has illustrated over 10 picture books, comics and poems. Widely known as an art-for-change advocate, Debasmita tells stories of changemakers from around the world partnering with global non-profits. Her art is exhibited in Italy, Singapore, Thailand, Denmark and more than 40 international media outlets have featured it.
Here are excerpts of an interview conducted via email:
How did the story of Nadya and its publication come about? Was
it the story that came first or the illustrations? What is the backstory?
I am a visual
thinker. Words don’t come to me naturally. The story of Nadya was with me in
bits and pieces for a very long time. I needed some time and space to weave it
all together. It happened exactly a year ago when I went for an illustrators
residency near Burgos (in Spain). That’s when I completed the story and
illustrated a few key frames, which finally expanded to become this 64-page graphic
When I was in primary school, I had a very close friend (can’t disclose her name). I have faint memories of us spending time together and quite a vivid memory of her fading away from my life after her parents went through a divorce. I was too young to understand the significance of the word “divorce”. All I could understand, deeply, was that it changed the course of my friend’s life. She became more and more quiet and then one day never came back to school. There were rumours that perhaps she went to a different school or a different city. Years later, another very close friend of mine went through a divorce. She has a daughter and at that time she was eight. This time I realised the thing that bothered me the most in my childhood was that I couldn’t make an attempt to complement the loss in my friend’s life with my friendship. Simply because I didn’t know how to deal with it. Finally, I found an answer in my art and the story of Nadya began.
2. While the story is about Nadya witnessing her parents marriage fall apart, it is interesting how you also focus on the relationships of the individuals with each other. Is that intentional?
Absolutely! I don’t see Nadya as a story of separation. On the surface it is a story of a fractured family but underneath it is about our fractured emotions. In fact to me it is the story of finding your inner strength at the time of crisis. You just have to face your fear. Nothing and no one except you can do that for you.
3. Nadya seems to collapse the boundaries between traditional artwork for comic frames and literary devices. For instance, while every picture frame is complete in itself as it should be in a comic book, there is also a reliance on imagery and metaphors such as Nadya being lost in the forest and finding the fawn at the bottom of a pit is akin to her being lost in reality too. Surprisingly these ellisions create a magical dimension to the story. Was the plot planned or did it happen spontaneously? [ There is just something else in this Debasmita that I find hard to believe is a pure methodical creation. It seems to well up from you from elsewhere.]
Thank you Jaya!
You are right that it is not a pure methodical creation. In fact, what fascinates me is that you could feel that the borders are blurred. When I was creating the story of Nadya, I felt that there were many crossovers between borders. Like emotional borders (grief and renewal) and timeline borders (past and present, with a hint of future). And I think these crossovers resulted in the form of an amalgamation of narrative forms, textures and colour palettes. In fact, that’s one of the reasons why I felt the story is set in the mountains where you cannot define the lines between two mountains or the distinctions between the trees in the forest when there is a mist. They all overlap each other like human emotions. It’s never all black and white.
4. How important do you think is the role of a father in a daughter’s life?
Let me tell you the story behind “My Father illustrations” – It was on a Sunday afternoon when the idea came to me after I heard a TED talk by Shabana Basij from Afghanistan. It was a moving experience. I felt something had permanently changed inside me. Over the next few days, I watched that talk over and over. Her honesty, her simplicity and power of narration moved me. Shabana grew up in Afghanistan during the Taliban regime. Despite all odds, her father never lost the courage to fight for her education. He used to say, “People can take away everything from you except your knowledge”. Shabana’s story gave me a strong impulse to do something but I didn’t know ‘what’ and ‘how’. That’s when my red sketchbook and pencil caught my eye. Before I’d even realized it, I had taken my first step. I illustrated Shabana’s story and posted it on Facebook. It was an impulsive reaction. I found Shabana’s contact and shared the illustration with her. Shabana was so touched that she forwarded it to her students, and then I started getting emails from a lot of other Afghan men! The emails were a note of thanks as they felt someone was trying to showcase Afghan men in a positive light. I realized that if there are so many positive father–daughter stories in Afghanistan, just imagine the positive stories across the world! My journey had started. I started looking for moving father-daughter stories from across the globe. Some I found, some found me. With every discovery, my desire to create art for people kept growing.
5. With Nadya you challenge many gender stereotypes such as the daughter’s relationship with her parents. It is not the standard portrayal seen in “traditional” literature. Here Nadya seems happier with her father rather than mother. The breaking down of Nadya’s relationship with her mother has been illustrated beautifully with the picture frames “echoing” Nadya’s loneliness and sadness. Even the colours used are mostly brown tints. This is an uneasy balance to achieve between text and illustration to create an evocative scene. How many iterations did it take before you hit a satisfactory note in your artwork? And were all these iterations in terms of art work or did it involve a lot of research to understand the nuances of a crumbling relationship?
