Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Art of the Mills

Found these adverts/postcards for some of the textile mills in Mumbai and Ahmedabad. Mills like Phoenix and Jubilee which exist in different avatars now... Obviously, we loved firang models even then! Some of the clothes are fittingly gujju. I bought these from a kabadi wala in junagadh...

gujju romance zindabad!

the over-the-shoulder smile of a gujju sari pehni hui mem? is she thinking fondly of theplas?

this one could be a pose from a mary cassatt painting!

sometimes, beauty is a beast!

chandani raat hogi, taaron ki baraat hogi!

the guy was going for rakish but has obviously reached evil. well, the girl's kinda saucy too.

raja-ravi-varma wannabe meets bryllcreamed sophisticate...

this one to is actually dressed a lot like my grand mom in her youth... i love the scholar-beauty look - glasses and the fancy lace-collared blouse and tiny clutch!

Amit (for a change)

Sunday, December 06, 2009

‘We wanted to fill kids with the wonder of this large, complex land’

An interview which appeared in the Deccan Herald of December 6, 2009

Anita & Amit Vachharajani are passionately involved with children’s literature, and the books by this writer-illustrator couple are proof of that. While Junagadh-born Amit went to the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad and later shifted to Mumbai to pursue a career in filmmaking, Mumbai-born Anita conducts writing workshops for children, helping them express themselves more freely. The couple, which has an enviable collection of children’s books at their home in Mumbai, has recently come up with Amazing India – A State-By-State Guide (Scholastic), a beautifully-illustrated book introducing all regions of the country in a style that will make them aware about India’s diversity in a fun way. The Vachharajanis spoke to Deccan Herald’s Utpal Borpujari on why it was important to bring out a book of this sort:

How did you conceive the idea for this book?
Scholastic USA had published a book called My World – A Country-by-country Guide, and our publisher, Scholastic India, felt that a similar book on India would be great. We began working on Amazing India about two-and-a-half years back. It’s a richly-illustrated description, covering everything from India’s forests and animals, to its peoples, arts, crafts, music, film-makers, poets, dancers, warriors and artists.

What were in your ‘do’ and ‘not to do’ lists while compiling the book considering that India has so much to offer?

What we did not want to do was give kids a book with a laundry list of facts that they would be tempted to memorise! We wanted to fill kids with the wonder of this large, complex land through an exciting and visually-rich book. We chose to present a mix of facts laced with humour, so that each child who looked at it – irrespective of his or her age and interests – would find it engaging.

How did you go about deciding what to include and what not to in the book?
For each state, we wanted some points on history, geography and ecology; some on monuments; some on people, arts, dance, music and craft; plus some facts and figures. We did focus a little more on ecology, because India’s animals, wetlands, forests, farms, rivers and mountains are all in grave danger. Of course, we kept it flexible – in Karnataka, for instance, we used the monuments built by powerful dynasties to tell the state’s story.

With every state having so much to offer, wasn’t it difficult to leave out quite a lot of info?

It’s incredible that in India, each region is so different from the other, and so full of its distinct species, land forms and cultural practices. Despite this, however, a lot of intermingling happened between the thoughts and practices of different peoples to create what we so easily call ‘Indian culture’ today. To give children a small but memorable peek into this wonderful complexity, we devoted two pages to each state, with a map, informative points, illustrations, a fact file and an arts and crafts section. Space was tight and it was really tough choosing what would go in.

How did you do the research? Did you make personal visits to the states or you relied on available information?

Ideally, we would have loved to experience every single thing we wrote about and drew, but given the wide scope of this book, that might have taken us a little over a lifetime to do. Researching it was like being back in school, but with the freedom to choose what we wanted to study! Once we spotted an interesting fact, the first step would be to cross-check it across different sources. Then we would go to the next step in the research, which was finding correct visual references.

How did you decide on the mix of the known and relatively unknown facts for the book?

We were constantly walking a fine line between what is obviously important and should go in, and what is well-known and so can be left out. We consciously chose to describe lesser-known or forgotten facts. While we did talk about known monuments like the Taj, Fatehpur Sikri, Meenakshi temple, the churches of Old Goa and Nek Chand’s Rock Garden, we also wrote about less-known things and places like the Living Root bridges of Meghalaya, the cave networks of Andhra Pradesh and Meghalaya, the Neolithic cave art of Kerala and Haryana’s Saketi Fossil Park, where four-horned giraffes and giant tortoises roamed millions of years ago.

The book also indirectly encourages the targeted young readers to explore more about each region. What is the idea behind this strategy?

The whole idea behind it was that kids should get tempted to go out and learn more about the places they live in and visit. We have the do-it-yourself scrapbook pages at the end so that kids can slip into an observational mode. Hopefully, when our readers travel after going through the book, they would know what to look out for and would want to preserve their memories!

The mix of words and visuals in the book is almost 50:50. How important is visuals in a book of this nature, especially when the target audience is young?

Any factual book without arresting visuals would be a drag because visuals ensure that a child is drawn in. Drawings were a great way to make the ideas concrete for children and to help them visualize what was written. Children have a pretty sharp instinct for art and visuals. So when they see good, hand-drawn-and-coloured illustrations, they are bound to feel engaged by them. That was why why Amit actually drew over 250 drawings for this book, instead of using photos or computer-generated art.

(Published in Deccan Herald, www.deccanherald.com, www.deccanheraldepaper.com, 06-12-2009)


Friday, December 04, 2009

Reading the magic quilt

Nonie's Magic Quilt has been reviewed in The Hindu!

Six year old Nonie refused to sleep and what did her parents do? Relate stories of every kind:
“Stories there were of little kids
who grew green grass on their lids
Tales there were of tiffin-ly fun
Of candies, cookies and cream buns
stories of princesses living in pails
stories of dragons with tricky tails

But interesting though these stories were, did our little Nonie sleep? Of course she didn't.

“Try milk” said the doctor, the teacher said “Rice”
Their cat said, “Just feed her some mice”.

As the parents grew weak with the effort of making her sleep, Nonie only got stronger.

