young adult literature Posts

Interview with Siddhartha Sarma: “I have found no greater joy in life than in the process of writing a story”

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.

  1. 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 science fiction.

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?

A.: Year 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.

17 August 2019

Book Post 40: 23 June – 5 July 2019

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.

6 July 2019

Saikat Majumdar’s “The Scent of God”

Academic and writer Saikat Majumdar’s novel The Scent of God  is set in an elite all-boy’s boarding school run by a Hindu monastic order in late-twentieth century India. On the surface of it, it is seemingly a strictly run institution where discipline matters. Academic excellence is combined with the spiritual learnings that are to be learned every day so as to ensure the students are exemplary exam warriors. Yet despite these strict rhythms to the day the students will have their moments of challenging authority or testing limits. The opening pages of the novel focuses on the eleven-year-olds Anirvan and Kajol. And it is from there the plot begins. Read an excerpt Outlook magazine published in January 2019.

Saikat Majumdar’s previous novel Firebird was absolutely amazing to read. It was sharp and used words sparingly. It was a fine example of craftsmanship. Unfortunately The Scent of God does not live up to the expectations one has of Saikat Majumdar’s fiction. Though the premise of writing a same sex novel is a great idea but fictional landscapes also need to be cautious in how these characters are portrayed. Despite the apparent sensitivity with which the author tackles the plot in The Scent of God, it is the lack of literary awareness about the spunk and boldness in contemporary queer adolescent fiction that strikes a jarring note. It is apparent not only in the very adult-like conversations that the eleven year olds engage in but also their explorations of gauging their attraction for each other. There is a tentativeness in the prose that is usually missing in the current crop of young adult fiction. Perhaps The Scent of God is meant for the adult trade market but a little understanding of the young adult literature market that is maturing rapidly in this particular genre would have helped enrich this novel. A truly tremendous imprint is Scholastic’s PUSH imprint that is being led by the impressive David Leviathan. Or this online discussion forum about yalit — I Read YA — that too has animated conversations about queer literature meant for adolescents.

Nevertheless The Scent of God will be regarded as a significant novel to emerge in contemporary Indian fiction for its attempts to tackle a gender sensitive issue and for its excellent timing. It has been published months after the Supreme Court ended Sec 377 thereby decriminalising homosexuality. While there is legal recognition the deep seated social prejudice towards the queer community continues to exist and this will take a long time to combat. So novels like The Scent of God will play an essential role in contributing to the discourse by addressing taboo subjects such as sexual freedoms in a rabid fundamentalist society and exploring how does an individual exercise their free will? The Scent of God will also remain in public view for its very catching cover. It is a bold design by Pinaki De and in all likelihood will be recognised with a listing at a book cover prize.

11 February 2019

French Ambassador Alexandre Ziegler explains: An interview with the ambassador about plans for translations of French literature into Indian languages and collaborations at books fairs.

I interviewed the French Ambassador to India, Alexandre Ziegler, at the Jaipur Literature Festival 2019. The interview has been published in the online news portal Scroll. The text of the interview has been c&p below while the original url is here.

What’s brewing between Indian and French publishing? French Ambassador Alexandre Ziegler explains
The Ambassador of France to India, Alexandre Ziegler at the Jaipur Literature Festival 2019.

Alexandre Ziegler, the French Ambassador to India, was at the Jaipur Literature Festival this year to announce the winner of the 2019 Romain Rolland Book Prize. Recognising the best translation of a French title into any Indian language, including English, the Indo-French jury takes into account the quality of the translation and the publication itself while selecting the winner.

The award comes with an invitation to the Paris Book Fair 2019 in March for the publisher of the work and an invitation for the translator to attend a one-month residency in France.

This year, the longlist included essays as well as fiction and a very strong contribution from Indian languages apart from English, with four translations into Malayalam, two into Hindi, and one each into Tamil and Bengali. The winning title was The Life of an Unknown Man by Andrei Makine, published in France by Le Seuil, in India by Kalachuvadu, translated into Tamil by SR Kichenamourty.