I often say
“Preparation is Power”. And I have always learnt from great creators in the
world that there are no shortcuts to create any good art. However, the process
of preparation varies from artist to artist. To me, this is not a process, it’s
a journey. It starts with a seed of an idea and then it stays with me for a
long, long time before I could finally express it my way. There is a lot of
seeing, listening and spending time with my thoughts. Breaking of the
stereotypes, whether they are gender stereotypes or stereotypical formats, were
not intentional but I guess embedded in my thinking. It’s not that someone from
outside is telling me to break those norms but it’s a voice, deep inside,
constantly questioning. Not to find the right answers but to ask the right
There were many versions of character sketches and colour palettes before the finals were decided for Nadya. Even though the initial characters and colours were similar to the finals, the textures and tones are distinctively different. Since the story runs in different timelines with varied emotional arcs, I wanted to integrate separate tonalities in the frames. In the end, a graphic novel is not just about telling a story with words. If my images can’t speak, if their colours don’t evoke any emotion then my storytelling is incomplete.
6. Did you find it challenging to convey divorce, loneliness, relationships etc through a graphic novel? Why not create a heavily illustrated picture book, albeit for older readers?
I am a bit of an unconventional thinker in this regard. I can’t follow the rules of length and structure when it comes to visual storytelling. That’s why many of my illustrated books are crossovers between picture books and graphic novels. To me, when I know the story I want to tell, it finds its form, naturally.
7. As an established artist, what is your opinion of the popular phrase “art for art’s sake”?
I am an advocate of “art for change”, more precisely a positive change. I strongly believe (which is also the genesis of ArtsPositive) that art (of any form) has the ability to create a climate in which change is possible to happen. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow. But eventually it will.
8. Graphic novels have become popular worldwide. Mostly the trend seems to be tell personal stories or memoirs or a lot of fantasy. To create a novel for social activism is still unusual though it is happening more and more. What do you hope to achieve with Nadya?
I admire those books (graphic novels) that I can read several times, because it’s not about the length of the book, instead it is the depth that intrigues me to re-visit it more and more. Books that help start a conversation. A conversation with yourself or with someone else. I want Nadya to be that conversation starter.
9. Although it is early days as yet, what has been the reception to Nadya, especially from adolescent readers?
The book is releasing in India on 30th September and I can’t wait to see what young adults have to say. Before that we had a soft launch in Singapore during the 10th Asian Festival of Children’s Content, where Nadya received a very warm welcome. All festival copies were sold out but my biggest reward was when I met this young artist from Indonesia, who told me that he could see himself in little Nadya. His parents separated when he was very young. I also met a teacher, who said that he is going through a divorce and would appreciate if I could speak to his children with this book. His eyes moistened when he was speaking to me.
10. Who are the artists and graphic novelists you admire?
That’s a long list! But surely the work of Marjane Satrapi, Paco Roca, Riad Sattouf, and Shaun Tan inspire me a lot. The way they present complex subjects with simplicity, is genius!
11. What motivated you to establish your NGO, ArtsPositive? What are the kind of projects you undertake and the impact you wish to make?
About a decade ago,
when I started my journey as an artist / art-for-change advocate, there was not
much awareness about this concept. It was a very lonely journey for me, helping
people understand what I do and what I aspire to do. So when I had the
opportunity to start an initiative, I decided to develop ArtsPositive to
contribute to the art-for-change ecosystem by supporting artists who create
At ArtsPositive, we
create in-house art-for-change campaigns such as #MoreThanSkinDeep* (the most recent campaign). We have also launched a quarterly ArtsPositive
digital magazine to showcase art-for-change projects and enablers from around the
world, collaborate with artists, and share artistic opportunities.
* More Than Skin Deep is an illustrated poetry campaign by poet, Claire Rosslyn Wilson and
artist, Debasmita Dasgupta, through which we are amplifying the voice of
fifteen fearless acid attack survivors (from 13 countries), who are much more
than their scars.
It has to be the oddest concatenation of events that when the abrogation of Article 370 was announced by the Indian Government on 5 August, I was immersed in reading Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys and Mirza Waheed’s Tell Her Everything. Two mind-blowing powerful novels that are only possible to read when the mental bandwith permits it. Colson Whitehead’s novel is as darkly horrific as it imagines the time in a reform school when racial segregation was openly practised. It is extremely disturbing to read it Mirza Waheed’s novel is an attempt by the narrator to communicate to his daughter about his past as a doctor and why he chose to look the other way while executing orders of the powers that be. Orders that were horrific for it required the narrator surgical expertise to amputate the limbs of people who had been deemed criminals by the state. Tell Her Everything is a seemingly earnest attempt by the narrator to convince his estranged daughter that what he did was in their best interests, for a better life, a better pay, anything as long as his beloved daughter did not have to face the same straitened circumstances that he was all too familiar with while growing up. It is the horror of the justification of an inhuman and cruel act by the surgeon that lingers well after the book is closed. Such savage atrocities are not unheard of and sadly continue to be in vogue. And then I picked up Serena Katt’s debut graphic novel Sunday’s Child which tries to imagines her grandfather’s life as a part of Hitler’s Youth. She also questions his perspective and the narrative is offered in the form of a dialogue. She refers to the “chain hounds” who hunted, and executed, deserters. Something not dissimilar to the incidents documented in The Nickel Boys too.