It was decided then that this was emergency and help had to be summoned in the form of Munni, who arrives on a flying broom with a load of luggage.
She is quick to grasp the problem and sets down to work. And the solution is “The Super Sleepalicious Quilt, the X-42”.
Somu the snake, Munni's assistant, and she get down to work and exciting “ingredients” are called out for:
“The screech of a parrot, the swish of a breeze
The roar of thunder, a sigh of the seas
The tinkle of bells, the flute's tinny tune
The twinkle of a star, the silver of the moon
The wolf's howl in the dark of the night
Across the sky, the eagle's long flight…”
As all these swirl around, they are bewitched into becoming little pieces of cloth that make Nonie's quilt. And did Nonie sleep after this?

Read this delicious hilarious story Nonies Magic Quilt by Anita Vachharajani, in rhyme, to find out. Along with the lines that make you double up in laughter are the illustrations by Anitha Balachandran that sets you giggling and your imagination soaring. A “must read” as it can inspire you to set out on your own story in rhyme.

And in the Timeout:
Six-year-old Nonie has no time to sleep. After all, if she shuts her eyes, when will she laugh and play? Her parents tell her stories about princesses living in pails and dragons with tricky tails, yet she refuses to catch any shuteye. Finally, they summon Aunt Munni, who sets about making a Super Sleepalicious Quilt. This delightful story is told in verse form and is refreshingly cheeky and funny. Anitha Balachandran’s sharp and witty illustrations add colour to the poem making it a perfect bedtime story for children who are just learning to read.

Here's a link to the publisher's page.

And this email from Jenee, a friend who read Nonie out to her kids: (you can see she's been very, very kind :)

Hi Anita,
...I envy you, to take some much time to make something so nice and simple is soooo difficult. How much writing rewriting sitting with editor, convincing publisher, sitting with illustrator
Please tell Anitha that the Gandhi on the stamp is nice and mostly reminds me of Mario Miranda’s style)
The rhyming and at the same time runs like a story
What’s ‘green grass growing on the lid?’ “Bit of lunch”
‘Tight sleep’ a nice old phrase
Who named her Nonie? It’s not a common nickname I think.
The broom is kicking interest as my daughter suddenly said “Harry Potter poleya?”
Parents and adults who are reading will have to run to get dictionary and imagine really a lot with this story so kudos on that! Simply put it is worth the money and time put in while the kids will like the book itself.
Why have you named the quilt X-42?
I liked this the best
“Oh there’s always lot of room when you travel on a broom.”
“She plays all day, sleeps at night
Wakes up each morning, feeling bright.”

Thank you, Jenee! And of course, the reviewers at the Hindu and the Timeout.

Dhan te nan!

Amazing India is finally being launched (yes, well after it has sold 7000 copies and gone into a 2nd print)! It's a quiz competition, to be held at the Hiranandani School in Powai - we will be there along with the scholastic team. See more here on the fb page and on the Scholastic site
more updates on that later!

Monday, October 05, 2009

Stick a fork in me, ’cause I’m done!

Just heard from our publisher that Amazing India has sold 7000 copies! It has gone into reprint already - in just 3 short months! We are so thrilled, and a bit dazed. It’s nice to know that in just 3 months the book has managed to reach so many children. Big thanks to the folks at Scholastic for such a wonderful job – at both printing it well and at using their school network to ensure that the book was really OUT there! All we wish for now is that it would be picked up by retail stores as well.

We worked on Amazing India at a time of great personal loss and sorrow, and it was sheer grit that kept us going. But the book was also a wonderful distraction, absorbing us entirely into itself, like a dark, comforting current.

There are many reviews like the one in the Timeout, the Deccan Herald, in the CLCD, the Newshouse and Robinage.

Don't their word for it, though, and go out and order your own copy at a bookstore near you!(Some stores have it, but others need a small prod to make them procure it...)

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Amazing India at the CLCD!

Uma Krishnaswami, a writer and illustrator who lives in America has reviewed Amazing India for the Children's Literature Comprehensive Database.

She writes:
India is a treasure trove of diversity on almost every front—artistic, historic, cultural, linguistic, geological, ecological, and more. Here is a paperback reference book that manages to pack an incredible range of facts and figures into just over 70 pages, along with a vast array of colorful spot illustrations, maps, and “fact file” sidebars. Organized by region, each spread deals with a single state, presenting a wide range of interesting tidbits of information about it.

The spread on mountainous Himachal Pradesh, for example, mixes landform and history by telling us that Punjab’s Beas river originates in the high passes of this state, and was probably called the Hyphasis by Alexander’s soldiers “who refused to go any further east from this point.” The capital in exile of the Dalai Lama, snow leopards, Nicholas Roerich and the Roerich Pact under which countries agree not to bomb each other’s cultural monuments, and a village that claims to be the home of the world’s oldest democratic system—all these find room in two densely packed pages on this one state.

Each one of the twenty-eight states and seven Union Territories is treated in this way, so that readers can learn in quick sequence about a chariot-shaped sun temple, prehistoric rock paintings, and the endangered Olive Ridley turtle. The back matter contains additional questions for the curious as well as two consumable pages for young travelers. While some of the text in the book assumes a basic knowledge of the country, much of it, presented in an encyclopedic format, will be fascinating even to readers for whom this is new material. Presented from an Indian perspective, Amazing India offers a refreshing take on a colorful, interesting part of the world.

TO find out more about the CLCD, click here.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Our target audience approves!

A book review by Sidhharth Bugtani, a 9-year-old student of PG Garodia School, Mumbai

Sunday, September 06, 2009

The naming of things

They watch tv together – Malayalam channels in general and Idea Star Singer, a reality show, in particular. They find the anchor woman Ranjini pretty, rivetting and yet hilarious. Her affected Malayalam accent makes them call her a ‘foreigner’. They gasp at her chandelier earrings and laugh at her ‘acting’.
The other day n came home from grandma’s and said, “Ammu’s tv isn’t working… "
"Hmm," I said, staring into my comp.
"It’s ruthless,” she added.
I looked up and asked, “What? Ruthless?”
Amit, overhearing us from his desk, said, “Ruthless? But how can a tv…”
“Yeah,” she said dismissively, continuing to fiddle with the scab on her knee, “Fully ruthless, it is.”
Mom had been complaining about her tv and how it was on its last legs. Maybe n meant it wasn’t working and was therefore tormenting her? Ruthless that way? My child was a po-et and I didn’t know-et?
This morning while having breakfast, from out of the blue, she said sleepily, “I told you, no, Ammu’s tv is ruthless. It's not that. It's hopeless. It’s a hopeless tv.”
Ah, I see. The penny drops.

