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Thursday, May 16, 2013

Author Interview: Bijoy and the Big River

Bijoy and the Big River
by Meera Sriram and Praba Ram

Bijoy and the Big River made me beam the first time I read through it, and not just because I knew the authors. The book stood apart from some of the other children's books from India that I've had the pleasure to read: the narration was warm and picturesque rather than academic and sterile; the format was well-balanced with just enough factoids to support the story; the subject matter and the setting was unique and novel.

I've followed Tulika publishers for quite a few years now, and within a short time, they have managed to bring out several amazing children's books, many of which are bilingual covering several of the main languages in India.

Praba Ram, founder of Saffron Tree, came into my life back in 2006 through our mutual love of children's books. Over the years, her passion found many outlets, the best of which is becoming a children's book author herself with three books under her belt and many more to come. Her head is usually teeming with ideas, and she actively conducts storytimes and camps for children in Chennai India.

When I met her for the first time at OMSI a few years ago, I was completely struck by her disarming smile and easy-going nature, no pretenses. The same charm peeks through her words in the interview I am glad to share here.

1.  When did your journey with children’s books begin?

I had always been fond of books. With my children, I found my way back to the wonderful world of children’s literature.  My husband and I delighted in offering them a steady dose of picture books right from babyhood. The Winnie, the Pooh collection of bedtime stories was one of the first lot I picked up for my newborn daughter (didn't matter even if it was a Disney collection procured from a Costco!).   As enamored as my infant was with Pooh, I realized I was also happiest around children’s books.

Then when my husband’s work took us to Denver, a lot of changes happened simultaneously in my life. I had enrolled in graduate school.  That summer, I stayed home for my daughter as opposed to intern at a policy think-tank. And all I did was spend time reading to my 15 month old. The best moments we spent together were always at a small, independent bookstore called Tattered Cover (aha,  what a world of difference I saw with choices in children’s literature! )

Indulging in my baby's budding love for books, we both would hang out there scouring bookshelves. I was amazed by the variety of board books and got totally carried away by the ones written by Sandra Boynton, Leslie Patricelli and Nina Laden. Their books were unique and had a certain simplicity that was thought-provoking. Even after 10 years, my little one's giggles over "Oops!" in "Blue Hat, Green Hat" still ring loud in my head.

I couldn’t get enough of my toddler's happy squeals and wide-eyed wonder looking at those books. And I was very excited that a whole new, colorful world of children’s books was out there for the two of us to discover! Reading picture books with my children was zen-like. They spoke to me, in a deeper way. Unknowingly, my journey with children’s literature had begun right then, I guess.  So, it's more than a decade now since this joyous adventure with children's books began.

 2.  When did you first start writing for children and how did that come about?

Then, there was that stage when the entire family fell insanely in love with Dr. Seuss and Eric Carle. Their books got my first child hooked on to reading. She, at 3, was able to put together sounds and read words, which was so fascinating to me to observe as a parent.

The wonderfully diverse array of picture books we read all through her preschool days also often set me thinking about creating new stories for her. After a period of anxiety on what I should do, I knew I wanted to write. Children’s literature was what came naturally.

One night, as I sat breast-feeding my second born baby in the late hours of a nippy fall night, a walking traffic signal literally wandered into my head, refusing to leave. It came complete with colors and sound effects. Thankfully, the story's initial structure made its way into paper without slipping into oblivion. By then, I had already paired up with my friend and co-author or should I say, a partner in crime, who was also riding a similar boat, and equally involved as  i was in blogging about children's books and writing.

Around the same time, I also got hooked onto the world of blogging.  Saffron Tree came into being that autumn.  There was no other thought except children’s books. So, I suppose writing became a natural extension of this madness I was going through with children's books.  It also ignited in me a deep desire to better my writing.

3.  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? 

Bijoy is a narrative, non-fiction while Dinaben, a simple bi-lingual.  In bi-linguals, the text is usually spare.  In both the books, photographs run parallel with the narrative.  I’d say, with Bijoy, the experience was closer to writing a picture book.  But we were also a bit constrained because it was not like a traditional picture book done with illustrations. We used photographs to render a realistic image. At each step in writing, we chose words to capture subtler details, beyond what images could convey.

Our last draft, was all about weeding out sentences and tightening things up as much as possible. We cut close to 800 words and Bijoy, in its final form, stood at 1022 (without the factoids). We certainly owe it to our editors at Tulika Books for working with us closely. They helped us tidy up the text removing frilly, superfluous elements.