Publisher Kannan Sunadaran, Kalachuvadu. Jury member Chinmoy Guha with R. Cheran, poet.
Jury members Annie Montaud, Renuka George, Michèle Albaret

The Romain Rolland Book Prize is just one of the actions of the French Institute in India to support translations of French books in India. It runs the Tagore Publication Assistance Programme and also launched a special training programme for translators this year. The first step was a one-day translation workshop focused on Indian regional languages, which took place on January 22 at the Centre for French and Francophone Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, and brought together more than 60 participants from various universities in Delhi. Ros Schwartz, the acclaimed translator, conducted the workshop. The long-term translation programme is part of the roadmap leading up to, on the one hand, the Paris Book Fair 2020, where India will be the focus country, and on the other, the New Delhi Book Fair 2022, where France will be the guest of honour.

Ambassador Alexandre Ziegler and Jaya Bhattacharji Rose, Jaipur Literature Festival, Diggi Palace, 25 January 2019

Ziegler, who has been the Ambassador of France to India since 2016, spoke at the Jaipur Literature Festival about these initiatives. Edited excerpts:

Why was the Romain Rolland Prize instituted and what is its main focus? Does France have similar prizes in other countries too?
The Romain Rolland Book Prize is a translation prize that aims to support publishers and translators involved in the translation of French titles into Indian languages. The purpose is to find the best book and to be able to negotiate for it on best possible terms while also promoting texts in translation. My feeling is that we speak about strategic and economic partnerships, of which both are growing well but we still have to invest more in culture.

In this age of machine translations, we often forget the human touch of a translator is critical. Translators are at the very core of the relationship between books and the world. What we have realised through our interventions is that it is not just texts in English and Hindi but we got very good texts from other languages like Bengali, Marathi, Tamil and Malayalam, too. It makes one realise that languages are very crucial to reaching out to other cultures, not necessarily in entire diversity of language. This is very reassuring for us.

The second Romain Rolland Book Prize is being awarded because of the quality of text. Creating the prize happened organically through the ongoing Tagore programme to recognise translations. We wanted to reinforce the initiative. As a result we are also co-organising a translations workshop with the Jawaharlal Nehru University. The first one happened in January with acclaimed translator Ros Schwartz.

France has an active book trade, bookstores and book fairs. How receptive are the French to literature from India? Recently you released Over & Underground, a joint production between French and Indian writers and illustrators. How successful are such literary experiments? Does the cross-pollination of such cultural experiences help foster bilateral relationships, not necessarily confined to the literary domain?
Translation of the work of Indian authors in France has experienced several waves. Today there is a renewed interest among the French public for Indian authors. The dynamism of Indian publishing, its diversity and India’s international outreach have created a new curiosity for India and its authors and thinkers. The example of Over & Underground shows the combination of creativity between Indian and French authors, poets and illustrators. These co-publications need to be further encouraged and that is what we are working on.

Cross pollination of cultural experiences is exactly what we strive for to strengthen the ties between India and France. Books and other expressions of cultural diplomacy are a significant part of fostering bilateral relations.

What is the size of the French book market ? What are its characteristic features such as which genre sells the most, are print books preferred to ebooks, what is its growth rate etc? Is digital publishing making inroads with French readers?
The French publishing market is worth 4 billion euros, 300 million of which is in e-books. Overall, the French reader prefers printed books but there is a real growth in e-books. For consumer books, it represents only 3% of the market but for the B2B and books on law or medicine, this market reaches 9% with an annual growth of 10%. The e-book is also directly linked to the presence or absence of bookstores. E-books sell better where bookstores are not available.

The time of traditional reading has decreased but a recent survey conducted in November 2018 shows that 69% of the French population is connected: they read online but not necessarily literature! Each day, the French spend an average of 33 minutes on a computer and 52 minutes on a mobile phone. Reading is therefore omnipresent on other platforms but basically there is an attachment to the printed book in France: an average 5000 copies are printed but real successes vary between 200,000 and 300,000 copies. This is the case of [Michel] Houellebecq’s latest book, which will reach 400,000 copies. The trend is also to publish more titles each year. The number of prints is hence lower today than it was ten years ago.

France is known for its robust independent booksellers. Globally independent bookstores are finding it difficult to thrive but not necessarily in France. It is a remarkable success story. Do you have any interesting case study/report to share about how these independent bookstores have managed to continue?
There are about 1,000 independent bookstores in France. All those located in city centres are working well with an annual growth rate of 0.8%. This is a stable figure. Since 1981, the single price of the book has also allowed these bookstores to diversify. 37 countries, including 11 European countries, are currently applying the single price on books.