Friday, August 14, 2009

come here, i say!

since no one will ever accuse me of being too feminine, and since n is growing up to be smthing of a geek, i find i have no problems with feminine tropes the school sometimes explores for festivals like janmashtami. [though i must say i also loved the fact that on rakhi, teachers tied cheerful thread for them all - n's had a rabbit on it - and then said, 'thank you, dear sisters' to n and her kind. having sat and made the rakhis with the boys, the girls would have been cheesed off if none had been tied on, i guess.]

anyway, this is the song they were supposed to be dancing to today.

said in a sweetly sing-song voice:

come here, my dear, krishna-kanhaiyya,
maine tere liye hriday mein hai
mandir banaya
dudh, dahi, maakhan hai tere liye banaya.

there must be more of this poetry - there has to be - but it has been forgotten in the school-less days. they had learnt 'steps and stuff' as n calls it. walking like gopis - one hand on head, one on waist, and with a lachak (or a wiggle). and shocked finger-wagging towards young krishna + throwing / dropping of the cardboard matki or pot when he thows a paper ball. 'anju teacher' had been making the cardboard pots and colouring them too. (another note will someday be written on how much these teachers slog man, how much cutting and sticking they must do, for example!)

for some reason, young krishna had been told to cover his eyes in anger and then open them. there must be some deep stuff here, only our eavesdropping gopi seems to have forgotten the details.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

About Creating 'Amazing India'

Interview with the Scholastic newsletter, conducted by a student from The Lawrence School, Sanawar, about the process of writing 'Amazing India'.

Amit Vachharajani was born in Junagadh in Gujarat and spent a lot of his childhood reading, doodling and going to nature camps. He studied briefly at the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad but got bitten by the film bug and moved to Mumbai for a career in film-making. Apart from illustrating for magazines and children’s books, Amit also works with international documentary film crews. He has illustrated two books for Scholastic The Mystery of the Secret Hair-oil Formula and Grandpa fights an Ostrich and other Animal Stories. His other books are The Puffin Book of Funny Stories and The Shepherd Boy, a Ladybird Favourite Tale.

Anita Vachharajani was born in Mumbai and grew up in a neighbourhood that smelled faintly of molasses. Despite having a childhood devoted almost entirely to books and sweets, she loves nature and is an eco-enthusiast. Apart from writing for children, Anita has also translated nonsense verse and traditional stories. Her stories have appeared in The Puffin Book of Bedtime Stories and her translations feature in The Tenth Rasa: the Penguin Book of Indian Nonsense Verse. Anita takes writing workshops for children and focuses on helping them express themselves more freely.

Anita and Amit live in Mumbai with their daughter and more books than they can handle.

In conversation with Rahul Vij, Class X, The Lawrence School Sanawar

Rahul:The illustrations, I am told have been drawn and coloured by hand; you have blended facts with imagination beautifully. Have you professionally trained in art and design? How long have you been in this field?

Amit: Yes, all the illustrations are hand-drawn and hand-colored. I used pen-and-ink and watercolors. Illustrating this book was a huge challenge. There was a lot of visual research to do – finding a clear and correct reference and drawing each picture so that it would be interesting and yet accurate.

Though my natural instinct is to make funny illustrations, this book required a realistic style. Sometimes I would get bored with drawing realistically and we decided to find some facts which would need funny drawings so that the book would also become more interesting. If you take a look again, you’ll find that the Koli and the film-star dancing in Maharashtra, the hippie running towards Goa, the tiger mask in the Sunderbans, the tiger and the ghost in Sariska, the boys at the Wazwan and the Manikaran Springs, are all drawn in my favourite cartoon style.

I have always loved to draw and drove my teachers crazy by doodling constantly – till I landed up at the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad after school. I was there for two years and learnt a lot about art, conceptualizing ideas and of course the basics of drawing. After NID I ended up taking film making as my profession and didn’t pick up the brush for years till I met Anita and got interested in children’s books. She encouraged me to draw once again. Over the past eight years we have worked on some books together. I have also collaborated with other writers.

Rahul: What kind of research did you have to undertake to bring forth facts and figures about every part of India? Did you visit all these places?

Anita: Doing the research for this book was like re-discovering the wonder and magic of the Indian subcontinent. It was like going back to history and geography classes, except that this time we could choose what we wanted to learn – and we could have fun doing so! Ideally, we would have loved to experience every single thing we wrote about and drew, but given the wide scope of this book, that might have taken us a little over a lifetime to accomplish.

So we decided to focus on material from multiple sources: encyclopedias and books; the official Government of India websites on each state; and finally, the human source – where we would simply call up friends or researchers living in each state and ask for confirmation on the facts that we found. We checked and re-checked each piece of information many times.

But gathering the information was just one aspect – presenting it was the greater challenge. Because, you see, we didn’t want Amazing India to be just a collection of dry facts and figures. Each person or place, animal or forest that we read about, opened up our minds a bit more to the sheer diversity of India, to its vast landscape, its variety of people and ecologies, and its truly inclusive spirit. So more than just list out plain facts, we wanted to share the excitement of living in a country with so much diversity, and so many natural and man-made treasures in it.

Rahul:You must have collected thousands of facts about each place, how tough was it to condense and present them all it in a double-spread for each place?

Anita: Yes, we had lots and lots of details. Imagine that the Indian subcontinent’s artistic, ecological and historical heritage is part of a huge maze of knowledge, facts, legend and history. We wanted to offer you a peek in – one that would hopefully make you curious to look harder and deeper for yourself!

