During the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown, Scholastic Writers Academy was launched. I conceptualised the programme for Scholastic India. These are online workshops of 20 hours, 10 days x 2 hours every day, except for the weekends and national holidays. Two hours of a mix of lectures, presentations, interactive sessions, writing on camera, one-to-one mentoring in breakout rooms and peer review. Every participant is expected to write a short story. Every workshop culminates in a published anthology of the short stories. It includes the mentor’s note.
The faculty of Scholastic Writers Academy are handpicked. They are inevitably folks who have a deep interest in literature and understand its nuances. Also, they are extremely kind, gentle, firm and have excellent mentoring skills when interacting with the school students. Our fabulous mentors include or have included in the past, Rahul Saini, Sucharita Dutta-Asane, Neil D’Silva, Harini Srinivasan, Priya Ranganathan, Ujwala Samarth, Madhumita Gupta, Sushmitha Talisetti, Saachi Gupta, Kanchana Banerjee etc.
In the short span since the workshops began ( June 2021) till date, we have mentored more than 1200 students and had more than 55 editions of the workshops. Scholastic India has been incredibly innovative and determined with its outreach efforts with schools. Also, using the social media platforms to promote this programme. As a result, we have had registerations from across India and even abroad — the USA, Middle East, and Singapore.
Most often the workshops are general and we encourage students to come up with their own story pegs and see it through. But we have also had thematic workshops on science fiction, horror, Nature, animals etc. The students are in the age range of 9 to 17+. We make batches of junior and senior.
The success of these workshops is incredible. And I am not saying it because I am part of the core team that works on it. It is the word-of-mouth success too. Students have registered for it not once but multiple times! They join the workshop with trepidation and nervousness. Some join because they have been encouraged to do so by their parents and schools. But within two days, the kids are yapping away happily to their mentor and with each other. Remember that these groups meet ONLY online. They do not know who will be in their batch from beforehand. They are complete strangers to each other. By the time the workshop is over, two weeks later, the children are a raucous bunch and share a special bonhomie. They do not want the classes to end. They leave on a high note. At the concluding session, parents tell us over and over again, how their children look forward to these sessions. They grin and are cheerful. They do not want to be disturbed. Even kids who are normally restless are at peace and disciplined about writing daily. They look forward to these interactions.
Later, they regroup for the official book launch. These are also held online on Scholastic India’s Facebook page. All the recordings of the past book launches exist on the page. There is a fixed format with Mr Neeraj Jain, Scholastic India, MD, the mentor, and a chief guest — inevitably this person is an educationist. It is such a thrill watching these virtual book launches. The children are animatedly chittering at meeting each other once more. Their eyes shine with delight at being able to hold their physical books aloft.
At the book launches, the children share the impact that these workshops have had upon them. It is not only that their writing skills have improved ( SWA does not teach grammar!). But it is the sudden realisation that with a bit of focus, discipline and determination they can create and be productive. They have learned to improve their social skills as they are forced to engage with the other participants. They have improved their vocabulary as they are encouraged to offer peer review in class. They realise that writing a short story is not as easy as it seems and they need ideas and vision. There are many other aspects that they touch upon but it is the massive confidence boosting measure that really astounds them. They discover aspects of themselves that they did not realise they had within them.
Every book that is published by Scholastic India as part of the Scholastic Writers Academy is available on Amazon India. In fact, schools buy entire sets of these books. And/or they prescribe individual copies as supplementary readers in their institutions. Libraries order multiple sets as everyone is very proud to see school children write imaginatively and spin stories and ultimately be published by a 102-year-old brand like Scholastic. The same publishing house that published Stephen King, Joyce Carol Oates, Andy Warhol, Sylvia Plath, John Lithgow, Robert Redford, and Truman Capote. It is also the publisher of Dav Pilkey, Liz Pinchon, and J.K.Rowling ( in the USA).
We have even launched an edition for adults — 18 and above. The inaugural workshop was very exciting and energetic.
This is very nice. Two years after my daughter, Sarah Rose, and Paro Anand co-authored an illustrated storybook, A Very Naughty Dragon, it is still being read. It is about a young komodo dragon called, “Draco”. This young reviewer/vlogger (ahanastoryteller) on Instagram says that she learned five important lessons from it. She then proceeds to list them.
