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On writing

Andaleeb Wajid is a well-known name in the romance and young adult writing circuit. An interview with her on books and writing. Originally published here

Straight from the heart

Prachi Agarwal

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A Perfect Match

Reviewer: 
Sandhya Rao
Review content: 

Ramendra Kumar is a prolific spinner of yarns, and A Perfect Match is a perfect example of this. The title itself is vintage Ramendra, pun and all, as you will realise very soon. But first, if all grandmas and grandpas had the energy and ingenuity of Dadaji and Dadiji who star in this story, life would be a cinch for all grandchildren. However, it is not clear why Saket and Sakshi live with their grandparents, or indeed, if Dadaji and Dadiji live with them. Anyhow, here’s the story in brief.

“The two of them lived with their grandchildren, Sakshi and Saket.” We don’t exactly know where, but it’s a place where women and girls mostly wear salwar-kurtas. Di supports a young hockey team called the Halwas, while Da (the abbreviations are mine) supports another called the Jalebis. Yup, you got it: The Halwas are a boys’ team, and the Jalebis are a girls’ team.

The book opens with the two grand oldies arguing about who will lick whom, and a match is fixed (not really, but you know what I mean). After some initial misgivings regarding fear of being thought of as sissies and blatant expression of superiority, the girls and the boys agree to participate in “the epic battle”. Di and Da bring their own skills into the equation: “Dadiji who had represented her college in hockey taught the Halwas a few more skills. Dadaji who had studied management brought his team building and planning talents to the fore.” Now, we just have to take the storyteller’s word for this.

The big day dawns, spectators take their seats; “even the peanut vendor and the ice cream seller who sold their wares in the market had shifted to the venue of the mother of all matches”—although there’s no clue as to why this would be the mother of all matches. A seesaw battle ensues, with the teams scoring a goal each. Di and Da are in their element, she nearly losing her voice, and he almost losing his whiskers—and he blushing at her language, really. Finally, with one minute to go, and a deciding goal waiting to be punched into the goalpost, up pops Toofan, a pet dog who belongs to Sakshi and Saket. He neatly picks up the ball and makes off with it, providing “a perfect ending to a perfect match”. No winners, no losers, all equal, boys and girls, Di and Da very happy.

It’s a romp in the old-fashioned style, reminiscent of the early days of writing for children in English, when location didn’t matter, nor did context, or even substantiation, so that there’s little scope to ask why. However, the pictures, lively in themselves and adding to the fun element, make some suggestions of other perspectives not enunciated in the text. For instance, while Di and Da are pretty smartly shod, the children play barefoot.

Overall, the narrative journey is focused, and the writing, if not award-winning, is competent. Most important, the story is not pretentious. Of course, if you were to go only by the description on the back cover, you could be misled into thinking this is a story about sports, in the manner of the Shah Rukh Khan film, but it isn’t. Hockey is just a tool for another tale-spin from a writer who pushes them quickly through the air.

Review Year: 
2017
Review thumbnail: 
Reviewer Profile Note: 

Sandhya Rao is primarily a reader who can’t thank her stars enough that there are so many stories and so many wonderful writers to bring them home to us. She is also a journalist and writer of children’s books.

Book1: 

A Perfect Match

A Perfect Match.jpg
A Perfect Match
Author:
Ramendra Kumar
Illustrator:
Niloufer Wadia
20 pages
English
Rs 35.00
ISBN: 978-9350224601
Pratham Books, 
2016
Story Rating: 
3
Illustrations Rating: 
0
Language Rating: 
3
Design Rating: 
3
Overall Rating: 
6

Eighteen Tides and a Tiger

Reviewer: 
Nimesh Ved
Review content: 

The Sunderbans are one of the few, if not the only, tiger reserves left that retain an air of mystery. This is not only on account of its landscape—ecologically distinct from other tiger reserves in the country—but also because of the absence of the intensive jeep safaris (tourism) and extensive camera-trapping (research) that one has begun to associate with tiger reserves. Historically too it appears not to have been a hunting ground unlike some of its well-known counterparts. April 2017 even brought the news of the Indian wolf having been photographed here for the first time. It is a landscape of unparalleled opportunities—from debates over tiger numbers to new threats that emerge in form of power plants and shipping routes—opportunities the author of Eighteen Tides and a Tiger does not exactly capitalize on.

