Tuesday, December 27, 2005

My heart leaps up...

...Every time I see a young person with a book. It happened again the other day. We were out having coffee, surrounded by teens and tweens (who all have too much money – but let me not get on that soapbox just now). One boy made us do a double take. He had a copy of The Hungry Tide on his table. I almost rushed to him and shook his hands excitedly for the following reasons:
1. A young person reading a book?
2. A book that's not a cel phone manual or about self-help?
3. And, of all authors, Amitav Ghosh?!!?
(Is anyone else alarmed by the shrill note of hysteria in my voice?)

Why is it so rare to see young people reading today? Why do 19-year-olds consider Harry Potter the height of intellectual accomplishment? There are rare exceptions
like my niece who lives in Canada and wolfs down books. But most other young people we know seem allergic to reading. Luckily, the current crop of under-12s thanks to their parents' cajoling seem to be reading a lot more.

What alarms me is that in 20 years’ time all the important jobs, across all professions, will be headed by people whose youthful reading peaked at Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul… Meanwhile, I shall cheer myself up thinking of that Lone Reader and his interest in Amitav Ghosh. And I’m going to ignore the voice in my head which says he might have been carrying it around for a cantankerous aunt!


Thursday, December 15, 2005

Monday, December 12, 2005

Requiem for a great magazine

In the ’80s the India Today group had an amazing mag called Target. I’m not exaggerating when I say that a whole lot of us used to read, adore and worship it. Target had just the right blend – it was cool and yet informative; politically and environmentally correct, and yet verrrrrrrrry funny; humanistic, and still full of the most adventurous stuff to read and do.

It was brilliantly produced in every way. There was an elegance about the layouts which few mags can replicate today. The writing too had so much clarity and crispness. Sigrun Srivastava, especially, had a gentle undercurrent of humanism in her stories. With people like Ruskin Bond writing for the mag, there was a lot of good reading material in there. There were tons of Funnies and make-n-do pages (my absolute favourites!). Target literally had something for every mood.

The indefatigable Moochwaala by Ajit Ninan was, I think, his best work ever. He’s just never had such a canvas again! And the tuneless Gardhab Das – possibly inspired by Cacofonix the Bard – took care of the slightly sadistic streak that all kids have. He was bashed, beaten and humiliated, but he just wouldn’t stop! Target had some absolutely sublime artists – there was Atanu Roy (whose skills were consistently brilliant), Neelabh and Jayanto, and some really whacky guys who had a deliciously gross, Mad-inspired style.

What was really unique about Target was that it simply radiated energy and enthusiasm. It’s unbelievable that so many talented people managed to gather at one point in time and space. Makes you wonder why there can’t be another Target today – are kids too jaded? Or are publishers too wary?

Sigh… meanwhile, we have a small stack of old Targets left, and are hunting for more. If you’re thinking of hurling out any, give us a shout!

PS: What was your fix? Was it Children’s World? Or Tinkle, Chandamama or Champak?

Thursday, December 08, 2005

On working together

She said…

When we tell people that we work together; that Amit’s an illustrator and I’m a writer, the reply is usually ‘You’ve a readymade team at home! How convenient!’

Actually, it’s anything but! It’s exhilarating, challenging, dynamic – but it’s not very convenient. If you’re a writer and you live with an artist, then you have two sets of creative tantrums to put up with. Not only are we constantly working on our marriage–all couples do–we’re also working on our careers at home. How far can one be critical of another’s creativity without ruining one’s love life? On the other hand, everyone values constructive criticism–so how do you balance love and creative differences?

The solution–which we’ve discovered after five years of bickering–is to trust the other, but finally, to also go with your gut feeling. I love Amit’s suggestions–being a trained filmmaker he understands the narrative form. Though he’s extremely cautious, he’s also fairly ruthless. He’s made me dump 2500 word stories and re-write them. I crib and mutter under my breath. Only to go through with it and realize that he was right all along!

Then it’s his turn–he’s drawing and I’m watching. Most of the time I’m happy with his work, but there are others when I’m not. I have to be careful. I can’t pretend I like something I don’t, but too much criticism and pencils will be downed! A few doodles, a couple of references to other books, some layout suggestions, and usually we’re good to go.

Those are the parts I love – when we interface and manage to solve problems. The part I hate? When he’s illustrating and goes into Prima Donna mode. Nothing about his work pleases him then. He draws stuff and rejects it summarily–nothing anyone says will alleviate the dark sulk. With time and much doodling, however, the cloud passes. There’s a breakthrough and he’s drawing like a fiend! The household heaves a sigh. All is well. The master is smiling again!

He said…

Anita and I worked on our first two books together. But this year I illustrated three books and surprise, surprise! Not one was by her. We just worked together on some concepts, a competition entry and a magazine dummy. Anita too had stories published by Puffin, but they weren’t illustrated by me.

Though we enjoy working together, it’s usually not our decision. Most of the time, Art Directors send you work from authors who you will probably never meet. And I discovered that it’s not a bad thing at all! I can pretty much do whatever I want to with my characters and their environs (with the Art Director’s blessings), and be sure that Ruskin Bond, for instance, won’t charge down from the hills brandishing his cane because I gave his character a coat and not a dark-green-striped pullover!

To be fair, I ventured into children’s book illustration only because of Anita. But having said that, it’s also a pain to have the writer peering over your shoulder, breathing down your aching neck to see if you’ve got her favourite character’s expression ‘just right’.

Writers tend to think that the story can exist only in their imaginations and that a mere pencil-pusher cannot be trusted totally with their work. I like working with authors and interpreting their words with them, but sometimes it can hinder rather than help. A 70-year-old writer called to say that she wanted “two mischievous-looking children (resembling her grandchildren), one Pomeranian pooch and a raggedy cat (both her own pets) and a cuuuute-looking elephant” to appear all together on one tiny book cover! She even sent me photos of her family and other animals so that I could see the ‘naughty glint in their eyes’! She also wanted me to put her photo on the back cover. But thankfully the publishers drew the line at that one…

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Memories of the Red sort

Growing up, I had fantastic picture books from the Soviet Union. They had been picked up by my mother from various pavements in Mumbai. They were scandalously cheap (50 paise to Rs. 2/-) and made delightful reading. The art was excellent, with breathtaking illustrations, and positively avant-garde design. My first brush with Tolstoy was through a book of poignant short stories with scratchy, brilliantly-rendered black and white illustrations. Chekhov’s Patch had the blue-grey-and-white tones of a Russian winter; and the dire moral in Pushkin’s narrative poem The Fisherman and the Goldfish was reinforced with beautifully chilling illustrations. There were jewel-bright Russian folk stories as well, with Baba Yaga and her gaudy house on its tall, birdlike legs. There was also the gossamer magic of Zhenya, the girl who swapped seven bread rolls for a multicoloured wish-fulfilling flower!

The greatest thing was that children in practically every part of the country could read these inexpensive, well-produced picture books in all languages. Far away in Gujarat, MP, interior Maharashtra, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and who-knows-where-else, there were kids from our generation reading them and lurhving them! But now the the Soviet Union is gone and so are the pavement book-stalls. You won’t find legendary piles of cheap picture books anymore. The big books stores haven’t heard of these and the House of Soviet Culture simply says nyet. Scouring pavements, we’ve found some gems: Patch; Kornei Chukovsky’s magical nonsense verse in Hindi; a lovely book about a baby called Mashenka; and the hilarious When daddy was a little boy…

This is a slightly altered excerpt from my article in Time Out, Mumbai
Click here if you want to see a few illustrations from some of our old books!