Meanwhile, Sarah grins with pleasure upon seeing the video and remarks, “I did not think that Draco’s story would influence others.”
This book is utterly perfect! In terms of story, plot, pacing and literary craftsmanship. It makes one chuckle with delight as the antics are so believable. The manner in which Vibha Batra has inhabited a child’s world is very well done.
Ten-year-old Prabhjot Shergill aka Pinkoo adores baking. He dreams of making Olympic history by winning the gold medal at the Bake-a-Thon event. Instead he has to settle for sneaking into the kitchen to bake exquisite creations while the adults are preoccupied with other stuff. Sometimes it is at the cost of skipping his shooting classes that his father insists upon. Pinkoo is not interested in living out the dreams of his late grandfather or father as a shooter, instead he prefers to be a world class baker.
Aided and abetted by his best friend Manu and his pestilential little cousin, Tutu, the kids hatch a plan of getting Pinkoo to participate in the international programme, “The Great Junior Bake-a-Thon”. The competition is slated for an Indian edition, to be recorded in Chandigarh and finals in Mumbai. They are assisted by their classmate Nimrat, who they don’t particularly like, but her father runs the best coffee shop in Patiala, offering the best confectionary for many miles around. Nimrat persuades an ex-baker of her father’s, Chef Khanna, to train Pinkoo. The only reason that Nimrat assists Pinkoo is that she overheard him being taunted in the school canteen by the school bullies for wanting to become a pastry chef. “He’s such a girl!” Nimrat is so irritated by this remark that she grimly determines that “these idiots need to learn a lesson” and marches Pinkoo off to a tete-a-tete with a professional baker.
Pinkoo Shergil: Pastry Chef by Vibha Batra ( Scholastic India) is about Pinkoo’s training, the competition and persuading his very stern father to attend a baking competition. Papaji was of the opinion that “the kitchen is no place for a boy”. It is a fun, fun, fun book that upends a lot of stereotypes with a delightfully light touch. It is a book that generates a happy spot in one’s mind and at the same time gets various “messages” across without being didactic. The best one is saved for the last — whatever you do, give it your best shot and “don’t give up”, irrespective of ups and downs. The story is beautifully complemented by the zany black-and-white illustrations by Shamika Chaves. The buzz and excitement of the youngsters, who at the best of times are like little drops of mercury, is enhanced by the exuberant page design enabling certain words to pop out of the page. It emphasizes the rhythm of the text too. All in all, a gorgeous book!
Buy it. Share it. Read it. Donate it to school and community libraries. Pass on some of the love and joy. All of us could do with some.
It is rare, even now in these liberal and emancipated times, for a publishing house to have a dedicated imprint to LGBTQIA+ literature. Under the excellent leadership and forward thinking of the late CEO and son of the founder, Dick Robinson, Scholastic launched such an imprint for its school and trade market — Arthur A. Levine Books. It was an imprint at the firm from 1996 – 2019. After that Arthur Levine left Scholastic to form Levine Querido. Having said that, the fact that Scholastic launched such a specific imprint was commendable. They did it well before it became fashionable or even before other firms became very active in commissioning same sex literature for young adults. This kind of literature is perhaps not very easy for many readers to “get into” as it requires an open heartedness, a sensitivity and an acceptance of different kinds of sexuality without any prejudice. But once you read these books, it changes your outlook on life. These books are astonishing to read as they not only delve into this niche space of teenage sexuality but also experiment with the literary form — prose, poetry, mixing prose and poetry or even graphic novels. Even with Arthur Levine’s departure from the firm, the legacy continues with the launch of a new imprint called PUSH, an imprint for teens, launched by David Leviathan. It is no longer an exclusive imprint for LGBTQIA+ literature but that in itself is a testament to how far we have come since the fin de siecle of the twentieth century, of being more accepting of diversity.
This was first published on my Facebook and Instagram accounts. It was on the last day of #PrideMonth.
“Publishing Pangs”, Economic Times, Sunday Edition, 5 July 2020
On 24 March 2020 invoking the Disaster Management Act (2005) the first phase of the lockdown to manage the Covid-19 pandemic was announced. “Disaster Management” is considered to be a part of the Concurrent List under “social security and social insurance”. With the announcement all but the most essential economic activity halted nationwide. Only 4 hours’ notice was provided, insufficient time to plan operations.