But we also had to work within the restrictions of the page size. The text, the map, the table, the illustrations, the arts and crafts section – all had to fit in. Deciding how much information we could use, on which topics, was a constant struggle. For example, do you know the famous Lalbagh Gardens of Bangalore? They were laid out in 1760 by Hyder Ali. Between fighting various battles against the British, his son Tipu Sultan painstakingly collected different species of plants for this botanical garden from Afghanistan, Persia and France. Later, Indian and British horticulturists added to it. This was such a lovely nugget because that garden is still visited by every tourist in Bangalore. It had to be dropped, unfortunately, but we managed to squeeze in the fact that Tipu was the first to send for silk worms from Bengal and start 21 centres to develop Karnataka’s silk industry.

We wanted to create something exciting and visually rich, and so we chose to present a mix of facts, laced with a bit of humour. It bothered us that history, art, culture, geography and ecology are usually presented very dully in our books. Our aim was that each child who looked at Amazing India – irrespective of his or her age and interests – should find something engaging, attractive and useful in it. We did focus a little more on ecology, though, because in India today, animals, wetlands, forests, farms, rivers and mountains are all in grave danger.

Rahul:How long did it take you to put this book together?

It took us about two and a half years, between researching the information, doing the visual research, the writing, the drawing and the designing.

Rahul: How did you come up with the idea of using a ‘?’ sign for any new fact that would raise the reader’s curiosity?

Anita: I was simply curious about some terms. I didn’t really know –technically and precisely – what a national park, a biosphere reserve, a wetland, a world heritage site, a Buddhist chaitya or a vihara were. I didn’t know exactly what Project Tiger did, or how an ape was different from a monkey. And I certainly didn’t know how a monolith was different from a dolmen – though, as it turned out, there are monoliths, megaliths, menhirs and dolmens all over the Indian subcontinent.
And I imagined that if it was tough for me, it would be tough for my readers too. Which is why a small reference section at the back made sense. The choice of the ‘?’ mark as an icon was easy – after all, at the bottom of all our knowledge is the need to ask questions!

It was also a sneaky way to pack in more. For example, when I was trying to understand what exactly a wetland was, I read that mangrove species which grow in wetlands play a key role in keeping seaside cities safe from erosion and floods. The Ramsar Convention held way back in 1971 in Iran recognized the importance of wetlands and mangroves, and worked towards preserving them. I wanted to share this fact with readers, but there was no way to do so within any one state. The ‘Are you curious?’ page became a nice space for slightly more detailed explanations.

Rahul:I like the book cover very much. How did you decide what must go on the cover? How long did it take you to design it?

Amit: It’s great to know that the cover caught your eye. I put a lot of thought into what it should look like and tried many ideas on paper. The most important thing about the cover was that it had to be visually attractive and had to have a promise of what was inside the book. Above all it had to be inviting enough to make a child want to open it. Once I had the design, the fonts and the background color in place, putting in the illustrations did not take much time. The cover must not have taken me more than two to three days from idea to final design. The tough part was choosing which of our favourite illustrations would go on the cover. Those favourites that did not make it to the cover got their place on the title page and in the introduction.

Rahul:Do you plan to do any more such books in future? If yes, what theme would you choose next?

Anita and Amit: Anita is writing for two anthologies and has four picture books coming out this year. One of them – Nonie’s Magic Quilt – has just been published. It is a completely crazy story told as a poem and has been illustrated beautifully. She has written stories about ghostly grandmas, elephants, lost owls and others. Amit is in fact illustrating two of her picture books. Doing informative books like Amazing India is very, very hard work, and though writing fiction is challenging too, it’s a lot easier in terms of actual footwork. Having said that, we do have an exciting idea for an informative book – again on India – so watch out for it!

here's international children's writer uma krishnaswami on amazing india in her blog. she'll be reviewng it a little later...

Read more reviews here.

Friday, July 31, 2009

We've been read!

By the good people at Timeout, Mumbai
Amazing India – A State-By-State Guide Ages 8+
"This is no ordinary geography atlas. Kids can read about subjects as wide-ranging as wazwan, the 36-course meal in Jammu and Kashmir, “scraptures” in Chandigarh and filmstar Rajnikanth in Tamil Nadu. Amazing India celebrates the diversity of our 28 states and seven union territories not just with facts and figures, but through cultural anecdotes, legends and trivia. Most of the factoids are accompanied by striking illustrations, and will have children spouting sentences starting with “did you know...” for weeks after."

And the good people at The Deccan Herald
Amazing India – A State-By-State Guide By Anita and Amit Vachharajani, Scholastic, Pp 72.
"This book does a good job of condensing the essence of the natural, cultural and historical wonders of our homeland into simple, brief capsules. Each state has two pages of devoted fact files, and brief notes on history, natural beauty and cultural heritage. These tantalising snippets of information will encourage young readers to read more books, watch films and actually travel to learn more about the places and facts that they find most interesting. Did you know that a "Chaitya is a large prayer hall made of rock and teak wood, with an apse or a half-dome-shaped gap at one end? Karla and Bhaja caves, in Maharashtra, have large and elaborate chaityas." Read this book to learn the difference between the terms Paleolithic, Mesolithic and Neolithic.

"Learn about wetlands, biosphere reserves, the Bhavai folk theatre of Gujarat, the rare and endangered red panda of Sikkim, and more. There are pages for young readers to stick their own personal photographs and notes about interesting places they have visited. The colourful illustrations on each page are instructive and lively. Handy and easy to read and remember, books such as these can also be a great guide for impromptu quizzes and other activities."

And there was a tiny review in the DNA as wel, but can't seem to find it online...
If this doesn't inspire you to run out and grab yerself a copy...

An interview with us by a student.

Here's more about what it was for us to work on the book, if you like to read that sort of thing.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Yes, Virginia, dreams do come true! Or, YAAAYYYY!

There are healthy ambitions, and then there are those you should worry about. Like my old, old, old one of writing picture books for children in India and hoping to have them published. About 10 years back when I first began taking my manuscripts around, editors would smile indulgently when we mentioned the words 'picture books'. It wouldn't work, their marketting guys would invariably say, and that would be the end of it. (Of course it didn’t help matters that my stories themselves weren’t so great!)

