mid-day at JLF: You have to become a child to write for children, says Nandana Dev Sen

Actor, writer and child-rights activist — Nandana Dev Sen speaks of her latest book for children, Mambi and the Forest Fire that is all set to woo children, finds Suprita Mitter

Nandana Dev Sen conceptualised the character of Mambi, the lead character of her new title after she spent a day in a shelter for children rescued from trafficking and the streets. On Day One at JLF, she along with Jerry Pinto, Paro Anand Nayanika Mahtani spoke about the challenges faced by those who write for children in India. Excerpts from an exclusive interview

Q. Why children’s books?
A. Through the years that I have worked with children there were lots of stories that built up inside me and I wanted to write for several years so many of the books got written around the same time. They are not text heavy. There are four more in the works.

Nandana Dev Sen
Nandana Dev Sen

Q. What did you read as a child?
A. I grew up in a family of writers and read everything. My grandmother and mother wrote extensively for both adults and children. We had the largest collection of books from all over the world. We had no TV, even later we could only watch the news. I never got bored. The games then were not video games. I read books in English and in Bengali. There was no young adult category separately. When I was 12 or 13, I read Bankimchandra Chatterjee, Tagore, Jane Austen and Dickens that were not targetted at children but I read them.

Q. What should an aspiring children’s writer keep in mind?
A. It’s important not to be didactic. You should be playful. We are competing with TV, the iPad and Disney. There needs to be colour in terms of writing, vitality and energy You have to become a child to write for them. I think we can all do that. In fact, as parents we do that often

Q. Tell us about your next book
A. Kangaroo Kisses was actually the first book I wrote. It was written for my niece, who is now 6. I wrote it when she was younger. She would refuse to go to sleep. I was just like her. It’s a bedtime stories book. It uses poetry to describe a mother and daughter relationship, where the mom’s trying to get the girl to sleep while the girl keeps coming up with innovative excuses to stay awake. So it’s meant for the kid but for the mother too, or the dad, brother, grandparent, nanny – anyone who tries to put a child to sleep, as a tool.

Also at the Jaipur Literature Festival...

Bulldozed with humour

British author Alexander McCall Smith shared the stories behind some of his most loved characters in a conversation with his friend William Dalrymple

He had the audience in splits from the word go. Narrating an incidence where Dalrymple and him were at an event together and forgot to take off their lapel mikes, McCall Smith said, “William was saying his audiences are ancient, and we saw the organizers running towards us as we had transmitted this information to the whole world.”

Alexander McCall Smith

The audience was also falling off their chairs when the author shared that his books were published by the same publishers as popular erotica 50 Shades of Grey. “ That book was actually an interior design book. All about color co-ordination. The publishers said lets spice it up,” he laughed.

When asked how he started his journey as a writer he revealed that he wrote his first manuscript, all of two pages at the age of eight and sent it to a publishing house and it didn’t come back. Post that, he wrote 35 children’s books and many novels for adults,” he told a smitten audience. “The author admitted that he often used his friends as characters in his books after seeking their permission. “The character of Berty in Scotland Street is also eight years old, and he thinks his biggest problem is his mother. We have very pushy mothers in Edinburgh,” he said to which Dalrymple promptly added that Delhi’s Punjabi moms were not too far behind.

Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje with Sanjoy Roy, Namita Gokhale and William Dalrymple
Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje with Sanjoy Roy, Namita Gokhale and William Dalrymple

The author concluded the session talking about events that inspired his book My Italian bulldozer. “I was in Italy to just getaway and focus on writing. I wanted to rent a car to go visit a friend’s vineyard. The guy at the car rental told me that all cars were sold out and he only had a bulldozer,” he laughed, adding that in Italy when you had a driver’s license, you could ride a bulldozer.

“So I did hire the bulldozer and drove around the countryside,” he concluded.

Tell me a story

Filmmaker-animator Nina Sabnani’s presentation on the Kaavad storytellers’ tradition of Rajasthan included an interesting live demonstration
Nina Sabnani’s book Kaavad Traditions Of Rajasthan — A portable pilgrimage talks about the oral tradition of storytelling, It traces all aspects of the community of Kaavad makers, the storytellers and their stories.

Nina Sabnani with a Kaavad storyteller during her session on Day One
Nina Sabnani with a Kaavad storyteller during her session on Day One

A 400-year-old oral tradition of storytelling, called ‘Kaavad Banchana’, is still alive in Rajasthan, where stories from the epics Mahabharata and Ramayana, from the Puranas, and folk tales are told with the help of a Kaavad, a portable, brightly painted wooden box with multiple wooden panels hinged together. The storyteller, who travels around to the homes of his patrons, opens and closes the panels as the story progresses. The paintings are normally of gods, goddesses, saints, local heroes and the patrons. “Even mythological stories of the Ramayana and Mahabharata are nothing like the ones you an I have heard,” shared Sabnani who has also made an animated film (which was part of her presentation) called Baat Vahi Hai, which tells the story of the Kaavads using animation. “It used to be male domain but they are also passing the art on to their daughters now,” she said with pride. Two storytellers gave the audience a riveting performance also inviting an audience member to play the part of a patron and incorporating her into their story. 

A date with Marlon James
It was a packed session for A Brief History of Seven Killings at the Charbagh venue where acclaimed author Marlon James had the audience’s full attention.

He said, “A transgender student of mine came to me crying and said: “Why does every criminal have to be a psychopath or a schizophrenic? Perfectly normal and rational people can be criminals too. “I was taken aback by his question because I was one of the people who believed that too. I realised a perfectly rational person can rape someone or kill someone. If in a book the psychopath is the killer, no one will read it.”

Watch video: Singer Kutle Khan lights up the night
Langa artist group, The Kutle Khan Project enthralls the audience at the Jaipur Lit Fest with a mix of folk and Sufi music. Kutle Khan is a multi-talented folk musician from Rajasthan who leads the group. View the video below...

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