Demand and supply existed but all cash cycles dried up — because bookstores were not operating. Brick-and-mortar stores had to close while online platforms focused on delivering only essential goods and books were not on the list. Priyanka Malhotra says “When Full Circle reopened in mid-May, there was a great demand for books. Mid-June, supply lines are still fragile, so getting more books regularly is uncertain. Well-stocked warehouses are outside city limits and are finding it difficult to service book orders to bookstores. We are mostly relying on existing stocks.”
In future, the #WFH culture will remain particularly for editors, curation of lists, smaller print runs, the significance of newsletters will increase, exploring subscription models for funding publishers in the absence of government subsidies and establishment of an exclusive online book retailing platform such as bookshop.org. Introducing paywalls for book events as the lockdown has proven customers are willing to pay for good content. Distributors and retailers will take less stock on consignment. Cost cutting measures will include slashing travel as a phone call is equally productive, advances to authors will fall, streamlining of operations with leaner teams especially sales teams as focused digital marketing is effective, With the redefining of schools and universities due to strict codes of physical distancing and cancellation of book fairs, publishers will have to explore new ways of customising, delivering and monetising content.
In such a scenario the importance of libraries will grow urgently. Libraries benefit local communities at an affordable price point. They are accessed by readers of all ages, abilities and socio-economic classes for independent scholarship, research and intellectual stimulation. The nation too benefits with a literate population ensuring skilled labour and a valuable contribution to the economy. By focusing upon libraries as the nodal centre of development in rehabilitation and reconstruction of a nation especially in the wake of a disaster, the government helps provide “social security and social insurance”. Libraries can be equipped without straining the limited resources available for reconstruction of a fragile society by all stakeholders collaborating. As a disaster management expert said to me, “Difficult to find a narrative for what we are going through”.
After a disaster, the society is fragile. It has limited resources available for rehabilitation and reconstruction. To emerge from this pandemic in working condition, it would advisable for publishers to use resources prudently. It is a brave new world. It calls for new ways of thinking.
Given this context, the Economic Times, Sunday Edition published the business feature I wrote on the effect of the pandemic on the publishing sector in India. Here is the original link on the Economic Times website.
As the first phase of the sudden lockdown to manage the Covid-19 pandemic was declared on March 24, the timing was particularly unfortunate for the books publishing industry. End-March is a critical time in the book publishing industry.
End-March is a critical time in the book year cycle. It is when accounts are settled between distributors, retailers and publishers, enabling businesses to commence the new financial year with requisite cash equity. Institutional and library sales are fulfilled. The demand for school textbooks is at its peak. But with the lockdown, there was a severe disruption in the production cycle — printing presses, paper mills, warehouses and bookshops stopped functioning. Nor were there online sales as books are not defined as essential commodities.
“Publishing in India is estimated to be worth $8 billion in annual revenues,” says Vikrant Mathur, director, Nielsen India. “Trade publishing has seen four months of near-zero sales which straightaway knocks one’s revenues off by at least 25-30%,” says Thomas Abraham, MD, Hachette India.
Profit protection became key. Firms either reduced salaries or laid off employees, and unaffordable rentals forced closures of offices and bookshops. Arpita Das, founder of Yoda Press, says, “After three months of almost zero print sales, and low ebook sales, we decided to move out of our office space.”
In mid-May, bookshops and online portals resumed selling books. Bookstores delivered parcels using India Post, Zomato, and Swiggy. Sales of children’s books exceeded everyone’s expectations, averaging 30% more than pre-Covid sales. Shantanu Duttagupta, publisher, Scholastic India, says, “The ecosystem of children’s books and content comprises mainly of parents, educators and children. While print is traditionally preferred, it has to be recognised that content of any sort has to be format-agnostic. Whether it’s digital solutions for parents and children, helping educators through professional development or providing curated, age-appropriate books for children, being agile and nimble is key.”
Publishers announced curated digital content for schools engaged in remote learning. Scholastic Learn at Home, Collins Digital Home Learning, DK’s Stay Home Hub and StoryWeaver’s Readalong** were among such initiatives. Paywalls were introduced for creative writing workshops and were fully subscribed. Academic publishers noted an increase in inquiries from universities regarding bundle subscriptions.