Then this month’s issue of National Geographic magazine arrived. It’s cover story is on migration and migration called “World on the Move”. In it the writer Mohsin Hamid has an essay, “In the 21st century, we are all migrants“. We are told not only that movement through geographies can be stopped but that movement through time can be too, that we can return to the past, to a better past, when our country, our race, our religion was truly great. All we must accept is division. The division of humanity into natives and migrants. … It is the central challenge and opportunity every migrant offers us: to see in him, in her, the reality of ourselves.”
To top it I read Michael Morpurgo’s Shadow. It is about the friendship of two fourteen-year-olds, Matt and an Afghan refugee, Aman. Shadow is the bomb sniffer dog who adopted Aman as he and his mum fled Bamiyan in Afghanistan from the clutches of the Taliban. The mother-son pair moved to UK but six years after being based there were being forcibly deported back to Afghanistan despite saying how dangerous their homeland continued to be. Shadow, a young adult novel, is set in a detention camp called Yarl’s Wood, Bedfordshire, UK. While terrifying to read, Morpurgo does end as happens with his novels, with a ray of hope for the young reader. Unfortunately reality is very different. So while helping tiddlers connecting the dots with reality is a sobering exercise for them, it can be quite an emotional roller coaster for the adults.
In an attempt to look the other way, I read a delightful chapter book called Tiny Geniuses : Set the Stage! by Megan E. Bryant. It is about these historical figures who are resurrected into present day as mini figures by a couple of school boys. In this particular book, the two figures wished for are Benjamin Franklin and Ella Fitzgerald. It can make for some amusing moments as the school boys try and complete their school projects. A delightful concept that is being created as an open-ended series arc. It did help alleviate one’s gloomy mood a trifle but only just.
Read this literature with a strong will, patient determination and a strong stomach. Otherwise read the daily papers. For once you will find that the worlds of reality and fiction collide.
http://bit.ly/30ijzI1 Scholastic India’s forthcoming release in September 2019 includes Nadya by Debasmita Dasgupta. It is an absolute must read. It is stupendously breathtaking.
As Orijit Sen affirms ‘Nadya takes us deep into the heart and mind of an adolescent girl as she negotiates her way through love, heartbreak and pain before finding renewal. The stunning artwork—with its rich landscapes, quiet but glowing colours and sensitively portrayed characters—makes the turning of each page an act of revelation. The beauty and power of graphic storytelling at its best!’
Ashok Kumar Banker began writing stories at the age of nine. He is the author of over seventy books, including the internationally acclaimed Ramayana Series and the recent Burnt Empire Series which is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in USA and in the sub-continent by Simon and Schuster India. Ashok Banker’s works have all been bestsellers in India, and have been published around the world. He lives in Los Angeles and Mumbai. He has returned to the genre with which he first made his publishing debut – children’s fiction – with his first chapter book series released by Scholastic India. It is called the Secret School Mysteries. The first story called The Invisible Spy was released in July 2019. The second story in the series arc is called Aliens Ate My Homework! It is slated for release in early 2020.
The Invisible Spyis a far cry from your mythological stories that you are better known for. So why venture into children’s publishing? Also why did you choose to tell a school story and not retellings of mythology?
actually the other way around. I started my career as a children’s book author
and only ventured into mythology much later. As the headnote above says, I
began writing at the age of 9. Now, that may seem like childish scribbles, but
that’s when I became serious about writing as a vocation. I started my first
novel at that age. It would be considered a children’s book today and was
several times the length of The Invisible
Spy. I never completed it because it was too ambitious and I had bitten off
more than I could chew. It was titled Childworld
and was about a plane full of children that crash on an island and learn that
all the adults in the world have mysteriously died of an unknown virus, and
only the children are left alive. I was reading my way through the classics at
the time and William Golding’s Lord of
the Flies was a powerful influence. Today, looking back across the distance
of five decades I would describe it as Lord
of the Flies meets Lost meets The Stand.
finished Childworld but I continued
writing stories (and poems and essays and novels) at feverish speed, filling
dozens of ledger books with small cramped handwriting. (Ledger books were the
biggest blank notebooks I could find, and I wrote small to make maximum use of
the space.) I was recently contacted by an old neighbour from that time,
Bianca, who now lives in Canada, and she told me that she remembered me sitting
at the dining table in my grandmother’s house filling page after page,
completely intent on the task. That was when I was ten. Almost five decades
later, I’m still writing.
I wrote at
least one book-length work every single year from the age of nine, several
books – and stories, poems, songs, essays, scripts – and the vast majority of
them were what would be classified as children’s books. I didn’t work up the
confidence to actually start sending them out to publishers till I was 15, at
which point, I would carry the manuscript of my science fiction YA trilogy (The Man Machine, The Ultimatum, The Last of
the Robots) to publisher’s offices in Mumbai, in the hope of getting
someone to read my work.