Over the years though, more and more Indian picture books have begun peeking out of shelves in stores. About a year and a half back, I was directed by a friend (thanks, Arthy!) to Saraswathy Rajagopalan, the editor at Tumbi Books, Kerala, who was coming out with original, Indian picture books. Luckily for me, she liked this long story-poem of mine, and felt it would make a nice read. They got one of my favourite children's illustrators, Anitha Balachandran, to draw it. The book – which was expected to come out in September – suddenly turned up today!

We opened it excitedly, and as usual, Anitha's done a wonderful job. She's captured the spirit - the fun, the mischief - of the poem so well, it's amazing. It's like she was sitting next to me while I was writing the poem, chortling with me and planning what all she could draw in. Which never happened of course - we've never met or even mailed - so well, hats off to her! She's drawn in details I’d never thought of, adding a whole new layer to the text. I also personally like the way she brings in real things - tiny details, like a stamp or a bit of a newspaper - to give the page a lovely, slightly scratchy and tactile quality.

The story itself was inspired by N, who becomes Nonie in the poem. Nonie refuses to sleep - she plays, runs and generally never tires. But her parents are exhausted. So mum sends for a magical cousin, who arrives in a swish of beads, colours and baggage which leaps and moves with life. She hints at flying on a broom, and whips out a snake - Somu - to measure Nonie for a magical quilt. As a poem it's great fun, and thanks to Anitha, it's now visually magical too!

Sorry if I sound a bit breathless - apart from the fact that the book's looking lovely, for me the fact that my mad dream of doing a picture book has come true is a bit overwhelming.

Tumbi Books are available in most bookstores, I think, and if you don't find the book the first time, do make a request for it with the sales staff. It might make them want to procure the books!

Friday, July 03, 2009

Gimme hope, Liberhan, gimme hope!

It’s strange that my memories of the years leading up to Dec 6, 1992 and the bloodbath that followed have sort of frozen into one sharp image which in itself isn’t particularly remarkable. We lived in a primarily upper class unstatedly Hindu locality, but of course, had secular thoughts and beliefs, which were slowly, slowly being questioned on a daily basis in the papers and in the news.

One day, waiting at the dhobi’s – Kismet Laundry – staring up at the stickers of devis, ‘good luck’ and ‘sceneries’ or strange posters of a park in Thailand as he tied up our clothes, my friend and I were startled to see a new sticker, orange in colour, full of swastiks and trishuls stuck on the beam above the shop. It said, ‘Garv se kaho hum Hindu hai’. We were embarrassed and a bit angry. My friend got into a conversation with him, her voice starting to get shrill and both our faces tight with disapproval. Recognizing hysterics when he saw them, the dhobi smiled laconically and sniggered and gave our anger a cold shoulder. Politic and measured, he just kept smiling at our annoying yapping. Finally, swallowing some paan spittle, he snarled, “Aage aage dekho kya hoga...”

Those years were full of these conversations where fissures appeared even as people spoke. It was like every second person had a personal stake in the Ram Janmabhoomi non-issue. Malayalee expat relatives from the Gulf, who by all rights should resent a daft Aryan agenda, suddenly turned belligerently and militantly Hidnu in their words. They were full of anti-Arab feeling, I guess, and every time they landed here, exuding an air of poshness, they would pronounce that it was time to ‘teach the fellows a lesson’, coolly forgetting that it’s one thing to hate your rich Arab boss, and totally another to want to unleash genocide on a large part of this country’s citizens.

Then suddenly one morning – on the 6th December – the unimaginable happened. The hate that Advani and gang had been steadily pushing us towards sort of erupted in the destruction of a heritage structure. I couldn’t believe they had done it, I couldn’t believe they had gotten away with it, and I couldn’t believe the spiral of hatred that we descended into.

One of our neighbours – a wealthy Marathi lady whose daughter had sung Catholic hymns and secular songs with the rest of us in school – made a little moue as she said, “Good ya, high time someone showed these Muslims good.” It distressed me that she was a school teacher, someone with access to kids on whom she could inflict her hatred.

I feel the whole progressiveness of the ’70s and the ’80s was carefully demolished by that single party and its determination to make a non-issue into something it could win an election with. It’s taken the Indian polity what, 30 years, to give the BJP the kind of trouncing it deserved? I’m not a great one for karma, but for every innocent’s death, I hope Advani, Joshi, Bal Thackeray and that gang of wretched fundamentalists writhes in a hell fire made specially for them. Or as my mother put it one day – wish someone would chop off their family jewels and put them in the sun to rot and die.

The thing with this sot of fissuring of a populace is that it serves your immediate goal of winning an election. It creates a need out of nothing – the standard practice of good advertising – and then where that need takes you, into what sort of despair and grief and trauma, it doesn’t care. But coming back to the fissuring – it doesn’t just end with religion, does it? I mean after you’ve take the whole Muslims-are-bad thing to its logical conclusion, you start needing more enemies. Marathis, then? Or maybe as we’ve seen in Mumbai, non-Marathis? Bhaiyyas, perhaps? Madrasis, maybe? Or how about Gujjus? Sindhis? Parsis? Catholics?

The MNS worked with a Marathi theatre group on a play called Bhaiyya haath-pair pasare about a dhobi who began by ironing in the landing of a building and went on to own the building one day, thanks to his industry and his native cunning. I’d like to meet the dhobi from Kismet all those years back. He’s a father of three now, managing a paan shop next to the laundry and a middle-aged paunch. I’d like to ask him if he had any stickers about how proud he was to be an Uttar Pradeshi Hindu in a city which was suddenly finding his kind uncomfortably competitive.

But that’s really asking the wrong guy for answers. I mean, all he did was put up a sticker. If a mob attacks tomorrow, chances are this poor guy will lose his life’s savings and his limbs. Safe in their homes, spouting hate, thinking votes will be the idiot ideologues, the Advanis, the Sudheendra Kulkarnis, the Manmohan Joshis, the Raj Thackerays, the Balasahebs.

Thank god the Liberhan Commission has blamed them squarely – the hate-spewing BJP morons and the dozing fiddlers like Narasimha Rao and Kalyan Singh. But more than the Commission’s finding, the trouncing of the BJP at the elections gives me hope. It means the sort of slap in the face that seasoned politicians like Advani and Modi and Jaitley can sort of begin to feel!