To remain relevant with readers, there was an explosion of hashtags and promotions on the internet: #ReadInstead, #BraveNewWorld, #Reset, #MacmillanReadingSpace, #PenguinPicks, #KaroNaCharcha and #MissedCallDoKahaaniSuno. Book launches and lit fests went digital, with viewers across time zones. Brands like JLF ( Jaipur Literature Festival) got a viewership of over 700,000 worldwide*, while Rajpal & Sons got a viewership of over 300,000 — both hosted an equal number of events (50+) in the same time frame.
According to Meru Gokhale, publisher, Penguin Press, Penguin Random House India, “India’s reading consumption patterns during the lockdown consisted of ‘bucket list reads’ of classics, voluminous works and series fiction; self-help and mind-body-spirit lists.” Publishers launched frontlists (new and current titles) as ebooks , deeming that preferable to tying up cash in inventory. Interesting experiments by editors have involved crowd-sourcing new ebooks, usually kickstarted with an opening by a literary star. Vikas Rakheja, MD, Manjul Publishing, says, “We have seen a 300-400% growth in sales of our ebooks in April-June, over the same period last year, in both English and Indian regional languages, on Amazon Kindle and other online sales portals.”
Chiki Sarkar, publisher, Juggernaut Books, says their titles saw greater time spent on ebooks during the lockdown. Audiobooks also sold. Yogesh Dashrath, country manager, Storytel India, says, “Globally there was doubling of intake. In India, it accelerated exposure to audiobooks.”
But India is firmly a print book market. So it will take some time for patterns to change. Kapil Kapoor, MD of Roli Books and owner of CMYK bookstore in Delhi, says, “In Unlock 1, we have not yet seen a significant spike in the demand for books. For now, sales figures hover around 40–50% of pre-Covid-19 days, largely driven by online sales — an accurate reflection of consumer preference of wanting home delivery and not venturing out to markets due to a fear factor, which is understandable.” A concern is book piracy will increase in direct proportion to economic stress in households.
As for lasting trends, work from home culture will continue, particularly for editors. Experimentation with curated lists, smaller print runs and subscription models will be seen. Some publishing firms, imprints, bookstores, retailers and distributors may go out of business. Increasingly, finance and legal will join sales departments to ensure “correct” decisions are made. Cost-cutting measures may include slashing travel, relying more on digital tools for efficiency, such as negotiating book rights online, employing leaner sales teams and expanding business horizons beyond the Anglo-American book market, without travelling. New platforms capitalising on professional expertise and fostering creative synergies have emerged on social media, like Publishers’ Exchange, an initiative by language publishers across India, Mother Tongue Twisters, Roli Pulse, Independent Bookshops Association of India and Publishers Without Borders. With the redefining of schools and universities, publishers will explore new ways of customising, delivering and monetising content. Could book events go behind a paywall? Perhaps libraries will regain significance?
As the industry negotiates this disruption, it’s clear that it will take a lot of ingenuity to emerge largely unscathed on the other side. Everyone is hoping for a happy ending to this particular saga.
* At the time of writing the article, this figure of 700,000+ held true for JLF. But on the day of publication of the article, the number has far exceeded one million.
** Storyweaver’s Readalong are multilingual audio-visual storybooks.
Last year Scholastic India published a marvellous collection of essays on reading. It is called Why I Love to Read: Real Stories about the Joy and Power of Reading. It is in keeping with the firm’s fundamental principle that reading opens up a world of possibilities. Reading is a lifelong skill. This anthology had a broad spectrum of contributors from across India. It included politicians, educationists, journalists, writers, publishers, poets, sociologists etc. I too contributed an essay. It was on how I managed to get my little girl to read modern English by introducing her to Malory’s Morte D’Arthur. The moment I introduced Sarah to medieval English where everything was spelt phonetically, the pennies dropped and she was able to make the relevant connections while reading modern English. So here is the essay that I am reproducing with the permission of the publisher.
“They even have books in their bathroom!” exclaimed a friend to other classmates while describing our childhood home. Little has changed. Recently my daughter reported how her classmates describe our home as being full of books wherever you look! My nine-year-old is convinced that books are her birth right. She demands books she issues from the library and enjoys immensely to be bought for her personal collection as well.