Recently the French Book Office (FBO) participated in the New Delhi World Book Fair (NDWBF). What was the response from the locals to your participation? Did the FBO gain significant learnings from its presence at the fair? 
The French Institute in India invited four publishers of children’s literature and social sciences, and organised four professional panels. The exchanges between Indian and French publishers were very constructive but the NDWBF is not the ideal place for professional meetings. On the other hand, the invitation of a French author whose work has been translated in India and invited for a dialogue with an Indian author would allow exchanges with a wider audience. But our four publishers were very satisfied with their discovery of the Indian market and the prospects for collaboration in social sciences and children’s literature.

In 2003 I attended the Salon de livre Jeunesse at the invitation of the French government. It was extraordinary to see the throngs of children attending the book fair and buying books. I would be curious to know if the children’s book fair continues to be as popular. If so what are the kinds of books for children and young adults that are trending in France? Would you consider collaborating on projects for children’s and young adult literature with Indian publishers?
The Salon du livre et de la presse jeunesse in Montreuil attracts a large number of visitors each year. In 2018, for the 34th edition, there were no less than 179,000 visitors in 6 days, 4,000 more than in 2017. So I think we can say that children’s publishing is a booming sector in France. The dynamism of publishers and all those involved in books and reading contributes greatly to this success. Access to the fair was free for a good number of visitors and it is a real desire for cultural democratisation. As well as the multitude of actions that take place throughout the country and throughout the year around reading: meetings, workshops, debates, readings, competitions, prizes, etc.

Children’s literature in France is a market that knows how to renew itself, to question itself and, finally, to innovate. Thus, the early childhood segment develops real nuggets with sounds and materials to touch. The album is full of creativity with an incredible diversity of illustrators. The documentary is now close to coffee-table books by offering books that appeal to adults and children alike, whose aesthetics are so neat that it gives one pleasure to open and read them. As for fiction, from its first readings to “young adult” literature, publishers are increasingly perfecting their skills by offering books of high quality, covering all the themes that may interest young readers.

Would you consider instituting a prize similar to the Romain Rolland Book Prize for children’s literature as well?
We are in fact planning to consider children’s books as potential winners of the Romain Rolland Prize. This will be discussed in Jaipur with the jury members.

How well are translations of world literature received in France? How have you fostered and continue to manage a cross-pollination of literary traditions in France and India?
The French market is also influenced by Dan Brown and other Anglo-Saxon authors. But the phenomena of great success such as Elena Ferrante (Italian) or Arundhati Roy also shows that the French readership is open to world literature beyond Anglo-Saxons. This is why we believe that Indian authors have their rightful place in the French market.

Do you have any details that may be shared publicly of a road map planned for the 2020 Paris Book Fair where India is the guest of honour? What are the significant features of such an extraordinary event?
We are hoping to select many writers including children’s and young adult writers, across genres, as well as initiating new translations. We do not want only established writers to be invited to the festival. We would prefer to have a range of outreach programmes too. For instance, conferences, debates, collaborations with libraries, bookstores, universities etc.

What are the events planned at the 2020 Paris Book Fair? Anything exciting that the Indian publishers and readers should be aware of?
The Syndicat National de l’Edition and the National Book Trust have just signed the partnership agreement on 22 January 2019 for Livre Paris 2020. This book fair is a meeting place for the French public and Indian authors. We would like to organise panel discussions between French and Indian authors. For example we could have our two Nobel Prize winners in Economics enter into a dialogue. We also wish to encourage translation of Indian authors who have not yet been translated into French in order to introduce the French public to new young authors from all over the Indian Union. We also hope that this meeting will foster professional exchanges between Indian and French publishers. Several steps are planned. Pre-meetings in March 2019, a breakfast networking at Frankfurt between French and Indian publishers; invitation of French publishers to Jaipur 2020 and a professional training session on publishing that we would like to organise in India at the beginning of 2020. Not to mention the translation training programme that we recently launched with Jawaharlal Nehru University.