The premise of the book is appealing. A young person from an urban area and interested in tigers comes to intern with the forest department at the Sunderbans in Bengal. He brings with him fond memories of time spent at Corbett in Uttarakhand—another tiger-bearing landscape—thus providing us some interesting opportunities for comparison. This young person then has an adventure, one that he isn’t likely to forget very soon. Intertwined with this adventure are tigers, people and the beliefs people have about tigers.

The author weaves in some interesting facets relating to the landscape, for example, how the the local boat is better for tigers than the hi-tech one. The mystery around Bonbibi and Dakhin Rai has been worked into the story, and the author even leaves us with a hint of mystery towards the end. In someone who has not visited the area, the book manages to kindle a curiosity and an urge to visit as soon as possible. Where the author falters, however, is her black-and-white take on wildlife conservation and the world around it. Little in the world is black and white, especially in a landscape like the Sunderbans.

Beginnings are crucial—be it a report, an article or a chapter in a book. Here neither the foreward nor the note in the beginning help the book. The foreward begins with, ‘People cannot differentiate between a man-eating tiger and a normal tiger,’ and ends with, ‘This is a very different book from In the Shadow of the Leaves and Leopard in the Laboratory.’ These set the tone for the pages to follow, one that is steeped in clichés, and the less said about nuances the better. Lines like ‘anyone who writes about tigers has at some point to tackle issue of Sunderbans’ do not exactly help.

The cover is eye-catching and pleasant, but the illustrations could have been better, especially given the frequency with which one comes across tiger images compared to other animals. The editing could have been better too. Terms like ‘tiger reserve’, ‘tiger sanctuary’, ‘restricted area’, ‘core area’, ‘national park’ and ‘buffer zone’ have been used, which tends to confuse, given that some of them overlap. It would have helped to either have these terms clarified or to have avoided them altogether. Similarly ‘forest department’ and ‘forestry department’ appear to have been used interchangeably, as have ‘ghagra’ and ‘skirt’. The absence of a map does not help either.

Some of the sensationalization could have been avoided. Lines like ‘the highest concentration of tigers anywhere’ appear to make little sense without context. The tiger population in the Sunderbans is mentioned as 85, but the book does not make it clear whether it includes Bangladesh (though it does state that the Bangladesh Sunderbans cover a larger area than India’s). Besides, statements like ‘tigers have never troubled us, we stay clear of core areas’ makes one wonder if tigers recognise the human-made boundaries. Other species that make an appearance in this biodiversity-rich area have been almost neglected, and where crocodile (for example) has been mentioned, the line begs clarity.

Wildlife conservation in India has been critiqued for being elitist, tiger focused and protected-area centric. This book unfortunately falls into these traps. Khan sahib is prefixed with ‘the’ each time he is mentioned, he owns a ‘sprawling mansion’, and has a ‘khansama’ at his service. He drinks ‘jin’ while the locals drink ‘sickly smelling stuff’. A forest department personnel ‘pushes aside’ tourists to make way for his boss. None of this has been questioned or looked at critically, and the principal character too makes the ‘right noises to the influential grown-ups’. A book on wildlife does not need to preach morals, but would have been good to have been sensitive to the socio-cultural/-economic situation of the landscape and country.

Review Year: 
2017
Review thumbnail: 
Reviewer Profile Note: 

Nimesh enjoys undertaking train journeys and soaking in glimpses of the country they offer. He blogs at http://nimesh-ved.blogspot.in/ and can be reached at nimesh.explore@gmail.com.

