My friend – Roopa Pai

Roopa Pai. Author. Friend. Guide. Mentor.  She is so many things to me that I really don’t know where to start. I met Roopa many moons ago in 2008 at my first exhibition here in Bangalore. She bought the first Khiladi table I ever painted. AND it still sits in her house 🙂 I don’t recall how and when we made that  transition from client to friend. But we did. And I am the richer for it. My conversations with her travel through various topics and moods. The best part is that we can have opposing views and still see the other person’s point of view without acrimony of any kind. We can agree to disagree!

Roopa’s recent bestseller The Gita for Children is a must read. For EVERYONE not just chidren. And her latest book Ready, a gamified book on Life Skills inspired by the Scouts and Guides Movement, sets teens and tweens 99 challenges to crack before they are worthy of being called WoCoTeens – World-Conquering Teenagers.

Our conversations on the Gita have been instrumental in making me think differently. They are in large part the reason I started that series of portraits and self-portraits I talked about in a previous post about narrative storytelling. I love how she manages to get to the essence of a topic like the lessons from the Gita that Roopa talked about at her Ted Talk a few months ago. One afternoon is enough to give me a lot of food for thought. And keep me chewing for days…

I am going to let you discover Roopa through her own words.

What is your background?

I am the always-curious, often-schizophrenic product of a proud Kannada middle-class upbringing, a convent-school education, a childhood steeped in British kidlit,  an engineering degree that I had no desire for, and a lifelong passion to write Indian stories for Indian children. I was born and brought up in the beautiful city of Bangalore, which I still think is one of the nicest, most liberal, most balanced (on so many levels), most entrepreneurial, and most chilled-out cities in the world.

 What made you decide to write?

Now that’s a question I have been asked many times, and it is a question to which I do not have an answer. I have no recollection of any one incident that was the inflection point, or of any point of time in my life when I ‘decided’ to write – the decision seemed to have been made for me while I was too young to remember, or perhaps in a previous lifetime, by something deep inside of me. I wrote because I wanted to, because I had to, because I loved to, and because, well, it was something that came as naturally to me as walking or reading.

Why children’s books?

I always knew I wanted to write, but I think I realised I would love to write for children when I came across two wonderful magazines. One was the all-colour, glossy-paged National Geographic Kids – my uncle in the US used to gift my sister and me an annual subscription to it every year. I loved both the vibrant pictures in it of animals and birds and people and things, and the simple but wonderful writing that conveyed so much information on natural history and science without ever making it feel text-booky. The other magazine was a very lovely, much-missed, never-replaced children’s magazine called Target. Through its original stories, features, interviews, comic strips, games, quizzes, and so much more, all rooted in the ethos of an Indian childhood, it showed me, for the first time, that it was pretty cool to be Indian. Both these magazines were huge inspirations, and they made me want to write for children. Target refined that desire even further – it made me want to write Indian stories for Indian children.

Why fantasy?

That wasn’t a conscious or premeditated choice. When I was asked to imagine a fictional children’s series for Hachette India Children’s Books, I instinctively turned to fantasy simply because I had always enjoyed fantasy as a child – it was very liberating to not be bound by the physical laws of the planet I lived on or its social and cultural constructs or, most importantly, its limited reality. What makes us human, what makes us different to other creatures, is our capacity to conjure up and live in alternative realities, to exercise what is called imagination, and children have the strongest, most robust imaginations. They are more than willing to suspend disbelief if you are telling a good story, but they will want it to be logical, which makes it a real challenge to write believable fantasy (that sounds like an oxymoron, but it isn’t really) for children. It was a challenge that I was very happy to take on.

What emerged after a couple of months of brainstorming with myself and with my editor Vatsala Kaul- Banerjee at Hachette, was the eight-part sci-fi fantasy series Taranauts, which is actually the very first original Indian sci-fi series for children in English. It had to be ‘sci-fi fantasy’ and not ‘magical fantasy’ like, say, Harry Potter, because personally, and perhaps that is because of my academic background, I believe science is really magic by another name, except that it is ‘real’ magic, not a trick, not supernatural, not a sleight of hand. And because it is something that anyone can make happen, I like it more – it is a ‘better’, more democratic kind of magic.

Given my own self-imposed writing principles, Taranauts also had to be very Indian in spirit, and I achieved that by creating a parallel universe called Mithya, which was lit up by a supersun called Tara. The mithyakos (people of Mithya) spoke a language called Taratongue, whose words were a combination of an English language word and an Indian language word, and travelled around the endless sea of Dariya in amphibious vehicles called aquautos that looked suspiciously like Indian autorickshaws. The hero and the villain of the story are identical twins, which again referenced the Indian belief that there is no one who is completely good or completely evil – both the good and the evil twin live inside us, and the choices we make determine which one we are, at that moment.

(As an aside, do you know we do not have a word for devil, or evil, in any Indian language? There is ‘demon’, but demons are not evil, just misguided – they can be pious and fiercely disciplined and win boons from the gods, but then they get arrogant and make the wrong choices, and bring about their own downfall. Since we do not even believe in the concept of an evil, or all-bad, creature – the devil, in other words – we do not have a word for it.)

How do you balance writing on so many diverse topics?