Oh, and all those who plan to leave nasty, anonymous, pro-Hindutva comments? You can be quite sure I won't be publishing them, especially if they contain the word 'pseudo-secular'. If anything, I think the secular agenda is the only one that isn't pseudo. I mean, in a country of such staggering poverty and so much social injustice, what can be more pseudo than raking up a mythological figure who may or may not have lived and fighting over his birthplace? It doesn't get any more false!

Sunday, June 28, 2009

After many a ghisaai

If you passed by Chembur in the months from January to mid-May, you probably saw two people lying in a heap on the benches of diamond garden. If they looked exhausted and bitter and were muttering angrily at one another, that was probably me and Amit. We weren't going through a Giant Marital Crisis, though it sometimes did feel like that, but were working on wrapping up this book, this product of our two-year-toil which we now 'umbly present to you!

In case you're wondering, it's a book on the states of India - the 28 states and 7 union territories, to be precise. One doublespread, or two pages are devoted to each state. Each spread has a map, important facts on the state, and about 10 or 12 interesting things about it - covering aspects as vast as the history and geography of the state, its stories, its monuments, its dances, and its forests, national parks, biosphere reserves and endangered or special animals, if any. There are also about two to three indigenous art and craft forms which are described for each state. Each spread has about 12 illustrations by Amit, drawn and coloured by hand.

Our focus was basically to pique a reader's interest about this large and diverse country, to help them springboard into a deeper awareness of India. So we tried to stay off the beaten path as much as possible, tried to find and highlight issues that are rarely discussed in books on India for kids. Like the rebellions fought against the British by tribals in Central India prior to 1857. Or the story of how Islam, Judaism and Christianity reached Kerala. Or how Paithani saris of Maharashtra were often designed by Princess Niloufar, the daughter-in-law of the Nizam of Hyderabad.

Often we'd find this uber-cool fact, but not be able to back it up; or having backed it up, not be able to find a visual reference. If finding the information was tough, then letting go of some of it was even tougher. Picture this: on a spread with a map and about 12 to 13 nice, colourful drawings, plus a table of facts, how much room do you think text is going to get? So no colourful and scintillating metaphors, no extended descriptions, just the bare minimum prose, cut to a crisp.

Choosing what to put in was a huge struggle, and it meant some tough choices... Like, being a malayali, i felt that any TV commercial on Kerala would tell you about the Thrissur Pooram, but what about Edakkal caves and its neolithic carvings in the forests of Wayanad, that even I didn't know about? And what about the fact that that the Koodiyattam dance form, 2000 years old, was deemed a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by the UNESCO? Not to forget Silent Valley or Sairandhiri Vanam, home to the lion-tailed macaque, saved from being made into a hydro-electricity project by conservationists?

So it was a continuous fight not just with ourselves, but also with the limitations of the software we were working with (the slightest text change, of an adn to an and would be enough to hide a word behind a drawing somewhere else on the spread) and the exhaustion we were feeling thanks to being so sleep-deprived.

Now, seeing this book in technicolour, it sort of makes us forget those months of exhaustion and bitter mutterings. Sort of like having a baby and forgetting those 9 wretched months of puking and gas. And labour.

So yes, please say Hello to our new baby and try to meet her at a bookstore or a Scholastic exhibition near you!

An interview with us by a student.
Read reviews here.

Sunday, May 24, 2009


once upon a time, my clothes never matched. they still don't but that's more of an accident than the style-statement it once was. when i was 21, i believed in something vague like a sense of rhythm in your over-all look rather than matching colours. so if the light greeny-blue bead on an earring you wore sort of resonated with the dots of bluey-green on the white block print of your purple salwar, which in turn 'went' with the bottle green trim on the blue kurta you were wearing, you were home safe. i think youth is a lovely concealer, so it didn't matter what one wore - thick jute like block prints and lots of bangles, etc. - it all sort of came together, glued firmly by youthful confidence. when well-coordinated older cousins complained that i was SO mismatched, all i did was smile. i tended to imagine that i was throwing them into a muddle of serious envy and self-doubt.

back then i had an older friend who was fat, a mother-of-one and terribly unhpappy in her marriage. i'm very very ashamed to admit now that it used to bother me a bit that her clothes matched ane - shudder - were made of cotton blends and even synthetics. it surprised me back then because she was SUCH a bright, funny woman otherwise. and i thought EVERYone knew that bright, funny, sexy people's clothes DON'T match, and were made of natural fabrics! her clothes had laces and embroidery and trims and fusses, and matching dupattas, and were all very proper.

i'd look at those sleek bizzy-lizzy kurtas, the sad attempt at streamlining with discretely embroidered terrycot nighties, and wonder when she would grow some taste again... to me, high on life, wearing thick maroon jute with black block print in a bombay summer, her choice of blends and sometimes 100% synthetic fabrics was not just pointless and shocking and vaguely morally reprehensible, it was also just so sad.

17 years, one kid and a weight gain of 20 kgs later, i find there's been a slight shift in perspective. at the shops yesterday to buy myself some ok togs before i hit amit's home town, i found myself doing the unimaginable - straying cheerfully towards the bizzy-lizzys, the terrycots, the downright synthetics. where once i would have dripped disdain, i admired the colours, the patterns. because i get out so little, the sheer clevernesses in fabrics boggles me in shops. i get giddy from the prices, the prints and the textures.

boggled and giddy as i am, though, it doesn't stop me from trying to match in order to contract the silhouette a bit. those same pathetic attempts to mask the burgeoning bod with pollyester are made... bizzy-lizzy, a thickish blend, is my new friend. it is a wee bit flattering - in that it doesn't make up its own little bulgy lies unlike thicker cotton, and it doesn't quite glimmer and flow like synthetic either. but that's my range these days - bizzy lizzy, to the odd paisley-printed 100%synthetic, to thinner, finer cottons simply because i still can't resist block prints that run colour with every wash and will eventually become as comfortable second skin... i steer clear of the 'thick' cottons, getting totally seduced by the supposedly slimming fluidity of the synthetic.

but i do try and put up a fight with myself. i stand at the counter, biting my lip, wasting the poor shop man's time, wondering about the heat, the sweat and the 'immorality' of it all somehow (don't ask me why, but buying synthetic has always seemed morally a bit suspect to me). of course i succumb and buy the lot eventually. sigh... how the sartorially advanced have swollen and become pollyester-punjabi-dress-wrapped auntyjis...

this, from my favourite doonesbury, speaks of youth and age so well... it's about a middle-aged woman being sent to recruit a young male fbi agent. i think her reaction would be mine...