Story Rating: 
3
Illustrations Rating: 
2
Language Rating: 
2
Design Rating: 
4
Overall Rating: 
6

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Accessible but unavailable

The NCERT is ready to roll out its set of 40 accessible textbooks for classes I and II, but it might be a while before classrooms in India will be able to get their hands on these much-needed texts. Originally published here.

India has designed a revolutionary new set of accessible school books, but printers come up short

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Simply Nanju

Reviewer: 
Maegan Dobson Sippy
Review content: 

Simply Nanju is a special piece of writing. Although it is bound to be summarised as such, I don’t think it’s fair to pigeonhole this as a book about children with disabilities. Yes, it’s set in a school for differently abled young people. And yes, it has a great deal to teach us about those with special needs. But its resonance is far greater. In fact, it’s a book which, in its own gentle way, has a lot to say about the various shades of grey of the human spirit.

These shades of grey are vividly apparent in Sulaiman’s cast of characters. Nanju’s class teacher “Theresa Miss” is a particularly great example of this. This is not a woman who wears a halo – we see her losing her temper, occasionally taking out her frustrations on the children, and retiring to the staffroom for pain relief when it all gets a bit much. Yet she’s the same woman who goes out of her way to visit a child’s home when she has concerns about safety, and who is moved to tears by the hardships faced by one of the students in her care.

There’s something about all these characters that’s wonderfully believable – from the protagonist Nanju with his happy-go-lucky attitude and soiled shorts, right through to minor characters like Bhavani, the “Amma” in charge of chai distribution, whose penchant for hierarchy means that she doesn’t “believe it necessary” to offer cups of tea to the assistant teachers, however much they may ask. Haven’t we all met someone like this?

Simply Nanju is also a book which doesn’t shy away from presenting some of the world’s harsher realities in a matter-of-fact way, and there are certain passages you’re unlikely to forget. Take Armaan for example – the small boy in Nanju’s class who is frequently hauled up for coming to school without socks because, “between him and her other five children – his mother barely had time to haul him to the van every morning and toss him into it”. This is the same child who has his first proper meal of the day when he receives his school lunch, and, consequently, year by year, grows “a little smaller, a little weaker, and a little less able to do the things he could do earlier.”

Yet Sulaiman manages to weave these home truths into a tale which at times makes you forget that its protagonists are differently-abled – itself a powerful way to challenge preconceptions about disability and difference. Like most fifth graders, Nanju has a nemesis – in this case, Ronit, who “has a nose for people’s weaknesses” and takes great pleasure in goading him. He also has something of a crush – class topper Aradhana, radiant at the school talent contest with her “fine soft hair” tied back in a “loose bun held in place by a shiny gold clip” with “lips the colour of cotton candy” and “cheeks tinted with rouge”. He and his classmates are, like most kids their age, concerned with cricket, who has the snazziest sneakers, and their marks in class.

Middle-grade readers picking this up will therefore find much to relate to – especially, I suspect in the sensitive portrayal of unkindness and bullying in a school setting. It’s particularly moving to see Nanju and his ‘nemesis’ Ronit working together, especially because Nanju sees him at the receiving end of some bullying, and can relate to how he feels. Young readers, too, will relate to the strong bond of friendship between Nanju and Mahesh, subtly but strongly portrayed through gestures as much as words throughout the book.

There’s a lot more I’d like to say about this book – from waxing lyrical about the beauty of Tanvi Bhat’s cover illustration, to talking about the way in which the author manages to intersperse warm humour into her text. But I’ll close by saying the only way to capture this book is to read it for yourself – it’s one of those rare children’s books which can be equally enjoyed by adults as well as young people.

Review Year: 
2017
Review thumbnail: 
Reviewer Profile Note: 

A freelance writer, Maegan came to India to work with Tara Books in 2010, and has had a soft spot for visual books for children ever since. Together with Bijal Vachharajani she now runs the Instagram handle BAM! Books, which curates children’s book recommendations with a South Asian focus. Her first picture book, Rats Bigger Than Cats, is due to be published by Karadi Tales shortly. She lives in Bangalore with her husband, daughter and cat.