3 February 2019

Reading young adult literature

There is a tremendous spurt in middle grade novels and young adult literature. It is also a grey area as it is never clear what kind of stories may attract the young readers. Even so there is a great mix of storytellers and stories being published regularly. There is so much variety to choose from. Here is a selection:

Beginning with the seasoned writers like Paro Anand, Ranjit Lal and Subhadra Sen Gupta, all of whom have new books published. Well, Subhadra Sen Gupta’s is a reissue of one of her earliest collection of historical fiction short stories. It is a revival of her backlist that is very welcome. Painters, Potters, Cooks and Kings was first published nearly two decades ago but it remains one of my all time favourite collection of short stories. These stories with children as the protagonists are set in different periods of Indian history — King Ashoka, Emperor Akbar, King Krishna Deva Raya, Princess Jahanara and British India.

Paro Anand’s The Other is a path-breaking collection of short stories for young adults exploring critical issues like gender, sexual abuse, grief and loneliness and much, much more. It is a set of stories that even adults will do well to read. ( I wrote about it too and embedded a fantastic conversation between Paro Anand and Sunil Sethi too.)

Ranjit Lal is another very prolific writer for children. Over the years his storytelling has matured to magnificent levels. His child protagonists are always very well-defined and easy for the young readers to identify with as they are ordinary folks. His plots are of the familiar too. Even when his stories become sinister and dark, the scenarios are completely plausible as there is a logical progression from the point of the personal and known. Again spaces that are easy to recognise. This holds true for Adventures of Bozo & Chick: Terror at Bedlam House which is set in Mumbai. Teenagers Bozo and Chick, ably assisted by youngsters in the neighbourhood, try and solve the mystery of the masked strangers living in a more or less abandoned home. Mixed with generous doses of references to real life such as love jihad or terrorists attacking Mumbai using the sea-route make this novel unnerving but a gripping read.

And then there are two extraordinary middle grade novels by USA-based writers of Indian origin — Ahimsa and The Night Diary. Both novels deal brilliantly with the Indian freedom struggle. ( Read interviews with Supriya Kelkar and Veera Hiranandani.) 

Award-winning writer of adult fiction Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar’s first book for children Jwala Kumar and the Gift of Fire: Adventures in Champakbagh is a tremendous book. Friendships between magical creatures and little children, the implicit trust that binds them, always makes for a perfect story. Hansda has achieved it charmingly so in his own gem of this utterly fabulous Jwala Kumar.  A fun, fun book is Tommy Greenwald’s Crimebiters! It involves little children and a crime-fighting vampire dog. Need I say more? It is utterly delicious!

Three collections of short stories that are equally engaging are Grandpa Tales and Grandma Tales ( edited by Lalitha Iyer) and Flipped: Funny Stories/Scary Stories. The stories edited by Lalita Iyer are a great collection with the contributing authors mostly sharing stories that they heard from their grandparents. In the next edition of these anthologies it may be better if there was a wider selection of stories representing the diversity of India rather than focused on a handful of regions. Nevertheless these are two entertaining volumes. The third one is a curious book of flipped stories. So to read the scary stories you read the book one way and to read the funny stories you flip the book. The two stories that stand out in this volume are “Of Grave Importance” by Adithi Rao and “When I Was a Little Girl” by Shabnam Minwalla. 

But the new voice in children’s literature to be noticed is Cordis Paldano. A theatre professional who has also been trained in Tamil street theatre called Terukkutu, Cordis Paldano’s debut novel The Dwarf, The Girl and the Holy Goat is a stupendous book. It has an excellent sense of drama and timing. Being true to the elements of street theatre that thrives on incorporating elements into the performance of local socio-political developments, this book too is no different. It is a brave book. Cordis Paldano is the talented new kid on the block and worth following!

Given that the festival season is here. These books would make tremendous Diwali gift packs whether for reluctant or mature readers.

Happy reading!

