Monday, September 26, 2011

Interviewed by the Timeout!

Found in Translation
What kind of stories do children find appealing? Strong narratives, arresting visuals and irreverent ideas are crucial, according to children’s writer Anita Vachharajani. Gijubhai Badheka’s Gujarati folk tales not only meet these criteria, but like most folk tales, are also a combination of the absurd, the philosophical and the fun. A contemporary of Mahatma Gandhi, Badheka wrote a variety of children’s stories, which were later retold and illustrated in Hindi by author, painter and cartoonist Aabid Surti. Associated with children’s publishing since 1998 and author of children’s books Amazing India and Nonie’s Magic Quilt, Vachharajani has translated Badheka’s folk tales into English that include a set of two books titled The Phoo-Phoo Baba and other Stories (Volume I) and Uncle Know-All and other Stories (Volume II). She has used both Badheka’s and Surti’s texts for the English version. In an e-mail interview, Vachharajani tells Shinibali Mitra Saigal that folk tales show kids how “sense and nonsense can be tossed together for fun.”
What prompted you to translate Gijubhai’s Gujarati folk tales?
My husband Amit is a Gujarati, and he introduced me to these folk tales. Gijubhai was an educationist who propagated freedom and love as being central to the process of learning. I translated some of Gijubhai’s nonsense verse for The Tenth Rasa: The Penguin Book of Indian Nonsense Verse, edited by Michael Heyman. Later, the editors at Pratham Books asked me to translate Aabid Surti’s Hindi re-tellings of Gijubhai’s stories. I worked with both the Gujarati and the Hindi texts.

Which was your favourite Gijubhai story in the collection and why did you like it? Each one was a discovery. The one I had the most fun with was Uncle Know-All. It's about an old know-it-all who lords over a village of fools and the bizarre nuggets of wisdom he doles out. It had a really weird and completely irreverent feel .

What is more difficult? Writing an original story or translating one? Both are challenging. When one translates, one has to make sure that the text lives and sparkles in the target language as well. In an original story, you can take the narrative where you want to, whereas in a translation, your path is more or less decided for you. Your job is to make that path as rich and joyous as possible.

Can you always retain the subtle nuances of the original? You do lose some nuances. It’s inevitable. But you aim to capture the spirit of the original, without becoming heavy or pedantic. Also, even as you lose one set of nuances, you create others. Since I had both the Hindi and the Gujarati texts to work with, I could see that each version was slightly different. It’s an intuitive process and every re-teller of a story – especially in the folk tradition – makes choices and decisions to suit his or her style. Gijubhai himself was re-telling some of these stories, and you can sense that the language – informal, chatty – is entirely his own.

Do you think knowledge of folk tales will disappear if they are not translated into English? Unless we make a legitimate and viable space for folk art, it will be sidelined with time. As for our stories, we must keep telling and re-inventing them in new contexts to keep them alive. Re-telling a story in multiple languages takes it to a new audience, and that’s an exciting thought, as so many more people can read it.

The Phoo-Phoo Baba and other Stories (Volume I) and Uncle Know-All and other Stories (Volume II), Pratham Books, Rs.40.
Appeared in the Timeout of Sept, 2011

Sunday, September 11, 2011

It takes a village... even to have fun!

Was the world a better place when I was growing up? Life was harder, for sure. Mom was an office-goer, grandma was strict, teachers were sticklers, and worst of all, TV had one black-and-white channel where the highlight was aapan yanna pahilat kaa - a show that listed out names and descriptions of missing people. If we were really lucky, we caught the fleeting, animated Amul ad.
My daughter has it easier - freelance, stay-at-home parents; a choice of wildly similar cartoons and reality shows on TV; and apparently, a liberal academic system. What does she lack that I had? I guess the answer is friends. Friends who live nearby and are just one loud, afternoon-nap-ruining yell away. We had this growing up - friends who were always ready for play, fights, trips to the corner shop and sharing comics.
Now we live in a neighbourhood of low-rises, where all the young people have left, following jobs that take them to where other young couples - and their kids - are. We live among retirees and are indisputably the only people of child-bearing age around. Our kid, therefore, has no playmates.
In fact, our neighbourhood is so kid-free that BMC’s Pulse Polio staff took a long time to figure out that we existed and needed reminders and booster doses. This may make no sense to the un-kidded among you, but those with kids know that the Pulse Polio people are the most dedicated sniffer-outers of children under five. It took them time to find us, and that is saying a lot. When they found us, they shook their heads in wonder and said, ‘Kisko maloom tha ki iss building mein bhi bachche hai...’
So we started taking baby to the garden. The few kids who turned up there were a floating population. The only permanent people were the grannies, and though our child loved playing with the arthritic old ladies, it was obvious that she needed peers.
Young couples with kids automatically seem to gravitate towards the newer gated complexes, and since we couldn’t move to one of those, playdates seemed like a solution. But fixing up ‘appointments’ for toddlers is an insanely awkward and pointless exercise. Firstly, it’s not like you’re walking into the neighbour’s place for a game of ‘house-house’. So it’s not casual. The moms and dads have to like and ‘approve of’ each other. Then schedules have to be discussed and tweaked. It all begins to feel way too strained, artificial, and too much like work.
What I wanted was for my kid to have a village of her own. A set of friends to play, fight and gossip with every day. Children need to build relationships outside the comfort zone of families, so that they understand the dynamics of social intercourse. This knowledge is so important that most tribal societies have formal spaces like youth dormitories and age-sets to foster it.
Just when I was about to give up hope, I met an old schoolmate in the garden, who generously said, “Come play in our building, there are many kids.” So I located her building, about eight streets away from us, full of young people, their kids, and their friends’ kids. A small oasis of 25 children! Presto, my daughter had her village, albeit a bit further from home than I liked.
At first, playing with peers was difficult for her. So far her playmates had been obliging adults. Children are instinctively not polite or obliging to one another - with them, you have to, like in the jungle, earn your stripes. So every evening would end in a fight and her howling loudly, and yet, come the next evening, she wanted to go back.
Some time later, in a shop, she picked out a yellow Tantra t-shirt which said: ‘Friends are better than TV’. Maybe she just fancied the colour, but I like to imagine that she was trying to say something.

This article appeared in the DNA dated Aug 28, 2011.