I was a
published poet by that time – I published a lot of poetry in my teen years, in
journals ranging from Jayanta Mahapatra’s Chandrabhaga
in Bhubhaneswarto Menke Katz’s Bitterroot in New York, was interviewed on AIR and other
outlets. When I was around 19, Doordarshan Mumbai even did a half hour
interview-based feature showcasing my work as one of the youngest emerging
poets in the country. I was published at the age of 14 and was a regular
contributor to the children’s section of almost every newspaper and magazine
that would take my work, from Illustrated Weekly to Evening News, The
Afternoon, Free Press Journal, JS, and I don’t even remember all the other
names now. I also self-published my first book of poems Ashes in the Dust of Time and it was selected to represent Young India at the World Book Fair in
Paris, France, that year. There’s probably copies of it in the National
Archive, Asiatic Society, and elsewhere. I had some wonderfully encouraging
rejection letters from TLS, The Atlantic Review, and New Yorker. (I also never
stopped writing poetry, by the way, and am planning to start sending out some
of my more recent works to literary journals here in the US soon.)
coming back to my children’s books. I found the addresses of Indian publishers
and wrote to them. The first and only one to reply was Zamir Ansari of Penguin
Books India. It was basically just a distribution office back then and I think
he was the only employee. He was kind enough to meet me on a trip to Mumbai and
was the first, and one of the kindest, people I ever met in Indian publishing.
You can imagine a teenager in school uniform (I would take off my school tie
and my Headboy badges in the hope that I would look older than my age, which I
did – I looked mature enough to be allowed into The Exorcist when I was 13), sitting in the coffee shop of The
Oberoi with this elderly gentleman, discussing publishing. I had done my
homework, spending hours in the USIS and British Council Library, reading every
book on publishing, every copy of Bookseller
and he must have been impressed by me. He didn’t read my manuscript but he
gave me some insights into Indian publishing.
persevered, still writing at least one children’s book and one novel every
year, and eventually in my 20s, I finally got accepted by a small imprint
called Better Yourself Books. It was the children’s imprint of the Daughters of
St. Paul, also known as the Pauline Sisters, and my editor was a wonderful nun
named Sister Nivedita. She offered me a small advance and they published what
was my first fiction book, Amazing
Adventure at Chotta Sheher. It sold over 10,000 copies, which in the 1990s
was a huge number, and went in for reprints. I received royalties from it which
was more than I ever expected.
adapted it to a feature film and it won a prize for the Best Children’s Film
Script from the CFSI (Children’s Film Society of India). I was invited to a meeting
with the jury, headed by chairperson Shabana Azmi, and I earned even more money
for the adaptation rights. (I was already working in advertising as a
copywriter, quite successfully, and writing scripts for some of the earliest TV
shows such as Saanp Seedi and
docudramas, winning a number of awards in both advertising and scriptwriting
and making a decent living.) The film never did get made but it was such a
zany, fun book that I wish I had a copy to see if it holds up even today.
(One of my
quirks is that I never keep copies of my own books, I give them all away. I
always believe that I can write much better and keeping my work around seems
like an exercise in vanity. I also give away the books I buy to read, since I
believe books should be passed on, not hoarded.)
time, Penguin had started local publishing headed by David Davidar, and he
published another children’s book by me under the Puffin India imprint. It was
titled The Missing Parents Mystery and
while it was just as much fun as my earlier book, they simply couldn’t sell any
of their titles in the market. I began my career as a children’s book author,
and the mythological books, while great fun to write, comprise only about a
small part of my total output as a writer. So, in a sense, I never really
stopped writing children’s books.
Then I met
my editor at Pan Macmillan India, Sushmita Chatterjee. Later Sushmita joined
Scholastic who then commissioned a chapter book series — the Secret School Mysteries. The first three
titles are The Invisible Spy, Aliens Ate
My Homework, and The Haunted Centre.
some unknown reason, the dam seems to have broken.
picture books coming out from Lantana Publishing (I Am Brown, illustrated by the amazing Sandhya Prabhat) coming in
March 2020, Tiny Tiger to be
illustrated by Sandhya’s sister Chhaya Prabhat coming in late 2020, a baby book
series called Superzeroes illustrated
by Abhijeet Kini coming in late 2020/early 2021, graphic novel adaptations of
my Ramayana Series from Campfire Graphic Novels starting with Prince of Ayodhya coming in September
2019, a graphic novel YA series on Shiva starting with The Legend of Rudra coming in October 2019, a YA graphic novel on
the Gita in early 2020, an adventure series featuring an SC/ST protagonist
called Bhumia Adventures from Tulika,
a YA version of the Ramayana from Speaking Tiger, an original middle grade
fantasy adventure series starting with Pax
Gandhi, Sorceror Supreme, also from Speaking Tiger, and much much more. And
those are only my children’s books, of course.
And I’m only
getting started. As you can see, I have a lot of lost years to make up for!
Besides, I LOVE writing and few books
give me as much pleasure as a zany, fun children’s story. So expect many more.