30 October 2018 

To buy on Amazon India

Painters, Potters, Cooks and Kings

The Other 

Adventures of Bozo & Chick: Terror at Bedlam House

Ahimsa 

The Night Diary

Jwala Kumar and the Gift of Fire: Adventures in Champakbagh

Grandpa Tales

Grandma Tales

Flipped: Funny Stories/Scary Stories

The Dwarf, The Girl and the Holy Goat 

 

 

 

 

An interview with Veera Hiranandani about her middle grade novel, “The Night Diary”

I had been hearing about Veera Hiranandani’s middle grade novel The Night Diary for a while. It had been impossible to get hold of in India when lo and behold, PRH India announced it was releasing the Indian edition of the book. Fantastic news! I read an advance copy and loved the novel. There is such little literature available for children explaining the freedom movement through fiction, allowing for dramatisation of events without making it too hard to understand. Of late the desi writers based abroad who have begun to feel the crying need for the lack of such literature and presumably been told stories about the Indian freedom struggle have begun to write novels for the younger generations. Three writers, who happen to be women and are based in USA, have written middle grade fiction. Chitra Bannerji Divakurni, Supriya Kelkar and Veera Hiranandani. 

After reading The Night Diary, I emailed Veera Hiranandani. Here is a lightly edited version of her interview. 

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Veera Hiranandani is the author of The Night Diary, which was featured on NPR’s Weekend Edition and is a New York Times Editor’s Choice Pick, The Whole Story of Half a Girl (Yearling), which was named a Sydney Taylor Notable Book and a South Asian Book Award Finalist, and the chapter book series, Phoebe G. Green (Grosset & Dunlap). She earned her MFA in fiction writing at Sarah Lawrence College. A former book editor at Simon & Schuster, she now teaches creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College’s Writing Institute and is working on her next novel.

She adds “I was raised in a small town in Connecticut. Growing up wasn’t always easy. My mother is Jewish-American, my father is from a Hindu family in India, and I didn’t know any kids like me where I lived. But coming from two cultures and not always fitting in has probably made me a stronger person. I was also pretty shy, so I spent a lot of time quietly watching other people.

​Maybe I wouldn’t have become a writer if I wasn’t forced to look at the world a little differently. Food was another thing that helped me connect with both sides of my family. I consider Jewish matzo ball soup and Indian samosas my favorite comfort foods. I love eating, cooking, and reading books about food. Nothing helps bring people together better than sharing a good meal. When I was younger, sometimes I wished I was different, but now I wouldn’t change my experiences for the world.”

What inspired you to write The Night Diary?

My own father was nine when he had to leave his home during the Partition. I heard him and my aunts and uncles tell the story as I was growing up–that several weeks after India’s Independence, my father, his four brothers and sisters, and his mother decided to leave Pakistan and made it over the new border by train. My grandfather had to stay behind. He was a doctor in the Mirpur Khas city hospital and they didn’t want him to leave until they found a replacement, but a few weeks after, he decided to leave anyway because he was worried about his family.  They lost their home, their community, but they made it safely. As we know, many people did not. When I got older, I became more curious, did more research, and wondered why I never learned much about the Partition in school in the US, such a significant event in our global history. When I became a writer, I knew I wanted to shape a story around this time, but it took me a while before I felt confident enough to do so.

Having lived in USA all your life, how did your family keep the memories of the freedom movement and Independence alive?

I think it was only through my father’s family that I learned about India’s independence and the Partition. Occasionally we would talk about the history surrounding this time if my cousins and I asked questions. But if I hadn’t been curious or interested on my own, these stories might have faded away. There was a desire to leave the difficult times in the past and focus on the future. I think that’s common for many families. But if that happens, then we will forget and not have the opportunity to learn from the mistakes that were made and honor those who were lost. Survivors of the Partition are in their last decades of life and I believe it’s up to my generation to preserve this history and pass the stories down to younger generations in whatever ways we can.

What are the stories you accessed for writing this book? 

I listened to my father and other relatives. I also read many historical accounts and novels. I read collections of oral testimonies and listened to several online. There’s a wonderful website preserving these oral histories called The Partition Archive of 1947. They have a wide variety of oral testimonies from people who lived in many parts of India before independence. Some had to leave, some stayed, some crossed into Pakistan, some crossed over the new border of India. There are stories mostly from Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs. I tried to listen to as many point of views as I could. I wanted to create a story that wasn’t based particularly on one story, but could explore the many questions I had about the Partition and be representative of many experiences.

Was there much literature to read? If so in which language ? Or did you rely mostly on oral narratives?