My family loves books. We have done so for generations. We have inherited books that are now more than a century old. My childhood bedroom which I shared with my twin brother had an entire wall made of deep wooden bookshelves. I had rows of books three deep and more stacked on top.
I do not know what sparked my love for reading. It could have been my mother who decided to read out the texts she was teaching to her undergraduate students. Mum is a fantastic storyteller. So by the time we were six we knew our Shakespeare, Dracula along with breathless Piglet saying “Heff, Heff, Heffalump” from Winnie-the Pooh or she made up wonderfully imaginative tales. Or it could be my maternal grandfather who after lunch would tell us about the outrageous escapades about Laurel and Hardy traipsing through North East India – all totally made up of course! (My Nana as a senior civil servant had visited the region in the 1960s and 70s.) Or my paternal grandmother who would tell us stories about Shaikh-Chilli and other folktales at bed time. Or it could have been my bedridden great-grandmother who would tell us stories about Delhi and Dalhousie during British Raj including of C.F. Andrews or Charlie Dada as she referred to him fondly. He would arrive regularly at her home in Dalhousie with nothing except the clothes on his back. After every visit she would send him off on his travels once more with a bistar-band/ bedding holdall and clothes but he would inevitably distribute them to a more needy soul. My father is not much of a storyteller in words but as a photographer he is astounding. He brought home interesting guests, inevitably mountaineers and photographers, who would regale us with amazing tales of climbing some of the highest peaks in the world or taking photographs under extraordinary circumstances.
It was a short step from being surrounded by stories to reading the books lining our shelves. My mother too developed a neat trick of stocking our bookshelves with books just a little ahead of our biological years so we were never out of reading matter. Alternatively she would borrow huge piles of books from her college library and suggest books of all kinds – ranging from Georgette Heyer romances, Gerald Durrell’s animal stories, Homer, Malory, historical fiction to science fiction. We were well brought up kids. We even knew Asimov’s Three Robotic Laws fairly soon! Once mum realised I was getting frightfully bored by sixteenth century English Literature, she suggested a range of historical novels of the Elizabethean period. I developed a lifelong soft corner for it. As children we were encouraged to read anything that came our way. We spent most of our free time reading.
Initially I read what existed at home but slowly developed a passion for buying books and later even inherited personal libraries. I have an eclectic and vast collection of books. Now an entire floor in my parent’s home has floor-to-ceiling bookshelves lining the walls. In my marital home I have a study (and more) that is lined with bookshelves — anything to prevent my forming book towers! Even now my happiest moments are when I am surrounded by books and reading. It gives me peace. It is also as a parent I realise excellent role modelling. Children imitate their parent’s actions.
As a parent now I encourage my daughter to read anything she likes. Digital entertainment is rationed. When she was struggling to understand how English is written and spoken, I introduced her to my beautiful of Aubrey Beardsley’s Malory’s Morte D’Arthur. Very soon the kid was able to “read” the story as Middle English was written exactly as phonetics is practised. It made it even more fascinating that the stories were about her favourite trio – King Arthur, Merlin and Queen Guinevere. One of her favourite past times is to read the spines of my books. (She even began reading this essay and wanted to know why I was writing about reading? It puzzled her – why on something as basic as reading?) The best inheritance I can give my daughter is of reading as a valuable lifelong skill and not just for leisure.
For now she is a happy kid who said to me reading out aloud from Diary of a Wimpy Kid “This is so easy to read. It is like an early learners reading!”
Book Post 49 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.
Ever since the phenomenal success of Rebel Girls some years ago there has been a proliferation of books tom-tomming about the achievement of girls/ women, many of whom whose contribution to their respective sectors has been silenced for an extremely long time —an unforgivable act. Yet with the popularisation of movements like #MeToo and the visibility of such girl-centric literature in popular culture has made a remarkable case for many more such books to appear. The danger lies falling into the trap of emulating a successful formula and creating a damp squib or creating a triumphant collection such former journalist Neha J. Hiranandani’s feisty Girl Power!
It is a challenging task to visually and succinctly represent a core idea, more so an idea that seemingly goes against the “norm”. And this is why Girl Power! is so magnificent. It stands out from much else that in this space for it puts together beautifully a profile that has charmed the author. It is as if the woman whom Neha Hiranandani is writing about has really moved her in some way. Otherwise the absence of living legends such as activists Aruna Roy & Medha Patkar, writer Arundhati Roy, historian Romila Thapar, wrestler Vinesh Phogat etc remains inexplicable. For there seems to be no other explanation, save Neha’s subjectivity, for this very disparate collection of women profiled in Girl Power!
