Bijoy and the Big River
by Meera Sriram and Praba Ram
Every once in a while a book comes along that has the right combination of subject matter, narration, facts, and pictures that it makes you sit up and take notice. And reach out to the authors to deconstruct the whole experience of how the book came about.
Bijoy and the Big River is one such recently published book by Tulika. And am proud to know the authors of this book - Meera Sriram and Praba Ram, whom I consider my very good friends.
Bijoy and the Big River takes us to a lesser known part of India, the eastern state of Assam and tells the story of Eri silk, dubbed 'Ahimsa' or Peace silk as no silkworm is killed to make the fibers, set along the Brahmaputra river, with a young boy, Bijoy, as the protagonist.
The book is reviewed in beautiful detail at Saffron Tree. Here I wanted to share the story behind the story. Having worked with the Praba and Meera intimately since 2006 thanks to Saffron Tree, I was thrilled to behold their latest book and decided to follow up with them to answer some of my questions.
I decided to share their answers in two separate posts - first, to spread the goodness -one post is not enough; and second, I loved each of their perspectives and didn't want to edit their words in anyway to fit in a single post so it won't be tediously long.
Meera is an "ideas girls"; she loves word play and word games and enjoys dancing to her own drumbeat. I am amazed by her enthusiasm and energy to follow her passion, be it photography, interior design, or authoring children's books. Without further ado, here is my recent interview with Meera Sriram.
1. When did you first start writing for children and how did that come about?
Praba and I first started writing for children about six or seven years ago. We were already blogging about children's books and we'd often discuss ideas – things, themes and issues we thought had potential for great stories, particularly when set in an Indian context. So it seemed like a creative and natural extension at that point to kick start our writing. Personally, looking back, I also think I had an irrational enthusiasm and a restlessness to do something about the void in India then. I had quit the corporate world with no resentment and I was eager to find out where this newly found urge to write was going to take me.
2. Your first book Dinaben and the Lions of Gir sits proudly in our bookshelf. How does the writing of Bijoy and the Big River compare with that of Dinaben, in terms of weaving a narrative?
Thank you, Sheela. There is an overlap when it comes to the sentiments of the macro-themes. But in terms of narrative, style and standard, there is a significant difference mainly stemming from the age group and the nature of the series the books address. For instance – “Dinaben and the Lions of Gir” targeted a much younger audience. However with Bijoy, we had the license to pack more information and hence we ended up with a longer and meatier narrative.
3. Walk us through those initial moments when Eri aka Ahimsa silk chose You to tell its story: Were you looking to tell the story of natural fabrics like cotton and wool and landed on silk by accident?
Sometime last week I came across this: The task is not so much to see what no one has yet seen; but to think what nobody has yet thought, about that which everybody sees - Erwin Schrodinger, and smiled. I thought it captured what we were going for at some point early on with our stories. Our intention was not to go looking for something out of the ordinary but instead to look at things fairly common, simple, and natural to tell a story. Because most often, these are the things we take for granted, these are the stories that go untold. Silk was our first and only choice. We were drawn to the science behind it. Our research quite immediately led us to Eri and there was no looking back.
4. Did you consider anybody other than Bijoy to tell this story through - say, a young girl, Bimla?
Ha ha ha…no. Sounds very likely, but if I remember right, no :)
5. The process of research and fact-checking, not to mention finding the appropriate photographs, must have been tedious. Were you in touch with the silk farmers or any particular agency to provide first-hand information?
Yes, we researched for several months on the internet. We later connected with many passionate bloggers, travelers and conservationists from different continents. One of them, for example, lived in France. And when we wrote to him, he had just returned home after working for two months with freshwater dolphins in Pakistan. It was pretty exciting! So, all these people who were in direct contact either with the regional ecosystem or culture helped us with information and photographs.
6. My kids enjoyed the factoids on each page that gave a context to the story. Did you set about assembling the facts first and weave the story around it or vice-versa?
Most of the facts were in our head. We had an outline for our story cut out as well. We wove in the facts as we wrote. Whenever we felt it was getting a bit too much or irrelevant for the context at hand, we pulled out those facts and kept them aside. Some of them appear as factoids in the book. A few more important details about Assam were added towards the end to complete the list.
7. The book is full of wonderful images you paint with words. One of my favorites is when "a brown moth with thick velvety fur and potted wings lands on Deuta's hands... Bijoy stands there enchanted." Another is "Click clack click clack! That is what Bijoy hears walking down the streets in Sualkuchi, nestled among sparkling ponds and lush green fields." before I quote the whole book, I was curious to know if and how much the photographs you gathered during your research evoked those beautiful words in the book. Did words come first and photographs came later?
I am always excited to answer this :) Yes, it seems like the photographs inspired the choice of words. However, in reality, most of those photographs didn't enter the scene until much later. We were constantly building this mental image of everything we read about – landscapes, people and wildlife – with random visual inputs and information we were gathering during the research phase. It stayed with us as we wrote. Then when we set out in search of photographs, we found fragments of our story come alive through very diverse sources. It was pretty amazing how they all got shuffled up and fit right in.
8. You have done story times locally for Bijoy. Could you share some anecdotes about children's reaction first-hand as they listen to Bijoy and learn about an under-represented part of India? What kind of questions did they have for you? Were there any questions that made you wish you had included an answer to it in your book?
This is a great question, Sheela! I live in the U.S and I've only had opportunities to read to kids here. I always start by putting India on a world map and then zoom in. I've had kids confuse East Indians with the Native Indians here, so you'd think it can be pretty challenging. However, at the end of every visit, I walk away impressed and exhilarated.
With "Bijoy and the Big River," I had a wonderful experience presenting the book to third graders in California. They not only received it with ease and enthusiasm but processed it very sensibly. I’d say it was the floods that touched them the most.
I had one kid ask me why the people of Assam continue to live there in spite of the floods year after year. Another asked me how the moth species would survive if all the pupae were stifled for silk (in the non-eri case). There was also a lot of inquisitiveness about what growing up on a river bank would be like. All these opened up great discussions, which helps me answer your last question - no, I think (so far) I’ve not felt like we should’ve included answers because I believe that a book should maneuver a child to think beyond, to ask, to wonder and to imagine. So, I’m always happy when kids come up with questions :)
Thank you, Sheela, for asking, it was a pleasure sharing my thoughts!
Meera Sriram moved to the U.S at the turn of the millennium from India. After graduate studies and a brief stint as an electrical engineer, she decided to express herself in other creative ways, primarily through writing. She has co-authored three books for children. Her writing interests include people and cultures, nature and life’s everyday moments. Besides writing books, Meera reviews diverse children’s literature and writes articles on an online magazine, InCultureParent.com. She is also excited about an early literacy program, Little Lits, she will be starting in her community this summer. Curling up to read a good book with her little boy and girl is something she looks forward to everyday. She constantly fantasizes about a world with no boundaries over hot chai to help stay warm in foggy Northern California.
[image source: photo of my personal copy]