I relied on books in English (I only speak English), but I wanted to read historical analyzations or novels of the Partition by those who had South Asian origins and had more than just an intellectual interest in the history. I didn’t really find much out there for young readers, but some of the books that helped me were The Great Partition by Yasmin Khan, Train to Pakistan by Khushwant Singh, The Other Side of Silence by Urvashi Butalia, Cracking India by Bapsi Sidhwa, Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie, and Midnight’s Furies by Nisid Hajari.

What are the back stories for this novel that you left out but undeniably built upon to tell the wonderful story of The Night Diary?

I knew I wasn’t trying to recreate the exact story that my father’s family went through. It wasn’t representative enough of more experiences and I was writing fiction. I began with the idea of family traveling in the direction a Hindu family would be traveling, because that’s what my father did, but I wanted to take a wider view. I decided the main character, Nisha, would come from an interfaith marriage (her father is Hindu and her mother was Muslim). I wanted her to be able to ask the questions I had about the Partition—why did diverse communities who lived peacefully before the Partition, break apart so quickly? Where did the violence and hate come from? I thought those questions would be quite powerful coming from the perspective of a character who feels ties to both her Hindu and Muslim identities. I’m also a product of an interfaith marriage. My father is Hindu and my mother is Jewish, so though it’s an entirely different context and a religion, I connected to the idea of having to navigate multiple identities. There were a lot of influences from details of my father’s story, but I was often shaping them in different ways for the story I wanted to tell.

To tell a story about a conflict and subsequent displacement is never an easy task. It is traumatic. Yet how did you manage to create such a simple and lucid while retaining the sensitivity and pain? Did this story go through many drafts?

Thank you and yes, it went through at least ten full drafts, and many smaller ones. It wasn’t an easy task. I hoped to stay truthful to the history, but also explore the questions I had and create as many connections as I could to survivor experiences. I knew there was no way I could write a book about the Partition and not include some of the violence, but I really wanted the younger generation to have access to it. I tried to strike a balance of what a young reader could handle and what actually happened. I think writing a diary from a young person’s point of view helped me render it in a more innocent and direct way. That’s how I felt Nisha would process and write about her experiences. The diary format at times was restrictive, but also helped me keep it in Nisha’s voice. I also thought it would be appealing and accessible for both young and older readers.

Was it a challenge to find publishers for The Night Diary

I was lucky enough to have some nice interest in the story and talk to a few editors about the project. I think people not only found the historical knowledge valuable, but the connections to current events as well–the global refugee crisis, and the discrimination against people of color and xenophobia felt in the US today. I ultimately was able to go with the editor, Namrata Tripathi, at Penguin who I felt was not only an experienced, extremely insightful, and detail oriented editor, but who also had an Indian background and family ties to the Partition. To have an editor who would be able to access this story on both an editorial level and a personal one only helped with the authenticity I was trying to achieve. It truly was a gift.

What was the editorial process like for The Night Diary? For instance did you have to explain much about the context to your editors or did the movement of #weneeddiversebooks ease the publishing process?

Because I was working with someone who knew a significant amount about the context and the culture I was writing about, I didn’t have to explain a lot. Therefore, we mostly focused on the strength of the story and she added to my knowledge at times. But we still had beta readers to help fill in our knowledge gaps. Penguin has been very behind this book from the beginning, but I think organizations like #weneeddiversebooks are hugely important and have paved the way for publishers and readers to understand the necessity and benefits of diversity on a global level.

Why did you feel it necessary to include a glossary of terms in The Night Diary? 

Publishing the book first in the US, after having many non-Indian American readers read the book, I found that many people did not know several of the South Asian terms I was using. I wanted young readers unfamilar with some terms have a resource right in the book. Now that the book is published in India, the glossary must seem irrelevant or readers might be able to improve the definitions!

What has been the response of audiences in USA to your book? What has been the response of the Indian diaspora to your book? 