Neha Hiranandani’s fascination for her project manifests itself in the funky descriptor she offers after every name. It is super cool, so in keeping with the loud, assertive and sparkly book cover as if to say, “We women are proud of our achievement and are here to stay!” It effectively communicates her passion with younger readers.
Hiranandani is a writer whose columns have appeared in The Indian Express, Huffington
Post, NDTV, and Vogue among others. She holds degrees in
Literature and Education from Wellesley College and Harvard University.
Here are lightly edited excerpts of an interview conducted via email:
1.How did the idea of doing Girl Power! come to you?
My 7-year-old daughter, Zoya absolutely loved Rebel Girls. As a mother, I was so happy to see her being inspired by incredible women from around the world. But then one day she came to me clutching her beloved copy of Rebel Girls and asked sadly “Does India only have two rebels?” pointing to Mary Kom and Rani Laxmibai. Of course I immediately wanted to tell her all about the phenomenal women that India has had – our rule breakers, our mavericks, our smashers of ceilings. We spent the next few months discovering these women together. It was magnificent! I quickly realized that these were stories that all our girls – and even our boys – should hear.
2. There is a deluge of women-centric profiles in the market. Why is Girl Power! special?
I was very lucky to work with an incredible artist – Niloufer Wadia – whose illustrations have brought these stories to life. Unlike other books which follow a standard ‘one-page text + one-page illustration’ format, Niloufer and I wanted the text and the illustrations to work together. And so, every page of Girl Power! has the story and the artwork talking to one another which makes for an incredible reading experience. That, and I think the selection of women is very special!
3. How did you identify the women profiled in the book? Whom did you have to drop from your original list and why?
This was easily my favourite part of the project! I was clear that this wasn’t going to be just a list of accomplished Indian women – the women in this book had to be mavericks, ceiling smashers! And so I set about finding the stories and really, what stories they are! Every story made me feel me proud to be Indian all over again. You will meet a spy princess who parachuted into France, a warrior queen who defended India from the Portugese six times! There’s Subhasini Mistry who worked as a maid before winning a Padma Bhushan for healthcare, and Chandro Tomar, the octogenarian sharpshooter, popularly known as Revolver Dadi. Of course, there are some household names as well including PV Sindhu and Priyanka Chopra. But personally, I am very proud of the untold stories. They were so exciting to discover!
I have tried to be as inclusive as possible. Girl
Power! includes stories from across the country, across industries and across
time periods. I also tried to pick stories that had an identifiable ‘Kodak
moment’ that could be written coherently in 300 words or less. This is easier
said than done, especially given that all of these women have led very layered
and nuanced lives!
With that said, I am the first to admit that this is not an exhaustive list – that would run into volumes and is well beyond the scope of this project.
4. The descriptor used as a subtitle in every chapter encapsulates the spirit of the woman profiled vividly. For example, “Raga Rockstar” for M S Subbulakshmi, “Accidental Entrepreneur” for Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, “Rule Breaker” for Dakshayani Velayudhan, “Inspirational Archer” for Deepika Kumari, or “Daredevil Doctor” for Anandibai Joshee. How did you come up with these fascinating descriptions?
These women have led such interesting lives, it would be a failing on my part to not give them interesting descriptors!
5. Girl Power! comes across as a broad sweep of profiling women across socio-economic classes giving the impression as if popular stories were incorporated. What kind of research methodology did you employ particularly what were the oral histories that you accessed?
This book will always be special to me for so many reasons. And perhaps, the most important one is that it connected me to many incredible people – men and women – who I’m grateful to have met. Apart from the internet research and the scouting in libraries, I knew that many of the stories were going to come from conversations. And so they did! Over cups of tea in the most unlikely of places – from railway stations to parks – I have spoken to people about the women who have moved them, inspired them. Some of the stories didn’t work out because I couldn’t confirm their factual accuracy but others did. For many parts of the book, I wanted to move beyond the well-known women and tell stories of ordinary women who have done extraordinary things. It was in that quest – of finding the ordinary-extraordinary woman – that our unmatched recounting of oral histories became important. Sometimes, it’s just about having the conversation!