I think there are two reasons why I write on diverse topics. The first is that I am easily bored. Once I’ve gone deep into one subject or genre and written a book/books on it, I see little point in repeating the process. I want to go after something new and challenge myself. The second reason is that I am curious. Many different subjects interest me at a superficial level, and since I know that I will not really go deep into something unless I am writing a book on it, I pick a topic and plunge in. That’s why I often say that for me, writing a book is a very self-indulgent pursuit – I am not thinking of my readers really when I write something (except in the sense of using examples and language appropriate to the age group). I am thinking of my own personal development – intellectual, emotional, spiritual, academic.  I have serious fun writing my books, and I have usually learnt a lot by the end of each one, which in turn shows up in some way in the next book I write, and so on.

Tell us about BangaloreWalks.

I have always been a huge history buff, so I am always going on history walks wherever in the world I am. But it was when we lived in London as a young couple that my husband and I got to experience the full range and wonderfulness of themed walking tours. The London walks were cheap, there were endless ones to go on, they got us to experience and enjoy the city in a very different way than we would have otherwise, and they gave us so much fabulous trivia – my husband and I had both quizzed at school and college level, so this was absolutely fascinating. We wondered why we didn’t have such walking tours in India, and when we came back to our hometown Bangalore twelve years after we had left it, we decided we would try and create similar tours in Bangalore.

Bangalore isn’t your typical historical city – it is less than 500 years old, young by Indian standards, and it has never been one of the country’s great bustling seaside metropolises like Bombay or Chennai, never a seat of empire like Calcutta or Delhi. So it seemed a bit counter-intuitive to start history and heritage walks in Bangalore, but one huge advantage we had was its amazing weather – it allowed us to run walking tours through the year. Plus, when we began to dig into the archives, we found a lot of great stories about this apparently insignificant little town. The stories mapped out for us the arc of Bangalore’s growth – it did not become India’s intellectual capital or its most liberal and entrepreneurial city by accident, it was a very deliberate progression, which happened because visionary kings made good, wise choices or because of a specific inbuilt geographical or cultural advantage. We were excited to share these a-ha moments with people, and BangaloreWalks was born.

Twelve years down the line, it is still going strong. We are proudest of the fact that we have introduced the city more often to hardcore locals than we have to visitors, and that our schools program is so strong. For me, personally, as Director of the schools program, the walks have been a great way to bring three of my loves – children, history and my beloved Bangalore – together.

What do you feel about the children’s lit scene in India, both by itself and in comparison with the rest of the world?

The children’s lit scene in India has only just begun to make a ripple in the larger public consciousness, and it has a very long way to go. But compared to, say, eight years ago, around which time I started writing Taranauts, it has really exploded. Today, there are several dedicated publishers of original Indian children’s books, there are exclusive children’s litfests, often hosted by schools that believe strongly in the importance of reading, there are awards for children’s books, websites and blogs that only review children’s books, and so on.

About the rest of the world, I don’t think it is very different elsewhere. Sure, more copies of books may be sold because of things like institutional buying – all public libraries in the US may buy certain books, for instance – but apart from that, kidlit everywhere is a sort of fringe movement. Mainstream publications make no room for children’s book reviews in their literary pages, and even award-winning children’s authors are never accorded the kind of respect that writers for adults get. But most children’s authors have made their peace with that – for them, and for most authors in general, writing is a labour of love, something they do because they wouldn’t have it any other way. A JK Rowling is a complete aberration, a once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon – and so most children’s authors, not just in India but across the world, will not be giving up their day jobs anytime soon.

Which is your all time fav book?

That’s a really difficult, even unfair, question – there are so many that are favourites, each for different reasons. But I will say that among my favourite books are:

  • Every book by Enid Blyton that I’ve read
  • To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  • Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
  • Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie
  • The Shadow Lines by Amitav Ghosh
  • The Golden Gate by Vikram Seth
  • If It’s Monday, It Must Be Madurai by Srinath Perur
  • Maximum City by Suketu Mehta
  • Yuganta by Irawati Karve
  • Myth = Mithya by Devdutt Pattanaik
  • East of Eden by John Steinbeck
  • Crime fiction by Ruth Rendell, PD James and Colin Dexter

I’m sure I’ve left out several favourites here, but I think a dozen is plenty for now.

Your all time fav author?

Different ones at different times. All the authors above have held that honour at one time or another, apart from several others.

Ever think of writing adult fiction?

I did actually start writing a novel for adults more than a dozen years ago, and had even sent part of the manuscript to a publisher of great repute in India. The editor wrote back saying that she ‘was charmed’, and asked me to get in touch once I had finished the novel. Paradoxically, that acceptance killed my interest in finishing the novel. Just the fact that a big publisher and a highly-regarded editor had liked my manuscript had validated my effort, and I never did finish it. I think I got cold feet, too – like most debut novels, mine was to a large extent autobiographical, and I was very reluctant to put it out there. As it was, just the act of putting it all down in writing had given me my catharsis. I had dealt with my demons, and I could put them behind me now and move on.

I have never wanted to write adult fiction since. Will I never write fiction for adults, then? One should never say never, of course, but I think it is highly unlikely.

Note – Credit for the two black and white photographs goes to Sushrut kulkarni.


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