I’ve had many positive responses and it’s very moving to me. When I decided to write this book, I wondered how much interest it would have, but I knew I needed to write it so I kept at it. I’ve had South Asian American adults express excitement at being able to share this story with their children because they also had parents who were affected by the Partition and now have a context to talk about it. I’ve had South Asian American kids tell me that they’re excited to see Indian/brown characters characters in a book given to them in school because they’ve that experience so rarely. I did a school visit with a large South Asian population and kids were literally cheering as I mentioned some of Nisha’s favorite foods in the book (especially for the sweets). I remember what it was like to feel that I was the only one who knew what dal, kaju katli, or gulab jamun was and I would never expect to see it mentioned in a book, so I understood their excitement.  It has definitely opened doors for some people and I couldn’t be happier about that! It seems to be getting a positive response in India as well, and that is truly humbling and gratifying.

3 October 2018 

Paro Anand’s “The Other”

Award-winning writer Paro Anand’s latest book for young adults is a collection of short stories called No Other: Stories of Difference . These are stories that are as bold as those published in her previous book Like Smoke. They revolve around critical issues like transgender, sexual abuse, conflict. Without badgering the reader with a preachy tone these stories carve out a niche for holding a dialogue about these mostly taboo topics. It is a very tough space to negotiate and Paro Anand does it superbly.

On Saturday, 22 September 2018, Paro Anand was in conversation with veteran journalist Sunil Sethi about this very book. It was part of the “Talking Books” series launched by Cafe Turtle, Khan Market, New Delhi. Do listen to the recording I made of the conversation. It is 45 minutes well spent.

 

To buy: 

Kindle 

Paperback

24 September 2018 

Elizabeth Laird’s “Welcome to Nowhere”

Elizabeth Laird’s Welcome to Nowhere has been justifiably longlisted for the CILIP Carnegie 2018. It is about  twelve-year-old Omar who has to flee Syria soon after the war breaks out. Born and brought up in Dosra, Omar has four siblings including an older brother, Musa, who despite having cerebral palsy is very sharp. At times when he gets agitated no one can understand what he says except for Omar. The youngest sibling is a two-year-old girl Nadia. Their father works for the Syrian government and is most distressed when civil strife breaks out. He insists on referring to the citizens fighting against the government as “terrorists”. As the war intensifies the family has to cross the international border with Jordan and enter a refugee camp. It is a horrific experience for the family who have to make do in a makeshift shelter, live on the kits distributed by the United Nations and the food is rationed, unless one can afford to buy what is offered in the black market. To realise it is survival of the fittest at the camp, Omar takes the lead to do his best by the family, particularly after his father decides to return to Dosra.

There are descriptions in the book that seem authentic. They ring true. Apparently Elizabeth Laird researched this book thoroughly before writing it. Years ago she had lived in Lebanon during their shattering civil war. She says in the letter by the author that “I saw at first hand how lives were disrupted and families lived in fear”.  Later she was invited to Jordan to run writing workshops with teachers and youth trainers in two Syrian refugee camps, Zaatari and Azraq. It was while talking to the refugees that Omar’s story crystallised in her mind.

Welcome to Nowhere is a book that will remain relevant as long as conflict zones exist not just in Syria. This story is meant to be read by young adults and adults alike.

Elizabeth Laird Welcome to Nowhere Pan Macmillan, London, 2017. Hb. pp. 

11 March 2018 

An interview with Venita Coelho, “Boy No. 32”

Venita Coelho works with images, words and paint. She is a writer who has worked in film, television and literature. Her published work includes  Dead as a Dodo  which won the Hindu Award for the Best Fiction for Children 2016.  The Washer of the Dead  was long listed for the Frank O’Connor award. She is a screenwriter with films for Dharma Productions and Sanjay Leela Bhansali Productions to her credit. As an artist she works with charcoal and with acrylic paint on glass. She is about to set off on a great adventure – having converted a Tempo traveller into a caravan, she and her daughter are off to travel across India.

Venita Coelho’s recent young adult novel Boy No. 32 is an incredibly gripping book about Battees, an orphan named so after the number given to him — 32. ( In Hindi, the number 32 is called “battees”.) The story is about Battees winessing the presence of a dreaded terrorist, Kashmiri Lall, in his city, Mumbai, and he is now the only one who can help put him behind bars. It is a tremendously well-paced and tautly written book. Impossible to put down once you begin it. Also for the fact Venita Coelho never for an instant “talks down” to youngsters, nor is ever apologetic about the violence around us. Absolutely fantastic!