6. Every chapter consists of a sprinkling of quotes by the women profiled. Such as ‘As long as I moved around with Mankeshaw [her husband], people did not take me seriously,” said Homai Vyarawalla, the photographer or “No field of work belongs to any gender”, says Harshini, the firefighter or actress Priyanka Chopra attributes her success to following the three Fs – “by being fierce, by being fearless and by being flawed”. Where are these quotes from as there are no bibliographical details provided?
Along with the team at Scholastic India, I was meticulous in making sure that every fact was double-checked. Many times this meant watching several documentaries for a 5 word-quote or finding obscure books and articles in dusty libraries. While there is no bibliography in the book, we have maintained an exhaustive back-of-house bibliography! So for instance, the quote by Homai Vyarwalla is from an article in the Hindu, the one from Harshini Kanhekar is from an interview with Jovita Aranha, and the one by Priyanka Chopra is from a lecture she gave on ‘Breaking the Glass Ceiling: Chasing a Dream’ at a Penguin event back in 2017.
7. Some profiles make passing references such as to Amrita Shergill’s “South Indian trilogy” or Dipa Karmakar’s “new book” or to a “rifle club” in Chandro Tomar’s neighbourhood which her granddaughter was attending – all very intriguing and remains unexplained? Was it a deliberate intent on your part to leave these as is to encourage inquisitive readers to delve into some research of their own?
Absolutely! This book gives a quick insight into the lives of these incredible women. It provides the ‘hook’ of an interesting time in that woman’s life to lure the reader in. The ultimate idea is that a child finds that ‘Kodak moment’ interesting and says “Hey, that’s cool I didn’t know that but now I want to find out more.”
8. How important is the picture book format to communicate with young readers particularly when it is a critical idea such as challenging rules, mostly patriarchal, to pursue your dreams?
I think it’s critical! Visuals go a long way in keeping a young reader interested and this is especially so in a format like Girl Power!’s where the text and illustration talk to each other on every page.
9. With this book are you addressing both boys and girls? What impact do you hope to create?
One might assume that this book is only addressed to young girls. That would be a terrible mistake. In fact, if anything, I think this book is critical for our young boys. For far too long, our boys have seen us in certain roles – as a mother, as a wife etc. It’s time for them to see Indian women succeeding in places that were traditionally demarcated as ‘men only zones’ – as wrestlers, as scientists, as entrepreneurs! If nothing else, it will help them understand what’s coming down the pike in the future!
10. Were these stories tested on younger readers before publication? If so what was their reaction? Did you incorporate any of their suggestions in the manuscript?
My daughter and her friends were invaluable as I wrote Girl Power! Those kids were my first editors! During play dates, I would read out entire stories and meticulously comb through their suggestions. Many profiles – such as Rani Abbakka – were rewritten on the basis of these editorial inputs! Several times, the kids wanted more details on an event or character that they found interesting. So for instance, in the Rani Abbakka profile, they wanted to know exactly how she defeated the Portuguese armada. That’s when I knew I had to include the part about how Abbakka secretly gathered her best soldiers in the middle of the night. The kids were fascinated when I told them that Abbakka instructed her soldiers to attack with hundreds of coconut torches and agnivaan– flaming arrows dipped in oil – all at the same time. The arrows lit up the night sky setting the Portuguese ships ablaze. These inputs brought so much colour and detail to the profiles and I’m so grateful to the kids! I think it was those inputs that have sharpened the profiles and created the final product.
11. Did you work closely with the illustrator? Did you help the illustrator select an image upon which to build the illustration?
Niloufer Wadia is a wonderful, prolific illustrator who can handle many different artistic styles with ease. I did make suggestions for some profiles; for example, Bula Chowdhury is an ace swimmer who once said “I should have been born a fish.” And so for Bula, I asked Niloufer if we could create something dream-like with Bula in the waves, half-woman and half-fish, almost a mermaid. That is easily one of my favourite illustrations in the book. For other profiles, Niloufer created something breathtaking on her own; Priyanka Chopra’s illustration is half from an iconic Hindi movie in traditional Indian attire and half FBI agent, a character from her show Quantico. That was all Niloufer!
12. Would you describe yourself as a feminist or as someone who feels strongly about women’s issues?
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.
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!’