As A.A.Milne put it, “It is more fun to talk with someone who doesn't use long, difficult words but rather short, easy words like "What about lunch?”. In writing Bijoy, we had to do exactly that. Choose details carefully; use simple words to tell the story and preserve a quiet, subtle one throughout the narrative, while keeping an eye out for anything overboard or exotic. Overall, it was a fun and fulfilling experience. No doubt, there were lots to learn!

4. 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? 

That’s a great question! After showcasing Maldharis and the Asiatic lions in Dinaben and the Lions of Gir, we were eager to explore similar themes of everyday stories, communities practicing traditional occupations and their harmonious living in nature. Everything starts with research and brainstorming.  We sent in three equally interesting ideas, and the editors picked silk as the first topic for us to explore.

We didn’t know anything about Eri silk when we started out. But when we researched the different regions in India where silk was made, we were thoroughly intrigued by the three wild varieties produced in Assam. Naturally, there was just too much of inspiration not to carve a story about the non-violent Eri, the peace silk. Learning about Eri, Muga and Sualkuchi, the silk center and different weaving traditions of the Assamese, we were all set to write and the plot unfolded itself in logical steps.

And with Brahmaputra as the backdrop , we also decided to weave in xihu, the endangered river dolphins. In patchwork, we built the plot around the cultural and environmental fabrics of Assam. It always amazes me how one thread leads to another, and eventually all the elements come together in a natural way.

5. Did you consider anybody other than Bijoy to tell this story through - say, a young girl, Bimla?

No, not for this book. But Bimla would have been equally wonderful! J But among the array of ideas presented to Tulika for the Where I live series, we had a girl character carved out for a different story. Also, earlier during the initial stages of writing Dinaben, we had a story revolving around a little girl Kamla.  But when it was decided it would be a bi-lingual book, Kamla somehow slowly slithered her way out of the story-telling. But with Bijoy, we were indeed relieved and glad that the manuscript fit in perfectly with the Where I live series – with the child character, Bijoy, being at the core of the narrative.

 6.  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? 

We did rely heavily on some government websites for the silk and weaving related fact-checking part, and also websites of non-governmental conservation agencies in the North-east working on issues of bio-diversity in the region.  For food, language and cultural details, we spoke to a couple of Assamese friends from the blogging world. At a local craft exhibition, I had the most wonderful opportunity to speak to Eri silk weavers from the north-east.

7. 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?

As for the factoids, we took the inputs from the editorial team at Tulika.  During the layout of the book, we simply provided factoids and details based on topical relevance for a particular page. So, as you can see, the factoids came later, after the story was completely done.

8. 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?

That’s a wonderful question! I’m so happy you liked the visual imagery we attempted to paint. We were bowled over by the region during our research process, which typically lasts weeks, sometimes, even months. And also while trying to create a narrative for the different threads, we would continuously research. May be that had an effect.

9. 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?

It’s been terrific to reach out to children and see their response first hand. So far, the launch event is the only time I have shared the story of Bijoy with children. It was tremendous fun. At the end, one child posed one question that threw me a bit off-guard, ‘Are you from Assam, Aunty? To which, I of course gave the most boring reply, “Nope, I’m from here, the South of India.  A trip to Assam and the north-east, I hope, happens soon!” But, I’m pretty sure the kids could hear the longing in my tone.

Having said that, I should say, it was the most interactive session I had ever had. I was curious to find out if anyone had seen any real weaver at work. A six year old mentioned, “My father!” And I cried excitedly, “Yay, that’s our own Bijoy here with us today! J His father happens to be a weaver. Like how Bijoy’s Dad, Deuta is a silk-farmer .” I clearly couldn’t contain my excitement and spent a few minutes quizzing him on more details .

There was also another interesting moment in the end. I stated, “We have so many rivers that are female…Ganga, Cauvery, Narmada, Yamuna. And does anyone know of any with male names except the Brahmaputra?”  I hear a quick remark from a little guy perched in the front row “Krishna!”  It was incredible to see him come up with the answer so quickly.  I went speechless at that because I hadn’t thought of it at all.

On my way home, the name Ravi struck me as one of the five rivers from western India! I’m sure there are many more.  I did catch myself thinking, if including names of other rivers with male names would have helped.

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