In this novel intermixing the orphans’ quest for locating Kashmiri Lall with encounters with the eunuchs, the Beggar King, and the horrific complicity of even the adults responsible for them such as Aunty and the cop, is done crisply. The “traditional” bad guys of literature like the eunuch are actually shown to be humane with a little more insight on how their community operates. Equally well-made are the cop and the “aunty” who are so incredibly corrupt, they would do anything for a few extra bucks. Venita Coelho is constantly challenging pre-conceived notions about characters. For instance, instead of giving the warden of the orphanage a name, she is referred to as “Aunty” — a big learning curve for Indian readers who are taught to practically revere an older woman, inevitably calling her “Aunty”, sort of seals this relationship.

Boy No. 32 is highly recommended!

Here are excerpts from an email interview:

I could not help wonder how you came upon this idea? Why?
It came out of the years I spent in Mumbai. The many times I caught the last train out of Churchgate and chatted with all the urchins in the compartment. It came out of all the stories they gave me and the adventures that the city gave.

How long did it take to write? How many revisions did it require?
I am a three draft writer. Knocked the first draft out across one November ” Nanowrimo”. That is ‘National Novel Writing Month’. You sign up at the website and for one month you get cheerleaders who push you along as you frantically write. People around the world are racing to finish their novels and the collect energy is quite astounding. The next two drafts took about eight months. But that was along side being a single mum, earning my living, and surviving Hindi films.

I can see it easily adapted for a school theatre performance — was that your intention?
It’s a movie! We don’t make children’s films in India. Every Hindi film with its songs and dances is essentially a children’s film. There is never a budget to make a ‘children’s film’. So I just put it in a book – Item number and all.

How did these characters come about? Which one struck you first?
Definitely Battees. He’s based on all the cocky little boys who sat down next to me at stations and launched into long stories. I so deeply admire the sheer courage and unputdownability these kids display, and I really wanted one of them to tell his story in his voice. And I have a very big soft spot for Item. Such courage. Such a diva!

Has your day job of writing scripts for the Indian film industry help craft young adult novels?
Not really. Hindi films have no idea of how to talk to young adults. All they ever offer them are mushy love stories. In fact to switch from writing films to books I normally have to do a couple of weeks ‘detox’ when I consciously switch from writing scenes and move to writing descriptions. Another level is moving from the superficial level of films to a deeper emotional level for books.

What has been the response of the kids who have read the book? Have you encountered them at your sessions in different cities?
We’ve had riotous sessions. The kids always love the elephant story – and it gets them thinking about real patriotism. And I always tell them that only one thing separates them from the kid on the street – sheer luck. They could have been born anywhere. And it is their duty to pass that luck on. It always makes for lively discussions.

Do you get different responses to your stories from boys and girls or does a gendered reading not matter?
I haven’t found that gender makes much difference to the response. Girls tend to ask more questions though.

Do you write with a specific reader/audience in mind?
Nope. Never do that. You can never tell how a story is going to turn out. An adult story might find it’s own way to be a children’s story. A writer can’t really predict how pitch and tone will finally tune itself. I let the story find it’s own audience. I try to write interestingly enough for anyone at all to be able to read the story.

Before publishing, do you “test” the story out or go with your instinct. I ask since I found the novel pitch perfect.
I did have three readers for the final round. It was a first for me. I got some good feedback and I will try it. again. But basically I have had so much damn writing practice doing television that it’s finally coming easy. When you do a daily soap you write 5 episodes a week. That’s ten hours of TV a month. That’s a heck of a lot of writing!

What is next on the cards?
I’m working on three different books. I tend to bounce between books. The one closest to my heart is a story based on my growing up in Kolkata. I grew up in a building that the Indian government had acquired to house the jews that it rehabilitated after the holocaust. I grew up hearing stories of the concentration camps. Now I’m finally ready to write them down.

Would you ever consider writing a series arc for young adults?
Of course. Just finished the first book of what is meant to be three books in total. I love the space that ‘Fault in our Stars’ occupies. Now that is really young adult space. So I have done a book that is for really young people, with a love story at the heart of it – but also the issues of terrorism, violence and ahimsa. Let’s see how it does!

Venita Coelho Boy No. 32 Scholastic India, Gurgaon, India, 2017. Pb. pp.186 Rs. 295