Story Rating: 
4
Illustrations Rating: 
0
Language Rating: 
5
Design Rating: 
4
Overall Rating: 
6

Ayesha and the Firefish

Reviewer: 
Revathi Suresh
Review content: 

Ayesha and the Firefish is a sci-fi adventure fantasy novel with a dash of the spiritual thrown in for good measure. It has many appealing qualities that will make it enjoyable to a young reader (age ten and up? Maybe an advanced reader who is eight or nine could try, too). There’s non-stop action, mystery and suspense, nail-biting edge-of-the-seat moments, and an endearing, though somewhat precocious cast of characters. The book is very visual and even as I was reading it, it felt like I was watching a film. And so, I’ll get to the illustrations by Devangana Dash right away. They are charming, often detailed, and do a fine job of capturing certain scenes. The sparkly cover is eye-catching. However, Chowdhury’s descriptions are so vivid and colourful that the black-and-white drawings in many chapters fall flat and could have been done away with altogether.

The book starts with ten-year-old Ayesha holidaying with her parents in Rimini. Something beckons her to the beach at night and she follows her instincts (and a persistent call) and winds up at the bottom of the ocean for a very important meeting. Turns out that bioluminescent phytoplankton—which Ayesha calls firefish—are disappearing from the oceans at an alarming rate, putting all life on the planet at risk. Ayesha has to not only find out why the electrolytes, another name for the biophytostuff, are depleting but also, if possible, reverse the process. She has heroic qualities—we are told (one too many times) that she is brave, smart, kind and compassionate, apart from being an indigo child. Google the last, please, we learn something new every day. So, she is given a tiny surfboarding wise-cracking snail as an assistant, as well as a bag of large black pearls and sent on her way. Unknown to her, she is being followed.

Her first stop is Rome, where she picks up a sidekick in the form of an older cousin, and from there the trio—two humans and a snail—whizz through countries and continents at a head-spinning pace as they track clues that take them from Galileo to Gaudi, from a Stephen Hawking-like professor to the Dalai Lama himself.

Chowdhury’s style is breezy and engaging, the language pitched just right. However, there are marvellous coincidences and parents and sundry adults are so cooperative and unquestioning as to be almost scary; the children manage to interview or seek audience with very important people in absurdly easy ways; money, which can be such a huge obstacle in the normal scheme of things, never really proves a challenge. There is always a way out in the fantasy world we’re roaring through, as if the writer decided that in light of the planet-saving problem the threesome are faced with, it makes sense to keep the real world sweet and perfect enough to give the reader a toothache. Except when you get to India, where you get food poisoning instead. Made me frown, that bit. But you have to understand that this is a very first world sort of novel where people live and holiday in posh places, never lack for material things and travel almost at whim, where relatives drive Alpha Romeos, and where two minor kids travelling alone on a long-distance flight are not only not questioned, but are upgraded to first class just like that, for fun. To think that when I was a kid fantasies about easy living used to be about favourite foods growing on trees.

Ayesha and the Firesfish is like The Da Vinci Code for the young and shares the appeal of Dan Brown’s bestseller. If you’re looking for a pure fun read that’s not about issues and messages, hidden or otherwise, this could be the book for you.

Review Year: 
2017
Review thumbnail: 
Reviewer Profile Note: 

Revathi Suresh doesn't really like to read or write but feels weirdly compelled to do both. Her novel for young adults, Jobless Clueless Reckless, was published in 2013

Book1: 

Ayesha and the Firefish

Ayesha and the Firefish.jpg
Ayesha and the Firefish
Author:
Ajay Chowhdury
Illustrator:
Devangana Dash
212 pages
English
Rs 250.00
ISBN: 978-0143334309
Story Rating: 
4
Illustrations Rating: 
3
Language Rating: 
5
Design Rating: 
5
Overall Rating: 
8

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