2. What is your writing routine? How many words can you get done in a day?
Oh, I don’t
write every day. In fact, I don’t write most days. I never have a word target. You
see, I have a problem of too much focus. I’m the kind of person who could write
in a war zone. (I speak from experience, having written an entire book while
reporting from Kargil in 1999 for Sunday Mid-Day and Rediff.com.) I have to be
careful not to let myself get sucked into writing otherwise you would find me
someday, with a miles long beard, filling my 100th Terabyte sized
hard disk! I spend most of my reading, day dreaming, exercising, with my
family. My wife and I take care of our grand-daughter Leia most days of the
week, and she loves to read too. I take a very long time to live with a book
and story before setting fingers to keypad, so when I do sit to write, it comes
out fully formed. When you read a book or story by me, you are reading the
result of several decades of gestation and several hours of actual writing.
I’ll talk more about this when answering your other questions below.
3. You are a phenomenally well-read and an eclectic reader. So do you have a reading routine? What format do you prefer reading — print or digital (eBooks/audio)? In fact, any tips on what makes an individual a reader?
It’s kind of
you to say so. I read for pleasure, and am lucky (as well as unlucky) that I
have such variegated reading interests. I think I actually read about 50 books
a month, but that doesn’t include old favourites I dip into now and then, books
I reference for my work, and books I start but don’t care to finish. It
includes children’s books, which I love because they’re pure story vehicles. I
prefer to read in print, hardcover ideally. (Thanks to the incredible library
system here in the US, I’m able to indulge my love for reading like never
before, ordering as many new hardcovers as I wish, all free. It’s a miracle!)
But I also love to listen to audiobooks – also available here free through the
library apps. I listen to audiobooks in the morning, while checking my email,
cooking my breakfast, eating, and before I sit down to work. Later in the day,
I’ll read a print book. And that doesn’t include the picture books I read with
Speaking for myself, I think growing up in a house full of books (my mother, grandmother, and grandfather were all avid readers) makes a huge difference. Books and reading are like blood and oxygen. You can’t get one without the other. Even as a parent, I was the first one in the house to get hooked on Harry Potter, Twilight, The Hunger Games, you name it. I would buy those books, read them and leave them for my children to discover. They would ignore them or pass them off as “Dad’s latest obsession” until suddenly one day, years later, all their friends were talking about the book and they would come to me and say “Dad, where’s that Harry Potter book?” I was one of the first people in India to register for an internet account and I spent almost all my time (and still do) browsing for books! I think it’s something in your blood.
Leia, as you can see, is fascinated by all my bookshelves and by seeing me reading all the time. But she loves looking at books and being read to, and I have no doubt that she will grow up with books as part of her eco-system. It also helps that almost all my children’s books are dedicated to her!
4. This year is a first for you in many ways — many new book releases, spanning age groups and spanning continents. If the publications originate on different continents, does it inform your writing style, bearing in mind that you may be writing for slightly different sets of readers who perhaps different expectations?
Oh yes, it
changes completely. American editors have a completely different attitude. In
India, editors still consider a book to be the author’s work. Children’s book
authors here, by and large with a few famous exceptions, are essentially
delivering what’s acceptable to their editors.
instance, we have a wonderful boom in Indian’s children publishing right now,
with such amazing books such as the h0le series from Duckbill, books like A Firefly in the Dark by Shazaf Fatima
Haider, Calling Muskaan by Himanjali Sarkar,
Jwala Kumar and the Gift of Fire by
Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar, Amra and the
Witch by Arefa Tehsin, The Hidden
Children by Reshma Barshikar, to name just a few.
all incredible, amazing books. In the US. I’m incredibly lucky to have found a
great editor in John Joseph Adams, and publisher in Bruce Nichols. Having said
that, as I said, I’ve had a little luck and somehow managed to slip one through
the cracks. The critical and reader response is wonderful and universally
laudatory. The book is doing well and I’m very happy with my editor and
5. How do you work upon a series arc? Does the plot take shape as you write it or do you create an outline beforehand?
daydream about it. Over time, it all coalesces in my head. It just comes
together somehow. I accumulate details, characters, writing styles, structure,
all in my mind, and one day, I feel the urge to sit down and “write a little”,
and it all comes out in a torrent, pretty much fully formed. It’s a gift from
an unknown place and I don’t question or analyse it. I simply accept it with
grace and piety.
6. Writing three different kinds of series arcs — chapter books, retelling of the Mahabharata and a yalit trilogy based on Indian mythology — must require a fair amount of mental agility. How do you keep track of all the story plots? Do you make extensive notes?
I read. At
some point, a story comes along. It’s all somewhere in my head. I generally
have several dozen going at the same time, and I have no idea how I keep track
of them all. I just do. No notebooks, no computer files full of notes, no
assistants, secretaries, nothing. Just me and my laptop. Sometimes I write.
Mostly, I read. Always, I dream.
7. Has dividing your time living in Mumbai and Los Angeles changed your perspective on writing or is context immaterial to your writing?