Thursday, April 30, 2009

so many comments, so little heart

the post below and the related one on olive ridley turtles have seen such a buzz of angry comments, it's not funny. it's dire actually. so many people wrote about 'obscure little animals in wetlands' and how it was time to ignore greenpeace and support the tatas. so much anger, so many anonymous comments (some which sounded suspiciously like they were from tech-and-blog-savvy staff at the port itself). this after the singur fiasco.
and hardly a comment or two from the other side. makes you realize that in these as in most other matters that seem to capture our country's imagination, the only people who stand up to be counted are the upper class, right wing, pro-destruction sorts.
sad really...

Thursday, March 26, 2009

so much for corporations that care...

This came in a mail... Sad, isn't it?

Greenpeace India:
We've been trying to reach Mr. Ratan Tata for weeks now but to no avail, forcing us to release an ad in the two newspapers he subscribes to, Financial Times and International Herald Tribune. Have a look at it[high quality:http://greenpeace.in/turtle/images/ad.jpg] and help us get it published in all editions of prominent Indian newspapers by the end of this week. http://www.greenpeace.org/india/supportus/support-nano-turtle-ad

their facebook page:

and here is a link to our older post on the ridley issue.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Coloured Pictures

(I wrote this for the November 2008 issue of The Book Review - an article on classics among children's books - stuff that left an impact on my mind, as well as picture books I wish I'd seen when I was a kid. Here there are a few tweaks and illustrations you won't see in the original!)

Among my first ‘friends’ in the world of books were two Russian girls named Masha and Zhenya. While Masha was resourceful and clever, with a ready wit, Zhenya was more me: a bit greedy, a bit dull, and definitely careless. Masha was to be admired, while Zhenya—so much like me—was just accepted. In case you haven’t guessed already, my ‘friends’ were characters in Soviet picture books which seemed to dominate the Indian children’s book scene in the ’60s and ’70s. Delightfully written (and translated), beautifully drawn and designed, they were cheap even for the time. Their illustrations covered a breathtaking range from the detailed, jewel-bright Russian-folk-style rendering, to pellucid watercolours, and impossibly scraggly black-and-white lines. If there is one thing I can blame for my abiding desire to look at and hoard children’s picture books, it has to be those bits of Soviet-era publishing.

G.K. Chesterton once wrote in a book he gifted a child:

…Stand up and keep your childishness:

Read all the pedants’ screeds and strictures;

But don’t believe in anything

That can’t be told in coloured pictures.

There is a curious sort of cyclicality in finding these words—I love Chesterton’s crime-busting Father Brown series. And Chesterton is supposed to have written the above words as part of a longer inscription in a book of Randolph Caldecott’s illustrations. Interestingly enough, Caldecott (1846–1886) a British artist and cartoonist, drew 16 picture books for children, which were subversive and highly textured, and went on to inspire generations of artists.

But picture-book illustrations are really more than just coloured pictures. As a writer of children’s stories and a mother, I think the illustrations in a picture book are supremely important. Primarily because they add another layer to the text—one that the non-literate child often ‘reads’ by herself. In the best picture books—where illustrations mischievously suggest more than is said by the actual words—this second level often breaks the fetters of the first. Not only do they create a playful other dimension, but illustrations also extend the frames of reference for a child, creating associations and levels of meaning that would be uneconomical if done with words.

When I read out or tell a story to children, I know that what is grabbing their eyes, making the words ‘real’ and enchanting for them, is the artist’s version of it. Of course the story is paramount, but the drawings are actually the bridge that takes the story to them. I’ve grown to understand that illustrating for kids is as much and perhaps more difficult than writing for them. The same rules of thumb apply: don’t talk down to your reader / viewer; be mad; be good; and most importantly, be a bit bad.

There is an essential and perennial confusion in the world of children’s books—what adults feel children should read versus what children themselves enjoy reading or seeing. This confusion—which enters the world of illustration as well—is a path both publishers and parents have to negotiate delicately. While there have to be the ‘good’ stories—the fables, the pedagogic tales, the ‘useful’ books, there also has to be enough of the mischievous, the naughty, the merrily subversive. Take Punch cartoonist E.H. Shepard, whose black-and-white, scratchy, seemingly-rough drawings were not considered the best choice for Winnie-the-Pooh (1926) by A.A. Milne. Milne still agreed to have him draw When we were very young (1924) and was so delighted, that he went on to commission him for the Pooh books as well. Pooh bear—inspired by Milne’s son’s toy in the story and by ‘Growler’, Shepard’s son Graham’s toy, in the illustrations—was captured by an artfully rough style (in fact you can see Growler/Pooh's precursor at the bottom right of the b&w drawing here). The stories and their endearing characters went on to enthrall generations of children (till, that is, the Disney machinery swept in with their trademark yellow-and-red bear, a far cry from the homely toy of Shepard’s imagination). Shepard was to extend his subtle ‘roughness’ to create far busier visuals for Kenneth Grahame’s timeless The Wind in the Willows (1931).

One of my favourites (though I must admit it took me time to realize that) has always been Ludwig Bemelmans’ Madeline books. Written and drawn by Bemelmans, Madeline (1939)—illustrated in a flat, uni-dimensional style, largely in black-and-white with a studied and painterly abandon—was considered too sophisticated for children. At first glance the visuals do seem forbidding—but one reading down, most children are glued to the fast-paced rhyming narrative and the seemingly off-hand illustration style.

The very spare classic Goodnight Moon (1947) by Margaret Wise Brown was illustrated in a rich yet somewhat muted style by Clement Hurd. ‘Goodnight’ is said to each thing in an anthropomorphized baby rabbit’s room. As a parent you can recognize the love for rituals that children have, and with subsequent readings, will sense how the book actually helps unwind. Goodnight … slowly reveals its illustrative richness—little details are noticed by the child in the ‘clean’ artwork, and a lot happens independent of the words. A tiny mouse, for instance, appears on every page, and children have fun spotting it.