America makes it easier to see India in a different perspective. I’m finally
approaching the completion of a literary novel set in Mumbai which I first
started almost 40 years ago. It’s called The
Pasha of Pedder Road and is one of those mammoth realistic literary novels
that I aspired to write as a young author, but never had the life-experience to
attempt. Ironically, or perhaps fittingly, I had to leave Mumbai (where I was
born, grew up and lived for 51 years) before I could write about Mumbai again.
On the other hand, I no longer feel the slightest bit interested in writing
about the US.
8. How/ where do you find ideas for your stories?
Oh, I could
never find them. They always find me. I believe there’s a Human Directory
that’s secretly handed around by the Story community. My name must feature
right at the top, since my first and last names are A and B. So they constantly
come calling, at all hours of the day. I often have to pretend I’m not home,
otherwise I’d never get any sleep or rest!
9. How did you come up with these five delightful characters — Google baba Peter, gamer Sania, identical twins Usha & Asha, and aspiring scientist Arun? When creating characters, do you work on their backstory or is it sufficient to see them develop as the story moves ahead? (I am always curious whether the character comes first or the plot or is it a bit of both and then it evolves.)
question. I wish I had the answer. As I said, I simply write the whole thing.
All fully formed. More or less the way you read it. When I hold a copy of one
of my books in my hand, I read it and it’s all just as new to me as it is to
you. I remember these words passing from my mind to the screen, but have no
clue how they came to be there. As Erica Jong once wrote: “We write as leaves
breathe: to live.” I simply breathe, and the air comes out as perfectly shaped
stories, characters and all.
10. It is early days as yet but do you have any idea what is the response, particularly amongst children, to Invisible Spy?
first book ever to receive five star reviews, and to be loved by everyone who
reads it. The response is overwhelming. I think for the first time in my 72-book
career I have a book that’s universally loved. It is a wonderful feeling!
11. Who are the writers you admire and may have influenced your writing as well?
every few days. I read so much, it’s like pointing to one fish in the ocean and
say, that one. It’s gone almost instantly, and then there’s another, and
another. Hundreds. Thousands even. More than writers, it’s individual books.
Often, I pick up a book at random in a library and if I like the first page, I
keep reading. I may not even look at the title or author name until much later.
I’ve often thought I would prefer that my books be published without my name
mentioned anywhere. After all, all art is ultimately a collective creative
experience. It takes a village to create a story. A writer merely jots it down.
12. Do you have any all-time favourite stories? Does this list change over time?
Too many to
count or name. Ever changing, ever expanding list. A monster with a bottomless
appetite, that’s me as a reader! As a young kid, I used to read my way through
entire circulating libraries. I can devour whole series like guzzling water. Books
are life to me.
Siddhartha Sarma is a journalist, writer and historian. He has covered insurgency, crime and law in the Northeast and other parts of the country and written for newspapers and magazines as an investigative journalist. His debut novel, The Grasshopper’s Run (Scholastic India, 2009), received the Sahitya Akademi Award for children’s literature in English in 2011 and the Crossword Book Award in 2010. His second novel, Year of the Weeds (Duckbill, 2018) is based on the land rights agitation in the Niyamgiri Hills of Odisha. His latest published work, Carpenters and Kings (Penguin Random House India, 2019) is a history of Western Christianity in India.
Why and how did you get into writing? Where do you find your stories? How long does it take from inception to completion?
A.: When I was seven, my school
was bringing out a commemorative magazine to celebrate an anniversary. I was
told anybody could contribute anything they liked for it, so I wrote an
approximately 400-word story based on real events. A bit of a tragedy. They
printed the story with no edits on the first page, with my name on it. But what
I remember now and in the intervening years is not the feeling of seeing my
name in print, or of reading my story in printed form, but the joy of writing
it, the process of slowly putting things together in my head and of banging it
out, over several hours, on my father’s old typewriter, literally sitting on
his desk because I was too short to type from the chair. The fear of making a
typo (which is such a frustrating experience on a typewriter, unlike on a
computer where a typing error is merely an inconvenience). I have found no
greater joy in life than in the process of writing a story, of entering or
discovering a world, and of narrating it for myself and for any reader I might
find. That is how I began writing, and what I still try to do.
I began my career in journalism as a
reporter. It is a much-repeated saying in the newsroom that a good reporter
never runs out of story ideas. I have never had a problem thinking up story
ideas. The problem is deciding which are worth taking up. One does not have
this luxury of choice as a reporter, but a writer has to be very selective
about which idea she will devote her time and energies to. If my time as a
journalist has helped me as a writer in any manner, it is in two: I can be
objective in deciding which stories to write and which to shelve, temporarily
or permanently. And second: I can be objective in editing my own work. One of
the criteria I have for deciding on a story is whether I have the competence to
write it. There are many genres that I have a bit of an interest in, but I know
I might not be able to execute a story in them very well. Such as fantasy or
The complete arc from story idea to research to writing and editing and the final draft depends on the length of the work, its complexity, scope of research and treatment. My first novel, The Grasshopper’s Run, took me a year and half to research and seven months to write. My newest non-fiction book, Carpenters and Kings: Western Christianity and the Idea of India took up nine years of research and eight months of writing. So it varies. But I do seem to spend more time thinking about a story than in actually writing it.
2. Is it only the long form of a novel that appeals to you? Would you ever consider other structures such as short stories or a series arc?
A.: My first work published in a book was a short story, in a humour anthology by Scholastic. Some other commissioned short stories have also been published. But, yes, I find the novel’s longer form more suitable for the kind of stories I have to tell. I have not yet thought of a series of books, although I can’t rule it out in the future. A standalone novel, however, suits the way I want to tell a story for one major reason. While working on a story, I spend a lot of time building the narrative arcs of individual characters. I go back in time, and also forward, into their futures. I create their backgrounds and populate it with other characters and circumstances. Most of these never get written in the final novel, but they do exist. So for me writing a novel is like baking a whole cake and cutting out just a slice of it for publishing. Or creating a tapestry and (again) cutting a slice of it. A short story might give me a much smaller, possibly unsatisfactory slice, while a series might need tough decisions about how many slices to make, or from which part of the cake or tapestry. So far, novels have worked for me.
3. How much research do you delve into before you begin writing a book? How do you organise your notes? What is your writing routine?
A.: Researching for a book is among the
most interesting parts of the writing process for me. Over time, I think I have
become a bit more organized in my methodology. The Grasshopper’s Run caused me a lot of anxiety during the
research process because I was not accounting for the volume of material I
would end up having. For instance, I asked my sources for visual material to
base my description of events and topography on, from the China-Burma-India
theatre of World War II. I asked for un-curated photographs. I received some
1,800 photos, and most were directly relevant to my research. I had to sift
through about 6,000 pages of correspondence and records from that theatre. For Carpenters and Kings, I examined 46
medieval and ancient manuscripts and translated seven of them from Latin
because the previous translations were themselves dated. So gathering material
is not a problem, particularly in these times. The more difficult part is
knowing when to stop researching, or learning to leave out the peripheral or
marginally relevant. Otherwise every book becomes a doctoral thesis.
I begin with a basic idea about the
plot, in case of non-fiction the general outline of my argument. The notes I
take from my research are based on their direct relation to this bare plot or
argument. The most directly connected bits of evidence or material gets the
highest weightage. Additionally, for fiction, any bit of non-fictional material
which can help flesh out a character’s story arc or background (that part of
the background which will get written rather than get left on the cutting room
floor) also gets priority.
I have no particular routine. My best time is late in the night, but the slow cooking that happens before the physical act of writing can happen at any other time during the day.
4. How did you decide to write historical fiction set in Nagaland during the Japanese invasion in WWII? And why write it for young adults?
A.: I wanted to base my first novel in the Northeast, as a mark of respect for my homeland. I thought a coming-of-age story during a conflict might work, because I had been asked to write a young adult novel by Sayoni Basu, then editor of Scholastic India. I did not want to base the story during any of the region’s numerous insurgencies, although I have covered them, because the political aspects of those insurgencies were too complex for a novel of the size I had in mind. That left the 1962 war and WWII. The actual fighting in 1962 took place in rather remote places where the human interest aspect did not play out much. WWII was, for my purposes, more suitable.
5. Did winning the 2011 Sahitya Akademi Bal Puraskar and the 2010 Crossword Award for Best Children’s Book for your debut novel The Grasshopper’s Run apart from pleasantly surprising you also put undue pressure on you to excel with your next book?
A.: ‘Pleasant surprise’ is very
appropriate. I was surprised and gratified that readers and people who know a
lot about children’s and YA literature liked the novel. It was very
encouraging, and I met some noted writers afterwards and received valuable
advice on writing from them. It was a very pleasant experience.
There has been no pressure. I have always been fortunate in the publishers and editors I have worked with. I just try to work on each story on its own merits, and don’t think much about expectations. The only expectation I have from myself is to write, at each stage, a better story than I have written before. If that happens, I am content. Ultimately, I have to write stories that I would like to read, and re-read.
6. Your second young adult novel, Year of the Weeds, is written nearly a decade later. The plot of the novel is reminiscent of the Niyamgiri movement of the Dongria Kondh Adivasis in Odisha who fought mining company Vedanta’s attempts to exploit their land and emerged victorious. How do you achieve this fine balance between journalistic writing and creating fiction for young adult readers?
of the Weeds is indeed based on the Niyamgiri movement and was inspired by
it, although the novel ended up containing elements from other similar peoples’
movements, while the workings of the government and companies is based on what
I have seen across the country as a reporter. I follow peoples’ movements and
Niyamgiri was inspirational and unexpected, so I wanted to commemorate it, even
though I suspect it was just a provisional victory. While writing it, I was
conscious that my treatment had to be that of a YA novel. However, I have also
tried to include in it ideas and insights I have had as a journalist covering
different aspects of India, such as how most Indians in the hinterland live,
how the government interacts and often exploits or victimizes them, and what
the true face of development is in these parts of the country. So, while it
remained a YA novel throughout, with the frame of reference being mostly that
of the two YA protagonists Korok and Anchita, I also tried to make sure these
insights and ideas were properly written into the plot.