When it comes to the mischievous-yet-delightful in children’s books, practically nothing can beat Theodore Geisel’s oeuvre, written and illustrated by him as Dr Seuss and sometimes as LeSeig. When asked by his publisher to create a picture book for children using less than 250 words, Geisel took 9 months to create the completely farout The Cat in the Hat (1957). A cat in a red-and-white striped top-hat drops in on a pair of unsuspecting siblings, and tries to entertain them while turning their house upside down, much to the consternation of their pet goldfish. It was funny, riveting, and literally ‘… a karate chop on the weary little world of Dick, Jane and Spot’ (Ellen Goodman). The Cat … was published under the imprint of ‘Beginner Books’ and much more literary mayhem was to follow.

As a parent and a writer, I marvel at the stunning simplicity of Geisel’s words, and at the vivid madness in his minimalist books. Geisel is in turn funny (as in the very basic Hop on Pop), crazy (as in Green Eggs and Ham, Mr Brown Can Moo, The Eye Book, The Tooth Book and Wacky Wednesday) and sometimes even political (like in Horton Hears a Who). Beginner Books went on to publish many fantastic titles by other artists and writers as well—the laugh-inducing Put Me in the Zoo (1960), written and illustrated by Robert Lopshire, is just one.

Eric Carle is another innovative children’s illustrator whose work simply refuses to conform to adult notions of ‘child-friendly’. With a background in graphic design and advertising, Carle created colourful books out of collage, using layers of hand-painted paper, that are stylish and yet earthy. Beginning with Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What can you see? (1967), he went on to create many classics like The Very Hungry Caterpillar (1969) and The Grouchy Ladybug (1977).

A British artist who caused something of a paradigm shift in how publishers and parents would view illustrations forever was Quentin Blake. His seemingly casual, scratchy sketches have brought so many of Roald Dahl’s stories to life (The Enormous Crocodile of 1978 is a perennial favourite) that children often think he writes the books as well. Blake’s delightful illustrations have a breathless quality, and he has not only drawn books, but also written some like Mr Magnolia (1980), Fantastic Daisy Artichoke, (1999) and the Mrs. Armitage series.

The thing with children is that they recognize immediacy and sincerity in art. So whether or not a picture is ‘good’ by adult standards, a child’s response to art that grabs him is usually quick and instinctive. Often a book that I think will scare my daughter or alienate her, in fact ends up appealing to her the most. Artists, I conclude, must know something about her responses that I don’t!

Tuesday (1991) by David Wiesner and The Grey Lady and the Strawberry Snatcher (1980) by Molly Bang—both Caldecott Honor Awards winners—were startling examples of this. Tuesday is a wordless book, where you build the narrative as you go, finding new details and images with every reading. Just before 9 p.m on a Tuesday, near a marsh in small-town America, some phlegmatic frogs sitting on lily pads begin to fly. Startled, the frogs grow dizzy with the thrill of flying. When dawn comes they slowly float down and have to hop back to their marsh where—understandably—they sulk. On the last page, at the same time next Tuesday, pigs begin to rise.

It was a book I was sure would terrify my toddler. It had a quiet eeriness to it and the painstakingly rendered frogs were not your average picture-book froggies. But she found it riveting, enjoying the sheer craziness of the story and laughing at the frogs’ glee. The novelty came from discovering a new frog in the swarm, a new expression, and a new detail with every reading.

If Wiesner came as a surprise, then Molly Bang’s The Grey Lady … was a shocker. A wordless book again, it ‘tells’ of an old lady who buys a basket of strawberries for her family. Leaving the shop, she is followed by the ‘Snatcher’, a skinny, gangly-limbed blue-coloured man wearing a yellow-and-purple shawl and a red hat. Deviously, he follows the Grey Lady, making many grabs for her basket.

The Lady dashes into buses, hides in a swamp, climbs a tree, swings from a vine, and finally escapes the relentless Snatcher only by a last-minute authorial intervention. Fed up, he spots a mulberry bush, and eats enough to have his hair stand up on end in a blissful, orange afro.

The challenge of the book is not just the fear of the chasing Snatcher, but the fact that Bang uses a complex narrative style. The same page has the characters in two different positions—before and after an event. Surprisingly, kids actually get Bang’s complicated shifting of perspective and her elliptical story-telling device. Surprisingly, they seem to like rather than fear the Snatcher.

It took Bang two-and-a-half years to illustrate the book. When it came out, it was panned by critics as being ‘too flashy’ and ‘weird’. When Bang won the Caldecott, she writes, she was surprised and asked a committee member if they had read the reviews. The member replied, ‘We don’t make our decisions based on reviews.’

In India too, we have illustrators who regularly tore out of the sweet confines of the artistic envelope. Sukumar Ray—Satyajit Ray’s father—probably pioneered the movement for deliciously mad illustrations in his still-popular Abol-tabol (1923), a collection of nonsense verse. Much later, Shankar, an amazing artist, wrote and drew many books in his bold and effortless style. R.K. Laxman’s illustrations for Kamala Laxman’s Thama (1975) series brought alive an endearing baby elephant.

Target, a children’s magazine, seemed to attract the best talent in the ’80s, with illustrators like Atanu Roy, whose richly intricate lines were dramatic and nutty; Ajit Ninan who drew the hilarious, pot-bellied Detective Moochwala; and Jayanto Banerjee, whose Gardhab Das, the donkey-musician, perennially plagued us with his lousy singing.

Mario Miranda’s quirky, whimsical and sometimes even serious sketches in our Class 2 English reader left a huge impression. I’ve forgotten much of what I learnt, but his fat, funny, robust illustrations for Dhondu and the Rotten Eggs, and his solemn turn for a travel piece on Goa from the same book, are still fresh in my mind.

So the next time you want to pick up a picture book for your child, explore a bit and try to find exciting artists—the ones mentioned above are at the extreme, outermost tip of the iceberg. Look a little deeper and there’s a whole world of picture-book illustrators out there (flapping about like eager penguins, perhaps?), just waiting to be discovered and enjoyed!