Around the time that I began researching for The Grasshopper’s Run, I realised I could not continue as a reporter and simultaneously as a writer of fiction and non-fiction. I was increasingly not content with the limitations (as I saw it) of a reporter, at least in terms of autonomy. I wanted to tell stories which could not be accommodated within my work as a reporter. So I shifted to the desk and have worked as an editor ever since, while writing books. I chose writing at the expense of reporting. I have not regretted it.
7. You have an enthusiastic passion for the Crusades and yet your first narrative nonfiction was Carpenters and Kings: Western Christianity and the Idea of India. Why?
A.: I have studied the Crusades, and my
thesis for an M Litt degree was on strategy during the Later Crusades. I find
the Crusades very significant in understanding world history in general and
European history in particular, because those conflicts sit at the centre of a
wide range of connected events, including the Renaissance, the Reformation and
the Age of Exploration.
There is a number of good, accessible and recent works on the Crusades by scholars from the West, so I did not intend to write a work of my own, which would not have made any significant contribution to the subject. However, something interesting happened during my research for the thesis, which was a study of three proposals for crusades by scholars in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries. One of these scholars, a Dominican monk, wanted to launch a crusade from India. My supervisor suggested that I could refer to a secondary source on what these Europeans were doing in India in the period before the Age of Exploration. We discovered that there was no work which explained the political history of Western Christianity in India in the pre-colonial period. In December 2017, I realized I had enough material for a book which dealt with this subject, so I wrote Carpenters and Kings. And yes, I did include a brief history of the Crusades in it, and one of the chapters is about the Dominican who wanted a crusade from India, because all these are connected events. What was the Dominican doing in India? Also, much later, what was Vasco da Gama doing here? The answer to both questions is the Crusades.
8. You write young adult literature, travelogues and non-fiction. This is a diverse range of genres. How did this happen?
A.: Each book happened in a specific context and for unique reasons. The Grasshopper’s Run was meant to be a YA novel. While researching it, I travelled in the Northeast and Myanmar, and afterwards wrote a series of emails describing my travels, which I sent to friends. These were read by a publisher, who asked me to expand them into a travelogue, from which East of the Sun (Tranquebar, 2010) happened. Meanwhile, I wrote two books for the popular 103 series by Scholastic, one on great travellers I admire and the other on historical mysteries. And then I wrote Year of the Weeds followed by Carpenters and Kings. I guess one reason why this is an eclectic mix is I follow a story to its natural place and write it accordingly. So we have a situation where, although history is what I am academically suited to writing about, Year of the Weeds is contemporary political fiction. I am comfortable with chasing a story wherever and to whichever genre it leads. I think the only concern for a writer should be whether the story is told well or not. Having said that, I am still learning, so if I discover that I should stick to specific genres, I shall do that.
9. Do the methodologies of research and writing for young adult literature and narrative nonfiction vary?
A.: It is possible that some researchers
might have different research methodologies depending on what genre they are
planning to write in. I do not have different methodologies. I choose a
subject, start reading about it, examine primary and secondary sources, select
those sources which are suitable for the story I have in mind, and then sift
through the material I obtain.
There are certainly differences in writing YA fiction and narrative nonfiction for general readers, including tone, scope, complexity of ideas, presentation of this complexity. In some ways, like channelling all the research into suitable concepts, narrative nonfiction is more challenging. In several other ways, like writing in a manner which holds the reader’s attention, and creating believable characters and plots, YA literature has its own set of challenges. Both are very rewarding genres to write in.
10. What are the kinds of books you like to read? Any favourites?
A.: I have followed several genres over the years, although now because of demands on my time I have to limit myself to those genres which I have consistently read. Of these, apart from literary fiction, I seem to have read crime and espionage fiction fairly consistently. Fantasy, which I was reading a lot of till some years ago, seems to have dropped off. I do not know if this is a temporary phase.
11. Who are the writers you admire and may have influenced you?
A.: These are among the writers I have liked almost consistently. In literary fiction: Peter Carey, JM Coetzee, Saul Bellow, John Updike, Ernest Hemingway, Graham Greene, Nelson Algren, John Steinbeck. In crime: Dashiell Hammett, Chester Himes, Henning Mankell, Elmore Leonard, PD James, Janwillem van de Wetering. In espionage: John le Carre, John Buchan, Len Deighton.
12. What next?
A.: Perhaps a dark story. One of the problems with India after 2014 has been we have been affected by the doings of the ideology and the people in power on a daily, personal level. On a daily, personal level, one finds it increasingly difficult to feel joy in most things, or to happily coast along choosing stories to read or tell at a leisurely, whimsical pace. I would have liked to write a story I was working on in 2013, but that will have to wait for some time. At the moment, we need stories that deal with or are related to the situation we have in India, or which go some way towards explaining things. We can’t ignore that. So, perhaps something dark, something angry.
Book Post 40 includes some of the titles received in the past few weeks. Wherever available Amazon’s Kindle widget has been embedded in the blog post. It will allow you to browse through the book before you decide to buy it.